Small batch bourbon
Four Roses uses two mash bills and five yeasts for complex variations
Complex and varied: Small Batch is creamy and mellow, with sweet notes that bring to mind toffee, coconuts and vanilla with a hint of spice. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
But Four Roses is not like most distilleries. It uses two different mash bills (one containing 75 percent corn, 20 percent rye and 5 percent malted barley, the other 60 percent corn, 35 percent rye, 5 percent malted barley) and five different house yeasts that can lend a bourbon elements like hints of nutmeg and cinnamon, floral essences that can create an aroma reminiscent of roses or herbal notes like mint.
The idea behind the 10 different recipes was hatched by the distillery's former owner, Seagram Co., decades ago based on the notion that no two barrels are exactly the same.
"They thought that if they had 10 unique flavors or recipes they could sample the bottles before a bottling run and tweak the percentages to consistently put the same flavor in the bottle," according to Jim Rutledge, Four Roses' master distiller.
The theory was good, he said, but impossible to put into practice. "The art of making bourbon is getting each bottle to be as close as possible even with those variables," he said. "But even so, the people who look at our bourbons every day can spot the differences."
The distillery's 10 different recipes enable Rutledge to combine different bourbons from different barrels at different percentages to produce a nearly boundless array of bourbons. The distillery highlights that approach in its annual Limited Edition Small Batch bourbon, in which it combines the best of its 340,000 barrels for a one-off release.
The distillery's Limited Edition Small Batch last year combined four bourbons — one 17-year-old, two 12-year-olds and one 11-year-old — all of which use the 60 percent corn mash bill, two of which use a yeast that produces delicate, fruity notes and two that add spicy notes. The resulting whiskey, named American whiskey of the year by Whiskey Advocate earlier this year, is smooth and complex with notes of orange, raspberry, maple syrup, caramel and tobacco.
None of the recipes used to create that Limited Edition is used for its more commonplace Small Batch bottles, which helps explain the marked difference between the two bottles (as well as the distillery's other offerings). Small Batch is creamy and mellow, with sweet notes that bring to mind toffee, coconuts and vanilla with a hint of spice.
The differences between barrels and its products help Four Roses stand out, Rutledge said. "We do things differently."