Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Four Roses Bourbon: Back in the U.S.A.

A Canadian company purchased a U.S. distillery which produced bourbon, a uniquely American spirit. Yet for over forty years, the Canadian company would not permit that bourbon to be sold within the U.S., selling it only in Europe and Asia. Nine years ago, that bourbon finally became available in the U.S., but only after the distillery was purchased by a Japanese company. What a strange history for the Four Roses Distillery.

The distillery actually was founded in Atlanta, Georgia shortly after the Civil War. As the prohibition movement spread throughout Georgia, it was decided to move the distillery to Kentucky in 1884. During Prohibition, Four Roses remained in operation, permitted to produce alcohol for medicinal purposes. Once Prohibition ended, Four Roses was in a good position and quickly became the best selling bourbon in the U.S.  

In 1943, the distillery was bought by Seagram, a Canadian company which would eventually become the largest distiller in the world. In 1960, as Seagram wanted to promote their own blended whiskey, they decided to stop selling Four Roses in the U.S, electing to only export it to Europe and Asia, where it would become very popular. When Seagram went bankrupt, and their assets sold off, the Four Roses brand was purchased by Kirin Brewery Company, a Japanese company, which once again allowed Four Roses to be sold in the U.S., starting in 2002. 

Several writers and I were invited to a luncheon at Toro, to meet Jim Rutledge, the Master Distiller of Four Roses Distillery, and taste his bourbons. Jim is certainly an encyclopedia of knowledge about bourbon, and very eager to share that information with others. He was very down to earth, passionate about bourbon, and extremely personable. This is exactly the type of guy you want to drink with, to spend the night sipping bourbon and chatting.

A Congressional resolution of 1964 established "bourbon" as a "distinctive product of the U.S.," protecting the name "bourbon," akin to the protections afforded to "Champagne" in France. But, you might not know that bourbon can legally be produced anywhere within the U.S., and not just in Kentucky. 95% of all bourbon is made in Kentucky, with 255 bourbon brands, but you will also find small bourbon distilleries in places like New York, Indiana, Wisconsin and Missouri. I asked Jim what he thought of the non-Kentucky producers of bourbon, and he approved of them, provided they made authentic bourbon, following the legal requirements.

There are five basic, legal requirements for a spirit to be declared a bourbon.  First, it must be produced from a fermented mash of at least 51% corn. Second, it must be distilled at not more than 160 proof.  Third, the final product cannot be more than 125 proof. Fourth, it must be aged in charred, new oak containers. Fifth, no additional flavors, colorings or other additives are permitted to be added to the bourbon. So it is a very natural product, which should appeal to those concerned about extra chemicals in their food and drink.

The fourth requirement seems to confuse some people, as I have seen individuals claim that only American white oak can be used to age bourbon. Yet if you read the federal regulations, it is clear that any type of oak is permitted, including French oak, and Jim indicated they have even experimented with French oak, which tended to make a sweeter bourbon. White oak is the most commonly used oak though, as it is considered the best for imparting its flavors to the bourbon.

The amount of charring of the oak can also vary from producer to producer, and there is no legal requirement for a specific amount of charring. For Four Roses, about 85% of their barrels possess a #4 heavy char, and about 15% of their barrels have a #3 medium char. As a comparison, there is another producer which uses a #7 heavy char, which seems a bit extreme as there can't be much oak remaining. Charring is done not only to give bourbon some color, but also to better allow the wood to impart its flavors.

Four Roses uses two different mashbills, its grain recipe: one with 60% corn, 35% rye and 5% malted barley and the other with 75% corn, 20% rye, and 5% malted barley. These recipe are at least 40 years old, and the  rye is intended to add richness and spiciness to the blend. Interestingly, they also use five different, proprietary yeasts, thus making 10 different recipes. They are probably the only distillery using more than one yeast, and acquired four of those yeasts once Seagram shut down business.  All ten of their recipes are used in blending for consistency of their bourbon. Obviously, using ten recipes requires much more time and effort, but they feel that is beneficial for the quality they seek. Their blending is all done by taste and smell, as they do not believe any computer is capable of detecting flavors as well as they can.    

