If you’d like a little background/historical info on Thomas H. Handy, check out my review of the 2011 release. Just to pique your interest, I’ll say that there’s a coffee shop, bitters, rye whiskey, and a guy named Thomas involved. The 2014 release of the Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey is, like previous editions, the youngster of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, being a little over six years old. It has been bottled un-cut and unfiltered. If you’re someone who likes to keep track of these kind of things, this year’s model is a month younger than last years and its barrels aged on the 5th floor of Buffalo Trace’s Warehouse M versus last year’s locale of the 7th floor of Warehouse K. While I’m sure this made some difference, I found these latest two releases to be very similar.
The Nose: I tend to find the nose on the Handy more restrained and subtle than I expect. Initially there’s quite a bit of cherry juice and butterscotch with scraped vanilla bean, and toasted almond. The rye is smooth and mineral rather than sharp, with rye flour, stone ground crackers, and a hint of pickled ginger. Spice notes of cinnamon stick and soft, almost candied clove round things out. A bit of water opens this up nicely, releasing more bourbon-y tones and upping the complexity some.
The Palate: Initially, hot, spicy, and sweet with cherry-vanilla cola, candied almonds, and a bit of orange juice. Things get more rugged as it progresses. The rye is sharper than the nose, and has an almost crackling green quality to it – ginger and pepper. Rough, tannic oak, clove, and cinnamon, and a bit of barrel char emerge as this gets very dry towards the end. Adding water plays up the rye and spice while toning down the sweetness. It does not change that rugged, drying quality much at all.
The Finish: Quite drying and dusty with a bit of cherry cola sweetness, more vanilla extract, and a nice bit of clove that lingers quite a while.
Thoughts: Very good, but for me, not without its drawbacks. I found this years to be a slight improvement over last years. The palate was a little more enjoyable, though still quite challenging. There’s a lot of nice complexity in the subtle nose and while some of it carries over, the heat and tannic dryness of the palate overwhelm. So, yeah, a quite good whisky, though for me (and I realize this is a minority opinion) it doesn’t fit in with the other Antique Collection bottles and isn’t quite worth the price.
*Thank you very much to AP and Buffalo Trace for the samples!
By this point, you either were lucky enough to get a bottle George T. Stagg or you weren’t. If you weren’t lucky initially and ended up getting a bottle anyway, then you have quite a bit of disposable income. This year, stories about ridiculous prices on the secondary market for bottles like the George T. Stagg were unfortunately matched by ridiculous stories of price-gouging on the retail market. I don’t begrudge a shop adding a bit to the suggested retail price because the annoying feeding frenzy that occurs around bottles like this has to be an incredibly crappy thing to deal with. But there are stories of retailers doubling or even tripling the suggested retail price of $80, and well…that just seems pathetically wrong. Then again, If I owned a liquor store and knew that I could get some idiot to pay two, three, even four times as much for a damn bottle of booze, I’d probably do it, too. After all, I’ve got mouths to feed. Supply and demand – grab what the market will bear. Simple capitalism, baby! America, you can love it or lump it, you damn commies.
Well crap, I got so worked up now I don’t even know where I stand on the issue, if it’s even an issue at all. The 2014 version of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection’s George T. Stagg was a bottling of 161 barrels that came from all over place, six different floors of seven different warehouses. Aged for 16 years and 4 months, a whopping 74.81% of this whiskey was lost to evaporation. This year’s Stagg is back up to nearly 140 proof, up roughly 7% from last years relatively tame version.
The Nose: I think of the George T. Stagg releases as having a quintessential “bourbon” nose. This year’s is no exception, though perhaps even more aggressive than usual. At strength, you get it all at once, burnt sugar, orgeat syrup, the caramelized top of a banana creme pie, brandied cherries, pithy orange and a little toasted coconut. That sweeter end is balanced by dusty, laying-on-the-forest-floor oak, toasted oak chips, corn oil, earthy cinnamon, vanilla bean, a whisper of peppery rye, and a bit of clove. Adding a little water adds maybe a bit more citrus and rye, but mostly it just takes the edge off a bit.
