It’s likely not a stretch to say that of all the whiskey I consume, probably 90 percent of it is taken neat. It’s not that I don’t love a variety of whiskey cocktails, because I certainly do. But what can beat the simplicity of a great dram, all on its own? Who doesn’t feel like royalty, with a finger of great whiskey in their glass at the end of the day?
As such, I’ve always sort of tended to avoid the entire conversation of “water” and “ice” when it comes to neat drinking. All the way up to 100, 110, 120 proof and beyond, I’m typically still most happy consuming my whiskey with no adulteration. Is that not a mark of quality, when a barrel-proof bourbon is still inviting enough to sip without dilution? And yet, this new release from Four Roses has me questioning whether I should perhaps be a bit more liberal in my application of water in the future.
Four Roses Small Batch Select is the first new year-round product we’ve seen from the legendary Kentucky distillery in quite a while, and it feels like a direct response to market forces and prevailing consumer tastes. Drinkers have been clamoring for higher proof, non-chill-filtered releases, and Four Roses aims to give it to them. In doing so, though, this fourth release in the company’s year-round portfolio sits in a slightly odd position.
For years, the Four Roses family of bourbons has been very easy to sum up. At the bottom you’ve got good old Yellow Label, still referred to as such despite the fact that the label is now a tan-ish color rather than yellow. This is an entry-level bourbon running around $20 for a 750 ml bottle, made as a blend of all 10 proprietary Four Roses recipes. The next step up the ladder is the mid-shelf Four Roses Small Batch, an older (7 years), stronger (90 proof) expression that is a blend of only 4 recipes, rather than 10. And then of course there’s the beloved Four Roses Single Barrel, with a roughly $45-50 MSRP, that clocks in at 100 proof, and captures a single Four Roses recipe—meaning that there are ultimately 10 different versions of Single Barrel out there, although the vast majority of commercial ones are “OBSV,” in Four Roses parlance. In general, though, this progression made things very easy to understand.
So where does Small Batch Select fit into that? Well, judging solely from ABV (104 proof) and MSRP ($60-65), it’s now the company’s most premium product. On the other hand, though, many FR Single Barrel bottles are still considerably older. And like the regular Small Batch, the Select is made from a blend of 4 recipes, rather than the clarity of representing a single barrel. And even the name ties it to the brand’s mid-shelf product, rather than its top-shelf one. It all feels slightly odd.
But enough talk: Let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, I’m immediately getting gooey caramel apple, toasted oak and a pronounced note of red berries—something like strawberry or raspberry, which provides a solid signature note. Ethanol is fairly prevalent as well, perhaps a tad more aggressive than you’d expect even for 104 proof.
On the palate, I get a rush of red fruit and caramel, chased by orange peel and charred cinnamon sticks. There’s a bit of grainy complexity here, and some oaky astringency, but things are undone slightly by an alcohol presence that seems a bit overexpressive and slightly harsh, in my opinion. Yes, 104 proof is nothing to sneeze at by any means, but I consume most bourbon in this range neat, without any kind of dilution, and experience those alcohol profiles as less distractingly harsh.
This led me to do something I don’t usually do, with bourbon: I added a tiny splash of water. And I must say, it made a very measurable impact on Four Roses Small Batch Select. Just a few drops of water opened this dram up nicely, amplifying its juicy cherry/raspberry fruitiness, while teasing out notes of stone fruit and baking spice. The ethanol recedes, allowing the moderate residual sweetness and brown sugar richness of this blend to shine through, while still retaining some tannic structure from the wood. Dare I say, a tiny bit of water improved this dram immeasurably.
So, how to rate such an experience? With a little bit of water, Four Roses Small Batch Select was among the more pleasurable bourbons I’ve had in recent memory, but I’m still of the belief that a release like this probably shouldn’t “need” dilution in order to be enjoyed. Likewise, I get a feeling that although the bourbon geeks in the audience will likely appreciate a bottle of Four Roses Small Batch Select, they’ll still probably focus the lion’s share of their attention on acquiring specific, sought-after bottles of Single Barrel, which tend to be available largely as store picks.
If you do sample this particular bourbon, though, and you don’t typically believe in dilution of whiskey … well, you might want to rethink your stance. You might just love it.
Distillery: Four Roses
City: Lawrenceburg, KY
ABV: 52% (104 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $60-65 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.