I tasted three Four Roses bourbons, including their Yellow Label, Small Batch and Single Barrel. The Yellow Label, at 80 proof, is currently the #1 bourbon in Europe and Japan, and uses a screwcap. It is smooth, with a blend of floral, mild spice and herbs flavors. Though this would be an ideal bourbon for cocktails, it would even be good on its own, neat or on the rocks. The Small Batch, at 90 proof, comes with a cork cap, and is more complex than the Yellow Label. It possesses a floral and spicy aroma but the flavor is slightly sweet with underlying spice notes. A very fine sipping bourbon which I would prefer on its own rather than in a cocktail. The Single Barrel, at 100 proof, also comes with a cork cap, and its aroma reminds me of the smell of an aged sherry, appealing caramel, vanilla and almonds. It is smooth, complex and has an intriguing melange of flavors, ending on a very spicy note.

During our lunch, we had a variety of delicious tapas, from Marcona almonds to roasted corn with cotija cheese. I felt that one of the best dishes with the bourbon was the sliced beef.  I asked Jim about his favorite food pairings and he stated that bourbon goes with most anything. He loves to grill and marinates nearly all of his meat in bourbon, even his burgers. I have had plenty of meats and fish marinated in bourbon, but never a burger so it sounds like something to try before the grilling season is over.

As Four Roses is still a small distillery, and relatively new once again to the American market, they must be aggressive in their marketing.  Currently, they still export about 94% of their bourbon, selling only about 23,000-25,000 cases in the U.S., about 25% of those sales in Kentucky. Bourbon drinkers are often very loyal so it can be difficult to get them to change brands. It is a relatively friendly industry though, and bourbon makers are often hang out together, sometimes dining out where everyone brings their own bourbon, but you are not permitted to drink what you brought.

I asked Jim what he felt was the most significant challenge to the bourbon industry, and his answer was surprising. He felt that the greatest challenge involved the issue of GMO (genetically modified organism) corn. Yields of non-GMO corn are shrinking but numerous countries will not permit GMO corn to be used in products sold in their country. Right now, Four Roses does not use any GMO corn and has bought corn from some of the same farmers for over 50 years.  They actually pay those farmers a premium to obtain the best of their corn as Four Roses believes in using the top raw materials they can. But, they are not sure how much longer they can exist without using some GMO corn. GMOs are a very controversial topic so this could become a significant issue in the near future.

Domo arigato to Kirin for bringing Four Roses Bourbon back to the U.S. It is a high quality bourbon which gets my hearty recommendation.


Fred Minnick said...


As a regular bourbon writer, I just want to compliment your story. I know we're buddies, but I've seen so many writers butcher bourbon history.

Four Roses is so unique in that many Americans taste in Europe before they do in the U.S. I've heard so many stories from bourbon drinkers who had no idea the distillery existed. Their international presence is seen at their distillery, which gives amazing tours BTW. Almost all of their signs are in four or five languages.

Thanks for doing bourbon right!

Jennifer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jennifer said...

Sorry about that...if you're ever in Kentucky, visit the DISTILLERY! Go in the fall when they're in full production. They give an EXCELLENT tour and are so very knowledgeable. I love me some 4 Roses, and I'm glad that I can finally get it here in MS, even though it is more expensive than it was when I lived in KY.

NY Surgery table said...

Four Roses is the best! Loving it!

Ciccia said...

We have Four Roses here in Rome too. I found you on Twitter (I'm FrancescaEdesia) and I'm following you here too!

Eric said...

Four Roses may have the most convoluted history in the entire bourbon industry. The story provided on the website is pretty much a legend. In fact the year Four Roses was purchased by Seagrams is shrouded in mystery and identifying the brand's founder is another headache altogether.

Which is another reason why I love Four Roses since the aura of mystery makes the bourbon all the more fascinating.