The Palate: Oh, it burns. Anybody who likes to brag about drinking something this high-proof straight is just a chest-thumping moron. Along with the initial cherry cola, brown sugar, vanilla bean, and orange rind, there’s a big hit of oak upfront that pretty much just hangs around until the end of time. Salted nuts and baker’s chocolate lead to much more peppery, grainy rye than the nose offered. Towards the end, another big wave of charred oak is joined by hot cinnamon, earthy clove, and slightly burnt popcorn. Mixing in a little water really makes this shine. It’s still rather feisty, but water holds the oak back some, allowing the other flavors to come through and progress a little more leisurely.
The Finish: Long and still a little hot, with pleasant lingering oak, sugary cola, cinnamon, a bit of popcorn, and a hint of mint and ginger.
Thoughts: Wow. A great bruiser to be sure. If I found last years to be a kinder, gentler Stagg, this years is back to being an in-your-face, chest-hair growing roundhouse kick of a bourbon. I found this to be rather oaky all the way through, though for the most part I thought the rest of the flavors did a great job of balancing out all that wood. The nose is strong and complex, and the challenging palate turns wonderful with water. An excellent, monolithic bourbon that’s perhaps a bit wild and hot at times. I have to say, I’ve enjoyed previous editions more. Nonetheless, a worthy addition to the legend. Definitely recommended.
*Sincere thanks to VL and 360 Communications for the sample.
Cutty Sark’s Prohibition Edition came out late in 2013, and was an intriguing entry into the usually staid world of blended Scotch. It has several things going for it to separate it from that herd, whilst also carrying a reasonable price tag. It also has the requisite marketing backstory, and while I acknowledge the necessary low-level evil of brands marketing the their products and, you know, maybe stretching the truth about a few things along the way, I also think all that marketing is fair game and always ripe for a little good-natured criticism. The back of the Prohibition Edition bottle proudly proclaims the whisky is a “salute to the notorious Captain William S. McCoy, who smuggled Cutty Sark blended Scotch whisky into America during the Prohibition era of the 1920’s. His impeccable reputation for only dealing in the finest, genuine & unadulterated liquor – gave rise to Cutty Sark being referred to as ‘THE REAL McCOY’.” Sounds good, right? A nice little blurb that quenches the Prohibition/craft-cocktail/nostalgic seal-of-quality thirst young drinkers of today routinely suffer from. Perhaps a closer look…
Let’s start with Ol’ Captain McCoy. William McCoy was a real person, though according to the majority of sources, his name was William Frederick McCoy, not William S. McCoy…two minutes of googling seems to confirm that much. McCoy’s claim to fame was being a non-drinking, savvy, ruthless rum-runner in the early days of Prohibition. He made quite a fortune running liquor back and forth from the Caribbean and did so on his own terms, reportedly steering clear of organized crime, and always selling quality, un-cut booze. Though they were called rum-runners, these water-bound bootleggers carried all sorts of tasty beverages along with rum; rye, Irish whiskey, Scotch, Canadian, you name it. McCoy got his start in the Caribbean with rum, and then moved into higher profit spirits like rye, Irish, and Canadian whiskies. Did McCoy run Scotch as well? Sure, quite possibly. Did he specifically run Cutty Sark as the bottle so proudly proclaims? That’s a little trickier to say with any certainty. It’s, again, possible that on an occasion or two, he had some Cutty Sark aboard, but to say he ran enough Cutty to forever tie his name and the phrase “the real McCoy” to the brand seems a stretch. Cutty Sark was first introduced in March of 1923. McCoy began running booze in 1921, and had already made a name for himself and his quality booze by the time Cutty Sark hit the scene. He was arrested and left the rum-running trade in November, 1923. So while it’s possible he carried enough Cutty in those seven months to warrant a backstory like this one, it’s also a little unlikely.
