By George Calys.
It is hard to have one single favorite bourbon, but if I had to choose, the Four Roses Single Barrel is mine. The Single Barrel is the ultimate in small batch bourbon: one and only one barrel is used, yielding maybe 250 bottles. The barrel number is handwritten on the label. Of course, they do different single barrel bottlings so it depends on where you buy it.
To me, Four Roses Single Barrel is what American whiskey is all about. Lots of caramel flavors. Extremely smooth and a long finish. But in truth, words cannot explain why a whiskey is exceptional. One must simply taste it.
Far from the east and west coasts, the generally recognized centers of design and artistry, a small group of artisans in the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky practice a craft born in these flowing hills over two centuries ago. That craft? The distilling of a corn-based spirit that today we call bourbon.
Bourbon can be made in any state, but it’s Kentucky that is most often associated with the spirit. In fact, around 90% of the bourbon made worldwide comes from Kentucky. And for many years bourbon meant “blended whiskey”—mass-produced spirits mainly suitable for mixing with cola or cleaning auto parts.
That is, until the advent of small batch and single barrel bourbons.
There is no precise definition of small batch bourbon other than they tend to have small production runs and involve a close, intimate approach to fermentation, distilling, and aging. The rise in popularity of small batch bourbons has mirrored the growth of craft beers over the last 20 years; both are indicative of a refined, discriminating customer base that appreciates the passion these brewers and distillers bring their art.
Speaking of passion, you won’t talk with Master Distiller Jim Rutledge for very long before you realize that here’s a fellow that is serious—damn serious—about making bourbon. Since 1995, Rutledge has led the team at Four Roses outside of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky in creating some of the most outstanding small batch and single barrel bourbons around.
It wasn’t always like that at Four Roses though. Even though Four Roses’ history stretches back to the early 19th century, the distillery became part of the vast Seagram’s conglomerate in 1943. Seagram’s ownership meant that Four Roses was relegated to producing blended whiskey for a thirsty but unsophisticated public. The Four Roses brand became associated with poor quality.
Fast forward to 2002, when Japanese brewing giant Kirin purchased Four Roses. Rutledge, armed with the knowledge that serious drinkers wanted and would pay for top quality bourbon, spearheaded the change at Four Roses. And Rutledge began the painstaking process of crafting the bourbons he knew Four Roses was capable of.
“We make ten different whiskeys. I start with two different mashbills (the blend of corn and other grains is called a mashbill) and five different yeasts. That gives us ten whiskeys which allow me to mix and blend to achieve the small batch profile I’m looking for,” explains Rutledge. “For the single barrel, I choose an individual barrel that I find outstanding and that becomes a single barrel bottling.”
Four Roses small batches may be limited to a few thousand bottles and the single barrel will be only a few hundred bottles. The market has responded by snatching up Rutledge’s creations just about as fast as he can make them.
Just as importantly, a number of whiskey competitions have awarded Four Roses award after award.
Of course, Rutledge hasn’t let that go to his head. “You know fancy marketing and awards will get you to buy the first bottle. But only quality will get you to purchase a second.”
Here’s a recipe for the perfect Manhattan.
George Calys is an architect turned writer and critic whose work appears in Examiner.com, California Home + Design, The Architects Newspaper, and various design-related publications.