Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon: The Chuck Cowdery Blend
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.