As for the phrase, “the real McCoy”, it’s a little much to imply that the phrase originated with Cutty Sark and William McCoy. Sure, maybe ol’ Bill’s exploits helped cement it into the public lexicon, but the phrase existed long before that. More than likely, it grew out of the phrase “the real MacKay” which was part of a Scottish poem named “Deil’s Hallowe’en” which was published in Glasgow in 1856 (coincidently, the phrase is used to describe a drop of good whisky.) The actual phrase appears in James S. Bond’s 1881 book, “The rise and Fall of the ‘Union club'; or Boy life in Canada”. Several others along the way have laid claim to the phrase: railroad engineers preferring an engine part made by one Elijah McCoy, a cattleman named Joseph McCoy who helped to establish the Chisholm Trail, any number or characters from the silly Hatfield-McCoy feud, rival branches of the Scottish MacKay clan arguing over who was the most…MacKay-ish, and a supposed nitroglycerin salesman from Pennsylvania named McCoy. In the U.S., the most popular origin of the phrase stars “Kid McCoy,” a bare-knuckled boxer who fought between the years 1890 and 1914 (again, well before Cutty Sark debuted.) Kid McCoy reportedly earned the name after some belligerent drunk challenged the slight middleweight champion, doubting he was the actual Kid McCoy. One punch laid out the glass-jawed sot, who upon regaining consciousness, exclaimed,”that was the real McCoy!”…or something like that. It’s worth noting that Kid McCoy was just a stage name, his real name was Norman Selby…”Real McCoy”, indeed. It’s not really worth noting that in the ring, the Real McSelby was a bit of a cheater trickster, and out of it, not a great one with the ladies having married ten times (thrice to the same poor and apparently not-too-bright woman), and having gone to prison for killing a girlfriend. He also didn’t manage his money too well despite starring in a couple of D.W. Griffith movies, being involved in myriad business ventures, and even working a bit for Henry Ford. Kid McCoy ended up killing himself in a Detroit hotel in 1940, wrapping up a fairly tumultuous life. Like I said, that last bit isn’t really germane to the issue, but interesting nonetheless.
In any case, here in the U.S., the Kid McCoy story is generally assumed to be the origin of the popular “real McCoy” phrase. So, yeah, Berry Bros. & Rudd and Cutty Sark came up with a nice backstory, but it didn’t take a whole lot of interweb sleuthing to poke a few holes in it. But that’s what whisky marketing is there for right? To sell products and for whisky geeks to sit around and make fun of? To be fair, while the backstory part of the marketing seems a little hastily assembled, the packaging part is actually pretty cool – the black glass bottle and black-on-craft-paper label look good on the shelf. Drinking this side by side with the standard, yellow-labelled stuff, you can tell it’s Cutty Sark, the lineage is there. It has a somewhat similar flavor profile, but it obviously has much more malt whisky and a touch of peat as well. Aged (though they don’t say for how long) entirely in ex-bourbon American Oak, not chill filtered and bottled at a much higher proof, it’s a much more muscular, complex Cutty
The Nose: Malt…and lots of it! There’s malted milk powder and sweet barley malt with a hint of dark beer. Quite honeyed with a good dose of caramelized sweetness as well in the form of nutty, slightly burnt toffee. Notes of spiced orange, dried vanilla bean, and dried cherries round out the sweeter side, while a subtle hint of damp peat lends an earthy counterpoint. Greenish clove, cinnamon bark, a whiff of star anise, and a tiny trailing of dry wood smoke. With a bit of water, the caramel sweetness is lessened somewhat, the beery malt, citrus, vanilla, and oak notes gain a bit more strength.
The Palate: Even more caramel and toffee than on the nose. This is just dripping with caramel sauce and a bit of vanilla syrup initially, even having a slightly viscous mouthfeel. The malt is now chocolately and more restrained than on the nose. Subtle hints of salted almonds and dried orange peel lead to a swell of youthfully hot, earthy, tannic spice. Toasted oak, bright cinnamon, powdered ginger, and crushed peppercorns. While the palate is slightly smokier than the nose, the smoke is still quite subtle, just a breath emerges towards the end. Adding water brings out more malty notes, tones down the sweetness a little, and just smooths out and integrates a rather youthful edge .
The Finish: Longish, mouth-watering, a little sharp, and still drenched with caramel. That tiny bit of smoke lingers as does vanilla bean, cinnamon, ginger, and white pepper.
