Usually the b&t blog is written by Dan, but today I’m pushing him to one side and taking my turn in the spotlight. The reason for this is simple; we wanted to write about Four Roses but as many of you will know Dan works for the brand as an ambassador, and so I felt that he might be biased on this particular subject! We try never to blur the line between our personal writing and the brand that Dan works for, but when we found out the Master Distiller from Four Roses was coming to the Uk and bringing a new bourbon with him, we knew we had to share it with you.
I am a big fan of bourbon; some I love simply because they’re easily enjoyed and are sympathetic to my female palate, no matter the serve. Others because their aroma transports me back to precise moment in time; a hot, sweet rick house in Kentucky, a September evening with wood smoke and blankets. Sometimes a bourbon manages both and in fact this week I tasted a limited edition that I knew I would like, but also (rather unexpectedly) instantly reminded me of the first time that I ever tried a whiskey straight out of the barrel.
Now I’ve had a few cask strength bourbons and generally speaking I find them rather too gutsy for my taste, judging them purely on taste and aroma, which would be the same as most people I imagine. But, as I’ve already stated, sometimes a flavour can evoke a specific experience and this one was a very very rainy day, stood in a warehouse at the Four Roses distillery as master distiller Jim Rutledge hosted a private barrel selection.
My immediate impression of the seven different barrel samples I was presented with that day was surprise at the amount of char loitering at the bottom of each glass. Not something that a consumer generally experiences on cracking open a bottle at home and of course the lovely oily mouth feel that the spirit had – a characteristic of unfiltered cask liquid. I actually remember wondering why more distilleries didn’t just bottle it like this!
Of course, I understand that some kind of filtration needs to take place to remove the unsightly char and that this process can also alter some of the silky mouth feel. However, the bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel 2011 Limited Edition that I’m working my way towards talking about here was pretty damned close to the real deal. In Jim’s own words, ‘I wanted this to be the closest that a consumer could get to popping the bung from the barrel and drawing a sample with a whiskey thief.’ I can vouch that he got it right, even managing to keep the lovely rich mouth feel by using the simplest of filters, just to remove the char.
As those cask strength, single barrel fans out there will know, this style of bourbon is not for the feint of heart. It generally has a decent amount of mouth burn that can overwhelm the sweeter, fruitier flavours that are often found in bourbons of a lower ABV. I personally find them long on burn and short on flavour, so I wondered how Four Roses, a brand which is well known for its ‘always mellow, always smooth’ finish was going to make this particularly punchy Limited Edition Single Barrel fly with die-hard fans (like me).
Here Jim told us something of his bourbon making philosophy, honed over 45 of working at Four Roses: when selecting single barrel bourbons and blending small batch bourbons, he is aiming for an ABV taste target that is a good 5% lower than the actual. This becomes particularly difficult to achieve when choosing older aged single barrel bourbons and requires the sampling of many barrels.
Originally 3,200 bottles were created for the 2011 Limited Edition, but this was later increased to satisfy market demand and it was here that I believe Jim had to make his one compromise: to include barrels that he personally felt were outside of his ‘taste target’ and perhaps showed more fire than was originally intended. This is in fact the reason why there is such a range of ABV in this bottling, with the lower end being 55.5% and the upper, 58.5%. This outcome, he informed us, won’t happen again in his lifetime but has offered the unique chance to showcase a different style of bourbon than people associate with Four Roses! So, if you’re really after a truly limited edition Four Roses Single Barrel (and you like a bourbon with some gravitas), hunt down a bottle of the 58.8% if you like them smoother and more understated a lower abv bottle might but perfect for you.
Despite this compromise, Jim has in fact managed to maintain a taste experience that belies the actual strength of the bourbon, although it is still fierier than the average Four Roses drinker will be used to. The spiciness of the high rye content and the fire of the spirit are the first impressions, but these quickly pass to deliver a quite powerful rounded flavour that fills your mouth with sweetness of white fruits, right where you might usually expect to find bitterness and burnt notes in a barrel strength bourbon.
But for me, the real character of this limited edition is revealed once you’ve swallowed the liquid. I was really quite staggered that bourbon so strong and fiery on initial taste could deliver its polar opposite on the aftertaste and, in my opinion, quite literally snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and heads for the hills. The bottle we tried was 57.2% abv and the hand written code on the bottle told us this was from warehouse QN and it was from barrel number 17-2W. As with any single barrel expression if you find one at a different strength and from a different barrel there will be differences in the flavours and aromas… but that’s the beauty of single barrel bourbons!
While the initial spicy flavours offer their own lively character, it’s the aftertaste that’s an absolute marvel. As the warmth gives way, rich sweetness with flavours of maple and toffee with a dry wood note come through. This soon starts to dry out and dried spice notes of cinnamon and nutmeg come through as an undertone against a delight of petals and blossoms, evoking childhood memories of pear drops and floral violet penny sweets, eaten from a little paper bag. There, in Hawksmoor, in just one sip I was instantly transported from Covent Garden to my childhood village, via a warehouse in Kentucky.
To find bourbon (or any spirit for that matter) that transports you back in time to a much-loved memory is more than just a rewarding taste sensation. For me this is the magic of fine spirits, they offer you more than simply a tasty drink, they can transport you to happy times when you catch a scent of flavour you associate with that time or place. For me the 2011 Limited Edition Single Barrel from Four Roses is not simply a bourbon, it’s a time machine in a bottle!