Classification: Straight Bourbon
Company: Kirin Brewery Company
Distillery: Four Roses
Release Date: September 15, 2023
Age: Blend of 12, 14, 16, and 25 year old bourbons
Mashbill: Blend of four batches, comprised of three different recipes:
40% OESK Recipe: 14 Years, 75% Corn, 20% Rye, 5% Malted Barley
35% OESV Recipe: 12 Years, 75% Corn, 20% Rye, 5% Malted Barley
20% OESV Recipe: 16 Years, 75% Corn, 20% Rye, 5% Malted Barley
5% OBSV Recipe: 25 Years, 60% Corn, 35% Rye, 5% Malted Barley
Color: Bright Amber
MSRP: $200 (2023)
Four Roses uses two different mashbills and five different yeast strains to create ten different bourbon recipes. Their standard 100 proof Single Barrel Bourbon uses one recipe, their standard Small Batch blends together four of the recipes, Small Batch Select blends together six of the recipes, and their flagship Four Roses Bourbon uses all ten. Limited releases and private selections can vary from the standard products but generally maintain the same number of recipes as their standard counterpart.
According to the company’s press release, the release is the 16th in its series of annual limited quantity special bottlings. Notably, it is the brand’s 135th anniversary, celebrating the company’s original establishment in 1888. It comes on the heels of the brand’s recent refresh, and the label will reflect the nuances of the changes recently put into place across the company’s product line.
This year’s Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon blends together four batches that include three different recipes, with one of the recipes being duplicated across two of the chosen batches and each batch originating from a different aging warehouse. This is the fourth time a limited edition has duplicated batches from the same recipe, with previous years being 2012, 2017, and 2019.
According to master distiller Brent Elliott, each year’s Limited Edition Small Batch intends to “Create something totally different, something special, unique…something you will never taste again.” In order to create each year’s limited edition batch, master distiller Brent Elliott seeks out barrels in excess of 10 years old from the company’s 400,000+ aging barrels. According to Elliott, 25 batches were identified and set aside for special releases like this one, each comprising approximately 25-100 barrels each.
This year’s release comprises approximately 15,060 bottles.
The aroma beckons with an intriguing complexity, as notes of tobacco leaf and aged leather intertwine with seasoned oak. Allspice and a subtle touch of clove add layers of spice and depth. A delicate essence of pear lifts the composition, contributing to a complex and inviting introduction that balances age, sweet, and spice notes to pleasing results.
On the palate, the bourbon unveils a harmonious medley of flavors. Aged oak and tobacco seamlessly intertwine, while a hint of clove provides a gentle spice that enhances the profile. The presence of stone fruit, caramel, and brown sugar adds a welcome sweetness, creating a savory and satisfying blend. The creamy mouthfeel amplifies the notable balance achieved, showcasing the influence of older bourbon while infusing the palate with a vibrant and lively character that's as engaging as it is enjoyable.
The finish is a captivating conclusion to the sip. The caramel sweetness deepens, accompanied by subtle waves of allspice and a delicate hint of cinnamon that add layers of warmth. Remnants of tobacco and clove continue to play on the taste buds, contributing to the whiskey's intricate character. Unexpectedly, a touch of raspberry fruit emerges adding a splash of liveliness. The finish is long, allowing each flavor to linger and evolve, ensuring a memorable and contemplative end to the sip.
Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch releases are known for their uncompromising balance and refinement above all else. Often showcasing a marriage of oak driven by the higher age of the components along with fruit driven by their underlying component recipes, Four Roses releases tend to forgo the extremes bourbon can reach as a result. But what they lack in immediate wow factor, they often make up for with subtle nuance the more time you spend getting to know them.
This year’s Limited Edition Small Batch is about as good an example of an expertly blended straight bourbon as you’re going to find. While it’s made of four individual components, what’s interesting about Four Roses is not necessarily that the components are intended to reach bourbon extremes to achieve widely varying releases, rather they are created to find and control balance of the company's products, ultimately ensuring consistency. As an example, the distillery’s flagship product, which is simply named Four Roses Bourbon, combines all ten of their recipes to make what ends up being a very straightforward bourbon that you would never guess included 10 specific components simply by tasting it. Their standard Small Batch combines four recipes, Small Batch Select combines six recipes, and their standard Single Barrel is always one recipe, OBSV (not counting a small number of private single barrel selections that cover the remainder of the recipes, individually of course).
In creating Limited Edition Small Batch, master distiller Brent Elliott sets out to create something different each year. As bourbon blending tends to be, the process is partially defined by the availability of potential batches - they seek out batches in excess of 10 years old - and the art of blending. According to Elliott, this year, three base batches were identified early on - the 12, 14, and 16 year old batches. From that point, more attention was given to which additional component might be blended in, and to what extent. The 25 year old OBSV batch was identified as the fourth component, and ultimately it was decided that it would become 5% of the final blend.
I had the unique opportunity to taste each of the individual components this year, and it was interesting to compare how they tasted on their own against the final blend. The 25 year old bourbon as expected offers plenty of oak but it’s a bit too much on its own, the 16 year old offers balance but lacks notable uniqueness, the 14 year old offers lively spice notes and has nice caramel in the finish, and the 12 year old is bright and sweet with welcome fruit and caramel notes. Surprisingly, I preferred the 12 year OESV on its own compared to the others, but more importantly, this exercise highlights one key aspect of Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition - the final blend is greater than the sum of its parts.
Bourbon pricing has risen just like everything else, and across their product line Four Roses has remained fairly steadfast in offering really good bourbons at accessible prices. Small Batch Limited Edition is not one of their “always on the shelf” bourbons, and draws from lots of their oldest barrels. It’s meticulously curated by Elliott, and bottle counts are typically rather low. With a bottle count of just over 15,000 this year, it’s going to be difficult to find regardless of MSRP. At $200, which is a $20 increase over last year’s price, is not at all surprising and consistent with the industry.
As far as limited releases from major Kentucky distilleries go, it’s certainly not the lowest price, but often lower MSRP releases are not sold for MSRP as many see steep retailer markup consistent with demand, so that can be difficult to see as a consumer. In fact, we tend to see many non-major Kentucky distillers and producers pushing the price barrier, such as Barrell Craft Spirits, Kentucky Owl, and Chicken Cock, so by that measure $200 may appear low.
Ultimately though, $200 is a lot for any bottle. With the exception of those who are fortunate enough to wield near unlimited budgets, most will give consideration to Limited Edition Small Batch’s $200 price tag. To that end, it comes down to whether the bourbon in the bottle supports the high ask, and in this case for an extremely well crafted bourbon commemorating Four Roses' 135th Anniversary that's limited to only about 15,000 bottles, it certainly does and then some.
2023 Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch showcases bourbon blending at its finest, proving the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.
Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch is rarely a bourbon that hits with an immediate wow factor. Combining multiple recipes and striking balance yields bourbons that typically aren’t oak bombs, caramel bombs, cherry bombs, or any other kind of flavor bomb for that matter. While the releases are barrel proof, they typically have relatively low proofs compared to many other distilleries’ barrel proof bourbons that reach much higher and more attention-grabbing proof points. Four Roses doesn’t produce a rye, a malt, or any finished whiskeys. Unlike many distilleries of late, Four Roses has stuck to the basics. They make straight Kentucky bourbon, through and through.
Now master distiller for nearly a decade and tenured at Four Roses for nearly two decades, Brent Elliott has proven his ability to blend a wonderfully balanced bourbon. The flavors in the blend are apparent when tasting the components, but how they come together is where the magic really lies. The 2023 edition of Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch showcases that magic, highlighting what Four Roses has become known for.