Thoughts: This really grew on me. At first, I think I just didn’t care for the malty sweetness transitioning to the young, peppery end of the palate. After coming back to it a few times, I began to enjoy its surprisingly rugged yet quite sweet profile. Perhaps a little bit of open time for the bottle helped tie this one together, I don’t know. There is a nice complexity here and an appealing progression. The high malt content is clear, though so is the youth of the whiskies involved. Sipped neat, it’s an interesting dram, perhaps a bit of a throwback in its malty, slightly peated style. A little water tones down some of the unique sweetness of the nose, and rounds off some of the edginess of the palate. It works well in a Rob Roy (my default, baseline Scotch-based cocktail) and holds up quite well on its own or over ice. I see this out there for $25-$30, which I think is a good deal for a relatively unique, relatively high-proof blend.
I have held out as long as I can. A man can only take so much, his limits only stretched so far, the very foundation of his wanton soul only shaken so vehemently, before he cracks, succumbs, knuckles under, and throws in the towel. It may surprise you to learn that along with this predilection for whisky, I’ve always had a certain, shall we say, fondness for beer. I have thought about writing about beer before, I may have even mentioned the stuff once or twice before, but as of yet, I have not yet been so moved to truly plunge into this fermented pool of wonderfulness.
Having moved to the Twin Cities, I am now moved. It’s easy to be moved by beer in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. A new craft brewery/taproom opens approximately every 27 minutes, and fantastic stuff is being made, poured, bottled, canned, and growlered all over the place. Why the recent explosion and why here? Because of its strong German immigrant influence, Minnesota does have a long brewing tradition, and St. Paul’s Summit Brewing Co. could be considered one of the original pillars of “craft” brewing. This current explosion, however, is really thanks to Surly Brewing and the legislation it helped pass in 2011 that loosened the laws and allowed breweries that had retail-distributed beers to also serve and sell their beer at the brewery. Suddenly, breweries and tap rooms began popping up like curiously excited gophers on the prairie, and now today, we have one of the country’s hottest beer scenes.
So yeah, adding beer more seriously to the mix here on The Casks was simply a matter of time, but where to start? Surly Brewing, with its aforementioned impact and influence, seems a logical choice. And what better Surly beer to take a look at than its annual, frenzy-causing Russian Imperial Stout, Darkness. Quite a few brewers around the country have that one yearly special release that drives people wild with primal beer lust. For better or for worse, these are the Pappy Van Winkles and George T. Staggs of the beer world. The Surly Darkness release at the end of October (Darkness Day) is usually marked by thousands of bearded guys in hoodies chugging celebrating beer, listening to loud, heavy music, and trying to act like not getting a bottle of Darkness wouldn’t be the end of the world. The first Darkness release was in 2007, and each subsequent bottling has been adorned with seasonally appropriate spooky artwork. This year’s release varied somewhat from the previous editions in that it was aged in High West (*and by extension, most likely MGP/LDI…see below) Rye Whisky barrels.
The Appearance: Darkness is an apt name, not surprisingly. Nearly opaque brown-black with a mocha-tan head that turns thinnish.
The Nose: Lighter than I was expecting but still quite something. Sarsaparilla, bittersweet chocolate, molasses, softened earthy (not fruity) hops, and softened coffee notes – think cafe au lait. Macerated black cherries, subtle notes of boozy holiday spice cake with raisins, and a faint touch of whiskeyed oak hover around the edges.
The Palate: Big and complex, yet sweetly languid at the same time. Almost syrupy but well shy of being cloying. There’s vanilla cream soda, more sweet, macerated black cherries, warm chocolate chip cookies, earthy, oak-tinged cinnamon and spice notes, and malt syrup. Finishes with a bit of coffee and faint hints of black licorice twizzlers.
Thoughts: This is an excellent beer.I like big sweet stouts and I like barrel-aged beers, so perhaps I’m not the most impartial judge, but I thought the 2014 was pretty fantastic. Compared to the one other Darkeness I’ve tried (the 2013), it seems as if the oak has turned down some of the hops and stronger, bitter, roasty qualities. The trade-off is an increased complex sweetness that teeters on the edge of being too much and off-balance. But it keeps itself together and works well. If you’re a fan of this style, Darkness is not to be missed.
