Domestic Whiskey's Best Kept Secret

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Photo Courtesy of Four Roses Distillery


Until recently, one of America's best and highest-volume Bourbon distillers was also one of its least known. For decades Four Roses, located outside Bardstown, Kentucky, did almost all its business overseas; the company was so popular in Japan that it was eventually bought by Kirin, its Japanese distributor. But it was impossible to find stateside.

Things weren't always so: During the mid-20th-century Four Roses was the highest-selling Bourbon in the United States. But in the 1950s its then-owner, Seagram's, decided to shutter Four Roses's domestic operations and focus on the European and Asian markets. Seagram's continued to produce a blended whiskey for the U.S. market called Four Roses American, which was by all accounts a dishwater-quality quaff, and it made the Four Roses name synonymous with Skid Row boozin'.

The 2008 Mariage may be the best Bourbon I've ever tasted--and I'm not alone; it recently won a Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Kirin took over in 2002 and immediately canceled Four Roses American. It then began churning out new, high-quality Bourbons for both American and foreign consumption. Since then the distillery has steadily expanded its domestic output, first in limited, nearby markets like Tennessee, then more recently in New York, Chicago, and along the East Coast. "Four Roses," declared Malt Advocate last year, "is enjoying a golden age in the whiskey market." Indeed, late last year Malt Advocate named it Distillery of the Year.

Unlike most distilleries, Four Roses has not one but five yeast strains, which it combines with two different mash bills to produce ten distinctive whiskey recipes. Such variety allows Four Roses to quickly mix and match flavors, which explains how, in just a few years, it has managed to produce a flagship Bourbon, Yellow Label, a single barrel Bourbon, begun in 2004 (according to Four Roses master distiller Jim Rutledge, it's the best-selling single-barrel Bourbon in Kentucky); a small batch Bourbon, which debuted in 2006; two Japan-only expressions, "Super Premium" and "Black"; two barrel-strength anniversary editions (one marking the 120th birthday of the distillery, the other marking Rutledge's 40 years in the Bourbon business); and, starting last year, the first of its "Mariage" expressions, a perennially changing blend of some or all of its recipes.

Every Four Roses product is good, though I'm not personally a fan of Yellow Label. On the other hand, while it's hard to find, the 2008 Mariage may be the best bourbon I've ever tasted--and I'm not alone; it recently won a Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. On a recent trip to Kyoto my dad managed to locate a bottle of export-only Four Roses Black, which is a nearly perfect blend of fruit and wood notes. And the 120th Anniversary Barrel Strength, released near Christmas, was a great sipping whiskey for long winter nights.

But what I really like about Four Roses is its willingness to experiment with the nuts and bolts of bourbon making to develop consistently good, often great products. Experimentation is the catchword among bourbon distillers these days, but too many--I'm looking at you, Woodford Reserve--overreach to novelty. But thanks to its solid and varied base of recipes, Four Roses can keep things simple and still produce surprising new expressions. I expect a lot from these guys in the coming years.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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