Monday, September 16, 2013

Four Roses, the All-Bourbon Blend

Though well-intentioned, the Federal regulations known as the Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits can have unintended consequences. One is that a perfectly good descriptive word has been taken out of the lexicon.

That word is 'blend,' as in 'blended whiskey.' The rules say a combination of two or more different whiskeys is a blend, but a combination of two or more whiskeys that have the same classification is not a blend. Therefore Four Roses Yellow Label (pictured, above) is labeled 'Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey,' even though it is a blend of ten different straight bourbons.

'Blend' is generally considered a dirty word because it can also mean a combination of straight whiskey with neutral spirits (i.e., vodka). In the USA and nowhere else, a mixture that is 80 percent vodka and just 20 percent whiskey can be called 'blended whiskey.' Since that describes most blends on the market, it's no wonder the word is eschewed.

Then there is Four Roses Yellow Label. A perfectly good way to describe this product is as a blend of ten different bourbon recipes. They usually resort to 'mixture' or 'combination' to avoid the dreaded b-word.

Four Roses arrives at ten recipes by combining two different mash bills with five different yeasts. They explain it all very well on their web site, here. Although Four Roses likes to talk about the ten recipes and the characteristics of their five yeasts, what they won't tell you are the all-important proportions. How much OBSK is in yellow label, how much OESO.

Four Roses used to be owned by Seagrams and blending is very Seagramsey. Crown Royal, the best-selling of what used to be Seagrams whiskeys, is a Canadian Blended Whisky. Canadian rules are very different and Canadian blends are respectable, as are Scotch blends. It's only a dirty word here.

This is too bad, because as the American whiskey industry continues to evolve, blending has a lot of potential. Wild Turkey has just released a limited edition called Forgiven that blends straight bourbon with straight rye. They say it was an accident but it looks more like a deliberate imitation of High West's Bourye. Jim Beam's Devil's Cut could be considered an all-bourbon blend since it combines regular Jim Beam Bourbon with the very smoky bourbon they extract from empty barrels. The 2012 edition of Heaven Hill's Parker's Heritage Collection (PHC) combined rye-recipe bourbon with wheated bourbon.

Four Roses Yellow Label is an excellent bourbon and a great value at around $20, but the 2012 PHC really shows the potential of all-whiskey blends. It is an example of what whiskey-makers at the height of their powers can accomplish. The whiskeys selected and the blending proportions (never revealed) resulted in a superb whiskey that is so much more than the sum of its parts, it ranks as one of the best American whiskeys ever made.

With micro-distillers inventing new whiskeys every day, and with MGP of Indiana making more than ten different whiskey recipes, blending is becoming a way for non-distiller producers (NDPs) to create original whiskeys rather than just bottling an existing whiskey made by one of the major distilleries. That's revolutionary and could be really cool, especially if the NDPs don't lie about it (a long shot).


Wade said...

The Yellow label would be so much better a higher proof. I wish they would offer a 90 or a 100 proof version. I know Jim Rutledge would like to do so as well.

In the meantime, I like to take some 4R barrel proof and mix with the Yellow Label. In particular, I like using an OESV bottle I have at 120.2 proof. I mix about 2/3 YL and 1/3 this OESV and it's great.

Rob K said...

Something else crazy I noticed the other day in the standards of identity,
you can mix straight bourbon from Heavenhill with straight bourbon from Four Roses and sell it as straight bourbon because they are made in the same state. You cannot mix straight bourbon from MGP with straight bourbon from Four Roses, and sell it as straight bourbon because they are not made in the same state.

sam k said...

For many years, even well after Prohibition, the term "A blend of straight whiskeys" was used by a number of distillers to factually describe an all-straight blend.

Is this no longer permissible?

Chuck Cowdery said...

It is, but they have to (a) not all qualify as a particular type, i.e., all straight bourbon; and (b) meet the current definition of 'straight whiskey,' in particular the two-years of aging requirement. I don't know exactly how 'straight whiskey' was previously defined, but based on old labels the two-years requirement was not in place then.

Chuck Cowdery said...

In part, this post is meant as a mythbuster, since many people believe straight bourbon is the same as single malt scotch, i.e., the product of one distillery. Bonded bourbon has that requirement, but straight bourbon does not.

Anonymous said...


Are you referring to the PG Private barreling on the OESV 120.2 proof? If so, how does it stack up to other FR Private Barrels? I was able to snag one bottle at Tony K's but have not opened it yet.


Wade said...

Josh - In particular, the Poison Girl OESV selection is what I have been using. Actually tried it with a few others 4R SB that I have, but definitely liked the PG/YL mix the best.

Not that one has to have the PG selection; several large retailers have bought all 10 recipes as SB offerings.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Another variable is age. Rutledge told me once that at least one of the recipes is in yellow label at two different ages.

Unknown said...

Also worthy of a mention is the blend of the century in the Master Distillers Unity Bourbon coming to auction this year.

Anonymous said...

In time the negative connotations of "blend" in the U.S. will fade, just as the positive connotations of "bonded" faded. The small distillers/NDMs have a huge opportunity to be creative by blending bourbons, ryes, bourbons and ryes, and these things with other whiskey types. Often young whiskeys can be improved by adding a little much older whiskey. Look at those old 30's-40's ads for blends of straight whiskeys, some of which gave you the compositions. This is a road map for the New Wave distillers/NDMs.

Waiahi said...

In time the negative connotations of "blend" in the U.S. will fade

Not as long as you have the continuing popularity of whiskey-flavored vodka like Ten High and Seagram's 7 sold as "blended whiskey" for the cocktail crowd.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Seagram's 7 is 75% vodka, 25% whiskey. Ten High, however, is still straight bourbon in many markets and where it's a bourbon blend, it's 51% straight bourbon, 49% vodka.

Chuck Cowdery said...

But your point is well taken.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree. This is a market where you now see scads of young whiskeys and unpaged whiskey mash products adorning the shelves. A market where congeneric-tasting young whiskey often commands a premium price. A market full of strongly flavored craft beer, tons of great wine, alcopops, cocktails galore some pre-bottled, and lots else.

In this world, the dichotomy of blend vs. straight bourbon or rye as an article of faith amongst informed consumers is a dying distinction. It made sense in the 1930's and (like any received wisdom) has lived on in consumer minds for decades, but it will wither.

People want something different over time, and will have it. In this new world, the commercial blends such as Ten High (where blended) or 7 Crown are, to my mind and I believe many others, far more palatable than a lot of what is out there being sought by today's market. This will hasten the expiry of the view that a blended product is inferior to a straight whiskey. In addition, or what is saying the same thing, that old dichotomy could only exist in a "whiskey-centric" America: the country has changed since then.

Anonymous said...

Four roses has a good reason for avoiding the b word.