Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon: The Chuck Cowdery Blend

Last week, the first stop for Bourbon Boot Camp was Four Roses, where we participated in a blending exercise. It was one of the highlights of the trip.

In the world of whiskey, 'blending' is a term of art. That means it has a specific meaning that is somewhat contrary to the ordinary dictionary meaning. "To blend" simply means to combine or mix two or more different substances, but in whiskey it specifically means a mixture of two or more different types of whiskey (and even non-whiskey spirits). Therefore, a mixture of straight bourbons is still a straight bourbon, but a mixture of bourbon whiskey and rye whiskey, for example, is a blended whiskey.

This is an especially sensitive subject at Four Roses because of the brand's history. In its pre-Prohibition heyday, Four Roses was one of the most popular straight bourbons in the country. After Prohibition the brand's new owner, Seagram's, converted it to a blended whiskey. Looking at the British and Canadian practice Seagram's, a Canadian company, decided that straight whiskey was an anachronism. Blends were the future.

Boy, were they wrong.

Four Roses began as an all-whiskey blend, but quickly began its descent into cheapness, as did most American blends. American blends (Seagram's Seven, Kessler's, Philadelphia, and Imperial are some examples) compete primarily on price, so the typical American blended whiskey is as cheap as the law allows, just 20 percent whiskey and 80 percent vodka in most cases. Four Roses American Blended Whiskey sucked. Sales declined to next to nothing and the brand was pulled from the U.S. market.

Strangely, Seagrams continued to sell Four Roses as a straight bourbon outside the U.S., and it became the leading American whiskey in many markets. After Kirin Brewing bought the brand a decade ago, they began the process of re-introducing Four Roses Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey back into the U.S.

Although the blends were a bad idea, not everything Seagram's did was wrong. One Seagram's practice that Four Roses still uses is the making of ten different bourbon recipes. Those are the ten full bottles in the picture. Since they are all straight bourbon, we blended them together in only the dictionary sense of the word. The result was not a blended whiskey, it was a straight bourbon.

Except for Four Roses Single Barrel, which is entirely the OSBV recipe (second from the left), every Four Roses product is a blend of two or more of the ten recipes. That's what we bourbon boot campers were given the opportunity to do, create our own Four Roses (Very) Small Batch Bourbon.

After sampling all ten (did I mention it was 10:00 o'clock in the morning?), I decided to make a high-rye bourbon. Four Roses uses two different mash bills and the higher rye one is 35 percent rye. That gave me five bourbons to work with, differentiated by their yeast strain. I chose OBSF as the base for its mildness, then tweaked it with the more flavorful OBSV and OBSQ.

If you have those three bourbons at home, and I know a few of you do, Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon: The Chuck Cowdery Blend is 60 percent OBSF, 30 percent OBSV, and 10 percent OBSQ. All were five to six years old.

It is a fine, well-balanced bourbon, and rarer than Pappy Van.


Anonymous said...


Great Experience "blending" your own Four Roses Small Batch. New Visitor's Center is very impressive. Agree.....?*!*?

Chuck Cowdery said...

The new office building looks like a La Quinta hotel, but the new visitors center is nice. It's mostly the gift shop that was upgraded.

Anonymous said...

Gary said:

That just sounds like WAY too much fun!! I wonder if they would consider making this a consumer product/experience. I know some whiskey geeks would pay a premium for a unique blend that was all their own. So many more possibilities than a private barrel selection!

BMc said...

Al Young gently recommended that I use the word "mingled" instead of "blended" when talking about the small batch! Evidently he and the other Four Roses reps in the room preferred a less loaded, so to speak, term.

Anonymous said...

Richnimrod said;
Hey Chuck, here's an alternative suggestion....
In my descriptions of 'homemade' combinations of bourbons, I always use the term; "mingled" to avoid the confusion that the use of the word; "blend" can cause. Just a thought.

Chuck Cowdery said...

We go around about this all the time. Even Al tends to slip and say 'blend' when he isn't careful.

Anonymous said...

"Married" is a good term as well

Chuck Cowdery said...

Or we can get over it, just say 'blend,' and get comfortable with the ambiguity. It's not wrong to call it blending--that's what it is--it's just potentially confusing. But since we're all smart and know what's what, it shouldn't be a problem.

theBitterFig said...

As a fan of Compass Box whiskies, I've got no problem with the word blend. Which brings to mind two products I'd pay good money for: The first: A Compass Box Vatted American whisky. No rules other than TTB, and I'm sure John Glaser would come up with something great. The second: an "All Ten" kit from Four Roses. 50-100ml bottles of all ten whiskies, 5-6 year range. It would be quite an adventure in a box.

The other bit of nomenclature worth considering is that if Four Roses were a scotch, it'd still be considered a single malt. Presuming that straight bourbon is equivalent to 100% malted barley across nations, they're only blending within the single distillery, so it wouldn't count as a "blend" under Scottish labeling rules.

The word does double duty - meaning either a blend of different distilleries and perhaps grains, but also a mixture of single malt from within one distillery's production, often by someone with the title "Master Blender."

And similar to how Four Roses LE Small Batch is often one of the most respected bourbons among critics, a lot of top single malts deliberately blend different variations of a whisky from within the same distillery. Balvenie Tun 1401 is probably the best example right now, where different cask types and ages are all vatted together in an old mash tun to create a rather old NAS Scotch. On a more modest scale, Bruichladdich and the Japanese Hakushu bottle a few offerings which blend their peated and unpeated whiskies. This is very much the Four Roses style of distilling different types of whisky and combining them for the finished product.

Anonymous said...

In some ways, I would say this is the opposite of the single malt world. In single malts, the distillate is a constant, but what changes are the barrels (and ages) that are mixed together to make a particular Single Malt Expression. In Bourbon, the barrels are the constant and what changes are the distillate (Four Roses 10 different recipes) and the age of the Bourbons that are mixed.

The Bitter Fig said...

That's somewhat true in practice (again, there are some deviations using differently peated malt). However, definitionally single malt mostly just means single-distillery, which Four Roses matches. The other match is that in the world of SMSW is that they're both keen on the basic concept of blending different things once they're out of the barrel (however that path from grist mill to barrel dump happens).

I know most bourbons are batched, but what gets batched together is often less emphasised than in SMSW. Add in that there really isn't a market for blended bourbon. You don't really see many folks doing something like blending together 15 year old wheated bourbons with 8 year old straight ryes, and a bit of 21 year old low-rye bourbon. As a result, Four Roses looks a lot more "Scottish" to me than the rest of the Bourbon world.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Not that that's a bad thing.

Dave Waddell said...

Just catching up. Enjoyed this.

Blending outside of American whisky production has a fine reputation, with everyone pretty much agreeing that, officially, a blend is the blending of whiskies from different distilleries - or, as in Japan, different styles from the same distillery - or, as in Canada, I think, different grains whiskies.

Unofficially, it's the art (in a good sense) of the distiller, as practised in preparation for every whisky bottled, bar a single barrel whisky.

I'd be interested to know what terms American distillers use. Certainly, 'marrying' over here's out,at least I think so, as it signifies the method by which a distiller might choose to 'rest' a blend - normally in exhausted casks - before bottling.


Chuck Cowdery said...

"Mingling" is often used, but nobody likes it. Or just "combination."