Malts: Pale Ale, Golden Promise, Crystal, Dark Crystal, Oats, Black, Chocolate, Roast
Sugar: Belgian dark candi
Hops: Columbus, Amarillo, Simcoe
Yeast: English Ale
Original gravity: 29 Plato
Color: 55 SRM
*For those that don’t know, High West sources much of their whiskey from other distilleries. Much of what they use comes from a large commercial distillery in Indiana called MGP (Midwest Grain Products…formerly known as LDI, or Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana). So while Surly may have aged this years Darkness in High West barrels, its worth noting that High West did not distill what was in those barrels. It is also worth noting that High West makes fantastic whiskey, and proudly admits to being blenders of the whiskey they source. I’d feel pretty confident that barrels picked and used by High West are going to be high quality from the wood to the whiskey. Yes, I realize that this is a rather semantic and geeky point to make…sorry.
But that’s neither here nor there. Bourye, the father-figure here, was second whisky ever released by High West. Its blend of bourbon and rye whiskey was as novel at the time as it was delicious…and it was delicious. Proudly wearing the blender’s hat, High West’s head honcho, David Perkins, masterfully combined three whiskeys – a 10 year old bourbon from LDI/MGP, a 12 year old, 95% rye, rye whiskey from LDI/MGP, and a 16 year old straight rye (with a relatively low rye content of 53%) from Barton Distillery. Not surprisingly, Bourye was a hit, and since it was created from a limited stock of selected sourced whiskies, it has all long since disappeared.
High West released the Son of Bourye to help fill the demand for the dear departed father, and while the concept is similar, it really does seem like a young, slightly rebellious scion. The whiskeys used in the Son of Bourye are much younger, and a bit more straightforward. Two instead of three different whiskeys make up this expression: a relatively low-rye bourbon from LDI/MGP, and the 95% rye recipe whiskey from LDI/MGP. Initially, the youngest whiskeys used were five years old, but High West has been bumping up the age a bit as each batch is bottled. Currently, Son of Bourye is made up of six year old whiskeys and is an ongoing part of their lineup, but once the necessary stocks are gathered for another older Boureye release, High West says the father will rise again.
The Nose: Lots of rye initially but quite tempered by familiar bourbon notes. That MGP/LDI high rye is quite clear – rye bread, a little pickling spice, pepper, and hint of pine sap, softened by the bourbon’s vanilla extract, corn bread, spiced orange, and nutty toffee. The rye also provides a nice flinty-ness, think fresh sharpened pencil, and a subtle herbal quality…believe or not a touch of mint chocolate chip ice cream. The bold-ish spice notes of cinnamon, clove, peppercorns, and dried orange peel show off the bourbon more.
The Palate: Like the nose, the rye is prevalent yet still nicely balanced by the bourbon. At first, there’s warm caramel sauce, burnt toffee, and well-toasted rye bread with a thin scrape of marmalade. Baker’s chocolate and salted nuts make a brief appearance before lots of spice and a surprising (but pleasant) amount of oak for its age moves in. Crushed peppercorns, vanilla bean, Vietnamese cinnamon, clove, and mint lead to a hint of burnt popcorn and a little too much alcohol burn towards the end
The Finish: Drying, still a bit hot, rye-tinged and peppery, with a little salted nuttiness and barrel char.
Thoughts: High West always does a great job. It’s often hard for the son to live up to the father, and while comparisons to Bourye are inevitable, all in all, this is a satisfying, very well-crafted blend of bourbon and rye. There’s a vibrant youthful complexity throughout that works in its favor until the end, where things get a little too spirited and rough. I like this quite a bit over ice as it smooths those edges, but it also sips nicely neat. I found it also makes for an interesting twist in a Manhattan, Old Fashioned, or a Brooklyn. The $35-$40 price tag is a little on the steep side value-wise, but given that this is a smaller company blending sourced stocks into a rather unique product, I also think it’s fair. Recommended.
Well, here we are again and already. It seems as if we were just celebrating the Winter holidays and now, we’re just supposed to start celebrating them all over again. Here in Minnesota this might be due to the fact that Winter routinely stretches well into April. Summer snuck by quickly as it was a relatively cool one this year and I spent most of it buried in real estate paperwork and subsequent mountain of cardboard moving boxes. So…here we are somehow, right back at Winter. I love Winter. I realize, of course, that not everyone loves Winter, or the holidays as much as I do, and that all this Winter-y gift-giving can often be very stressful. Being the helpful guy that I am, here’s The Casks’ annual, hastily assembled list of whisky-related stocking stuffers…
Let’s start with two newish books that deserve a place on any whisky lover’s shelf that isn’t already occupied by a bottle of whisky. Chuck Cowdery wrote the still-relevant and informative Bourbon Straight a little more than ten years ago and finally got around to following it up this year with Bourbon Strange. Bourbon Strange is an engrossing collection of essays and stories about Bourbon’s peculiar and fascinating past.
