Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Four Roses rises

All the bottles in the range feature the four-rose symbol moulded into the glass

I met up with James Childs of Spirit Cartel recently to talk about Four Roses bourbon. Spirit Cartel have only fairly recently taken on this brand, but it is one with a longer history than most American whiskeys.

Founded by Paul Jones Jr, Four Roses moved from Atlanta to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1884, but Jones claimed production and sales back to the 1860s. The name Four Roses has a romantic back story: Jones plighted his troth to a Southern Belle and she told him that if she decided to accept his proposal of marriage then she would wear a corsage of red roses to the forthcoming Grand Ball. On the night she was indeed wearing four roses, and Jones allegedly named his bourbon in her honour.

A Prohibition-era bottle of Four Roses sold as a medicine from a drug store
Most famously the brand continued to distil throughout Prohibition. Jones bought the Frankfort Distilling Company in 1922, a facility with a licence from the US Government to produce whiskey for “medicinal purposes” (one of only six such distilleries in the country). If that seems odd, bear in mind that many “patent medicines” of the era had high alcohol contents, even if they made no mention of this on the label or in advertising (and in some cases actually claimed not to contain alcohol). This was part of a trend for establishing acceptable (albeit veiled), domestic forms of consumption—as distinct from the unseemly and socially harmful world of the saloon. Such was the moral labyrinth of the issue, where many prohibitionists were politically dry but personally wet, that when nationwide Prohibition was finally enacted many Americans, who might have voiced their support for it, were actually taken aback by the completeness of the ban.

A liquor prescription form (written on St Patrick's Day, 1926), looking
like a share certificate or government bond (click to enlarge)
It’s worth noting that only in 1917 the American Medical Association had issued a statement that there were, in fact, no medical applications for alcohol at all. However by 1922, with Prohibition now under way, they did a volte face and declared that booze was indeed a medicine suitable for the treatment of 27 different conditions, including cancer, diabetes, asthma, snakebite and old age, and that any attempt to control such medicinal application was “a serious interference with the practice of medicine”. Surely only a cynic would suggest a connection between this and the fact that doctors generally charged $3 to issue a liquor prescription and pharmacists $3 or $4 dollars to fulfil it. In the first six months of Prohibition 15,000 doctors applied for a permit, allowing them to write up to 100 prescriptions per month.*

So now your doctor could write you a prescription for whiskey (or spiritus frumenti, “spirit of grain”, if trying to be dignified about it)—one pint every ten days. So could dentists and even vets. And it seems that, even as a medicine, alcohol’s efficacy was affected by quality and style: the Frankfort catalogue for pharmacists lists specific brands of rye, bourbon, rum, brandy and gin. Not only did some druggists do well, but some were not really pharmacies at all: one Manhattan saloon nicknamed the Hell Hole simply closed its doors, then reopened as a “pharmacy”, and carried on pretty much as before. In The Great Gatsby Jay Gatsby, clearly a bootlegger, is said to have made his money from “a lot of drug stores”…

In this 1940s postcard (left) the Four Roses name dominates Times Square; in Alfred Eisenstaedt's
famous photo of Times Square on VJ Day (right), you can make out the same sign

The American distilling industry didn’t readily bounce back from Prohibition: whiskey making needs a certain continuity because barrel-ageing is such an important part of the process. Until the recent resurgence in craft distilling and the proliferation of small distilleries all over the country, there were whole states with no real distilling tradition left at all (something Stuart Hobson of Indiana vodka was consciously trying to rectify in his own state). This put Four Roses in a strong position precisely because it had carried on producing and its brand was recognised—in fact it is believed that during Prohibition one in four bottles of bourbon sold in the US bore the Four Roses label. Until the 1950s it was the top-selling bourbon in the US. But then Seagram, who had acquired Frankfort in 1943, made the decision to focus on European and Asian markets and stopped selling Kentucky Straight Bourbon in the States, offering only a blended whiskey in that territory.** Today even the brand’s own press release describes this as “made mostly of neutral grain spirits and commonly seen as a sub-par ‘rotgut’ brand”.

But the brand was bought by Japanese brewery Kirin in 2002 and they are consciously trying to rebuild its once stellar reputation, selling only Kentucky Straight Bourbon. It seems to be going well, as Four Roses Distillery (now in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky) was named American Whisky Distiller of the Year in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015 by Whisky Magazine, which also inducted Jim Rutledge, Four Roses master distiller since 1995, into its Global Whisky Hall of Fame in 2013.

The single storey of the Four Roses warehouse
So what goes into the bottle? Uniquely, Four Roses use five different yeast strains and two different mash bills to make ten different bourbon recipes, which are individually barrel-aged and then blended to make their range of bottlings. They make much mention of their single-storey warehouse: Kentucky can get pretty hot, and in warehouses many storeys high the ones at the top will get hotter and the interaction with the wood will be accelerated compared to those resting at the cooler lower levels; it is also the case that the hotter barrels lose water through the wood, raising the ABV over time, while the cooler barrels lose alcohol as they age, lowering the ABV. Some facilities capitalise on this by selecting whiskey from different levels for different purposes, or rotate barrels between the different levels to even out the effects, but at Four Roses they simply store all the barrels at ground level, believing this to create a gentler and stabler ageing process. (The barrels are still stacked six-high, and even here the lower barrels lose alcohol while the higher ones lose water.)