(As always, yes…you can buy these both from Amazon, but wouldn’t you rather support your local booksellers? Of course you would.)
Both of these books are so engrossing no one could blame you for finishing them in one sitting, but there are those heartbreaking moments in life when one must put down a book. What better way than to mark one’s place with a bookmark made from an Irish whiskey barrel from Conkr Creative, so one can pick up where one left off to attend to whatever bit of silliness needed attending to.
Or, if quaffing beer isn’t hitting the right note, then perhaps a nice cup of tea? Or perhaps if something stronger than tea is needed, but by golly, you were really looking forward to drinking something out of a teacup, then perhaps this Tom Waits-inspired mug from Yvonne Ellen Homewares will inspire.
As pleasant as it sounds, one cannot simply spend their life with a book and a glass. There are times when one must venture out into the public eye and when venturing out into the public eye, it is occasionally necessary to wear pants, and on those occasions, holding those pants up is of paramount importance. Keep those things up with a belt adorned with this belt buckle made from ex-bourbon barrel wood from The Wooded Lands.
Admittedly, this next one perhaps not for everyone. While I find this an aesthetically pleasing object and certainly get the appeal, I tend to think that anyone who feels it necessary to add water to their whisky so precisely that they need an eyedropper…well, let’s just say it’s not my thing, not by a long shot, nonetheless, a blown-glass dropper and accompanying oak stave mount from Sip Dark would be a classy addition to one’s whisky library.
If you’d actually like to buy some booze for someone instead of just something booze-related, it’s time again for Master of Malt to make their usual appearance on this list. Why do I include them every year? Simple, they’ve come up with fun, creative ways to give the gift of alcohol. Whether it’s their stellar whisky (or gin, or vodka, or tequila, or rum, or cognac) advent calendars, their home blending kits, or their new Christmas Crackers (traditional English crackers with a small dram of booze inside. I know, it sounds a little dangerous to me, too, but I trust they know what they’re doing) Master of Malt know how to bring the holiday cheer.
Wake up! Time to drink! This last one might be a bit of a splurge, but if you’re looking for a gift for a whisky fan who also happens to be a Blade Runner fan, a replicant, or what the hell…both, you could hardly go wrong with these hand-blown, crystal tumblers from Firebox just like the one Deckard uses in the film to drown his artificial sorrows.
*Sincere thanks to LB and the Baddish Group for the sample.
It would probably not be considered going too far out on a limb to say that Four Roses‘ history is one of the murkiest and most confusing in the world of whisk(e)y. Interestingly, it should also be noted that, today, the distillery and brand is among the most transparent in the Bourbon world at least…but that’s today. In the past, there have been times when Four Roses themselves have presented different versions of some story…and for no other reason than no one was really sure what the true story really was. A couple of years ago, I touched on the several stories floating around about the origin of the name Four Roses. While that was fun and all, this time around, I thought I’d take a look at why Four Roses fell off the face of the United States for a few decades, and how the brand, like a phoenix of yore, has risen once again, landing pretty much at the top of the heap.
We’ll fast forward to 1943, past the murky tales regarding when the brand was founded (either in the 1860’s by Rufus Rose and probably his brother and two nephews, or possibly in 1888 when, according the brand’s website, a man named Paul Jones legally trademarked the name of a popular whiskey that had…been…around…since…the…1860’s) to when Seagrams bought the company, then known as the Frankfort Distilling Co. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that an alternate story goes that Rufus Rose’s Four Roses was purchased by the original Joseph Seagram & Sons in 1913, and, in turn, that company was then purchased by Sam Bronfman and his company Distillers Corporation, LTD. in 1928. Whatever…in any case, the year is 1943, and Four Roses bourbon, one of the best-selling bourbons in the country is now owned by Seagrams, one of the biggest distillers in the world. Seagrams had done well since Prohibition ended, they had presaged the country’s shift in taste to lighter, blended whiskies, and marketed their products successfully to drive demand even higher. In a somewhat dubious move, however, Seagrams decided to stop selling this top-selling bourbon in the U.S. and instead send all the Kentucky-made bourbon to the European and Asian markets. Yes, the brand was already big overseas, and yes, this renewed focus helped it not just survive the big increase in demand, but become the biggest-selling bourbon in the Asian market, but still, a somewhat strange move. Here in the States, Four Roses now soldiered on as an inexpensive blended whisky. Initially, this blended version of Four Roses was probably not the horrible whisky it reportedly became, but as the years went on, the quality apparently plummeted and Four Roses the blended became synonymous with “rotgut” and “skid-row”.
The crazy thing is that while the brand was being run into the ground in the U.S. with whiskey made in Indiana, the brand’s old distillery in Kentucky was still cranking out excellent bourbon to be sold overseas. It may seem odd that Seagrams just shrugged its shoulders and abandoned a once very successful brand in the U.S., but then again Seagrams, on occasion, has made some, shall we say, poor business decisions. By the late 90’s, the once mighty Seagrams had over-extended itself, watered down its wine & spirits brands, and ultimately fell apart in several directions with Pernod-Ricard and Diageo taking control of its beverage division. In 2002, Diageo sold the Four Roses brand and distillery to the Japanese beverage giant, Kirin, who ultimately recognized the potential for Four Roses bourbon in the U.S. market, and did the right thing by giving us back this storied brand. No small amount of credit for this belongs to Master Distiller, Jim Rutledge, who for years pushed Seagrams to sell the Four Roses bourbon in the states, or at the very least, make it available to the very people who made it. When Kirin took the reigns, Rutledge’s pleas were answered, the awful blended whiskey disappeared and Four Roses began its long march back up to the top of the aforementioned bourbon heap.
Today, Four Roses’ excellent core range is represented in the U.S. by the Yellow Label,the Small Batch, and the Single Barrel. There are still two expressions exclusive to the Japanese market, the Platinum and the Fine Old. Their yearly Limited Edition Single Barrel and Small Batch releases are always a highly thought-of and highly sought-after bottles. While all three of the core expressions are very reasonably priced, the Yellow Label is the most inexpensive, at around $16-$20. Approximately six years old, this rather “vintage-y” labeled whiskey is a blend of the ten different bourbons Four Roses produces using their innovative combinations of two yeast strains and five mashbills. They are able to further broaden their palate, the Yellow Label in particular, by blending different ages of these different recipes. No other bourbon distillery gives itself this much variety to work with, certainly not when it comes to their entry-level expressions.
The Nose: A very solid, bright bourbon nose. Warm caramel apples with orange blossom honey and a little vanilla bean paste. There are subtle but nice rye notes – think lightly toasted rye bread. Slightly woody spice notes of warm, bright cinnamon, a bit of clove and black pepper. Further back, touches of sweet corn ice cream, and slight hints of fennel and orange-tinted bittersweet chocolate. A slight whiff of solvent gives away the lower price point of this one.
The Palate: Spicy, somewhat hot, and quite sweet initially with burnt toffee, juicy orange, and a bit of watery orgeat syrup. The rye is less subtle than on the nose, but also a bit more raw and green. Wood spice notes of rough cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper and a hint of anise seed. A bit of that solvent-y heat, slightly harsh and rough-edged touches of barrel char and burnt popcorn lead to the finish.
The Finish: Continued burnt popcorn and vanilla sweetness with more woody cinnamon, clove and black pepper. That alcohol heat from the end of the palate lingers bit as well.
Thoughts: A very good bourbon for the money. It’s fairly easy for me to find Four Roses Yellow Label for under $20. Hell, I can occasionally find a 1.75l handle for under $30 bucks. Though the flavor profile is fairly basic and straightforward, Four Roses multiple recipe technique gives this more complexity than you usually expect for a bottle in this price range. Outside of those (somewhat expected) youthful, raw edges throughout, there’s little to complain about with this one. It works well in a cocktail with just enough rye to give it depth, and holds its own as an everyday sipper, especially over ice. These days bargains seem to be disappearing in the bourbon world, but for the moment, Four Roses Yellow Label is still one of them. As a solid, everyday value buy, recommended.