The entry level product is Yellow Label, bottled at 40% ABV. They give no age statements,*** but there is an interesting infographic on the website revealing that this blend includes eight different whiskeys. There are two core spirits, one with a rye-heavy mash bill (60% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley) and the other with more corn (75% corn, 20% rye, 5% malt) and both using yeast strain K, described as full-bodied with light spiciness and light caramel. The other component spirits use four other yeasts with each of the two mash bills. Next up is the Small Batch (45% ABV), which uses the same two core spirits, plus just two others. At the top of the range (not counting occasional limited editions) is the Single Barrel (50% ABV), using just the rye-heavy mash bill and yeast V, described as “light fruitiness, light vanilla, caramel and creamy”.

Samples of the three main bottlings. The Single Barrel seems darker which might suggest
more age but it could just reflect that, at 50% ABV, it is less diluted
James gave me some samples of the three main bottlings. The Yellow Label hits you with vivid sawmill wood notes and mint, with elements of citrus, caramel and even coconut. On the palate it is surprisingly light and smooth for an entry-level whiskey, with hints of rose, strawberry and peach.

Moving up to the Small Batch the nose is immediately warmer, richer, smoother and darker. By comparison the Yellow Label has a more obviously “mealy” flavour, something that reminds me of sesame or wet plaster. The Small Batch is strikingly different, with hints of coffee on the nose and a palate that is drier and tighter (perhaps from the higher ABV, but there may also be more rye in the blend) but with sweet orange and marmalade flavours too.

The Single Barrel has a smooth and refined nose, with pronounced peach and pear elements and hints of blueberries. At 50% ABV it is inevitably dense and fiery on the tongue, but remarkably smooth considering its strength. To experiment with diluting it a little I make an Old Fashioned with it and, sure enough, the complexity unravels, with smoky, tarry and woody notes emerging, along with pear, cherry and melon fruit flavours.

I dig out a few other bourbons from the cupboard for comparison. Bulleit retails at about £28, roughly the same as Four Roses Small Batch. They are actually in similar territory—which shouldn’t be a surprise as I gather that Bulleit source bourbon from Four Roses. The two bourbons share a peachy nose, though the Bulleit seems tighter, drier and spicier to me, and the Four Roses fruiter and mellower; I’m guessing the Bulleit uses more of the higher rye mash bill than the Four Roses Small Batch.

Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select sells for about the same price here but is quite different. With a mash bill of 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% barley, its flavour strikes me as mellower, offering an expanse with more wide and high notes whereas the Four Roses Small Batch by comparison seems more thrusting, dominated by forceful mid-range intensity with strong wood and smoke flavours.

Elijah Craig 12-year-old retails for about £35, making it pricier than the Four Roses Small Batch but not up with the Single Barrel at about £40. It has a warm and inviting aroma with fruit notes and a remarkably smooth, polished palate for its 47%, with notes of chocolate orange. The Four Roses Single Barrel by comparison is dominated by that sophisticated aroma of pear and peach, a fascinating, focused and refined fragrance that you can ponder on for some time. On the palate it is steelier (it’s 50% alcohol and 35% rye); I can’t find out anything about the Elijah Craig mash bill but I’m guessing it’s more corn heavy (online hearsay has it at 75% corn, 12% rye and 13% barley). It’s interesting that the higher up you go in the Four Roses range, the more dominant rye becomes.

The Four Roses approach is intriguing: really old bourbon is always going to be less common that really old Scotch, if only because of the climate differences, but it is interesting to see the de-emphasis placed on age here and the attention given to yeast strains. To me the end result offers pretty good value in the UK. The Yellow Label is about £20–21, which is near the bottom end of bourbon prices (nothing is much less that £17–18). At £26–27 The Small Batch represents a very worthwhile step up, while the Single Barrel offers something profound that’s really worth savouring.

* For more on this see Daniel Okrent’s excellent history of Prohibition, Last Call (Scribner, 2010)

** The terms are heavily regulated. Anything called “bourbon” must be produced in the US from at least 51% corn and aged in new, charred oak barrels. There is no minimum age requirement, though to use the name “straight bourbon” it must be aged for at least two years. If there is an age statement it must be the age of the youngest bourbon in the blend. Something labelled as “blended” whiskey must still be at least 51% bourbon but it can also contain neutral spirit, colouring and flavouring.

*** Jim Rutledge has commented that “in general I’m not a fan of Old Bourbon”. It seems that each individual barrel is aged until it tastes “mature”, and with so many source bourbons to play with the emphasis seems to be more on the blending. There is a private barrel scheme where visitors to the distillery can create their own blends of the ten source spirits, and whiskey nerds post online about mixtures they have tried. There are also blends that are created exclusively for the Japanese market—although the US is the brand’s fastest-growing market, Japan is their biggest. One thing that Jim says they might try is a rye whiskey, though he admits that he will have retired before it is ready to drink.


  1. It seems that the official story of the origin of the "Four Roses" brand is just one of many. To plumb the depths of the historical murk, see the admirable research at

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.