On Monday 3rd October, BBS Co-Founding Father Ed and I made our way to the Press and Trade day of the annual Whisky Show at Old Billingsgate. (Bourbon purists, please excuse the spelling of ‘whisky’ – their orthography, not mine. I guess ‘The Whisk(e)y Show’ would look clunky...) Keen aqua vitae beans that we are, we were first to arrive, and thus first names on the ‘team sheet’ for the Four Roses Masterclass, led by Master Distiller Brent Elliot.
For anyone even half-interested in brown spirit, the Whisky Show is the number one event on the calendar – and this year delivered once again. I was particularly impressed with the quality of American whiskeys outside the traditional hegemony of bourbon and rye; tables from Westland, Balcones and the mavericks from Corsair have stuck particularly in memory. And of course I indulged my love of all things whisk(e)y from the elsewheres of the globe. One standout was the Millstone 100 Rye from Zuidam in the Netherlands, whose quality should give several American distilleries pause for thought.
Eventually it was Masterclass O’Clock though, and once again Ed and I were first on the scene. In fact we didn’t even wait to be led up, and ended up arriving through a somewhat disused-looking stairway.
Having arrived and taken our seats early, we were able to inspect the samples as they were being poured. ‘On tasting’ were the Four Roses Flagships – Yellow Label, Small Batch and Single Barrel. However the main ‘draw’ of the tasting, besides Brent himself, was a sample of each of the 2015 and 2016 Small Batch Limited Editions. The 2016 was yet to land on British shores, whilst the 2015 was last year crowned ‘World’s Best Bourbon.’ An exciting prospect as a comparison, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Fellow enthusiasts having arrived, Brent introduced himself, and began his talk. The whole thing was a fantastically informal affair – Brent even encouraged people to sip away before he had introduced the individual bourbons, asking only that they save a little bit of each for their ‘moment in the sun.’ Through Herculean effort of willpower I left mine untouched until they were the subjects of discussion, though naturally I took a few courtesy sniffs. Out of respect.
I’ve mentioned here before that Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Edition was the whiskey that encouraged me to start feeling my way around bourbon. But the bottle that really got me serious was a Four Roses Single Barrel a few years, and a few thousand pours, ago. In fact, gun to my head, I’d probably cite Four Roses as my favourite US distillery – though I couldn’t promise I wouldn’t change my mind ten minutes later.
By and large Four Roses make bourbon in a lighter, more fragrant style than many other distilleries. It’s an elegant whiskey, rather than a hulking, brawny sort of thing. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that style.) There is a large gulf in character between each of their three core expressions though, and a lot of that comes down to their yeasts.
One key difference between the outlook of Scottish distillers and that of their American counterparts is the importance they attach to individual yeast strains. To an American distiller, yeast takes on far more importance – and nowhere more so than at Four Roses. In fact they have five different strains which they use in the fermentation of their wash, as well as two different mashbills, with one being significantly higher in rye content than the other. The full details can be seen on their breakdown, depicted at the bottom of this article, but the upshot is that between five yeast strains and two mashbills they are creating bourbon to ten different recipes, and thus have a broad palette to draw upon when practicing their artistry. (See, I did mean ‘palette’ instead of ‘palate’.)
Having sampled the Yellow Label, Small Batch and Single Barrel, it was time for the ‘main event,’ which I am sure was the principle draw for many of those assembled. The good news is that both the 2015 and the 2016 Limited Editions were absolutely delicious, that each had their champions within the room, and that a purchase of either would be money very well spent. (How diplomatic am I?)
That being said, my personal preference was the 2015. I absolutely loved the flavours of the ’16, and it’s possibly a tone or two deeper - but the 2015’s balance is just stunning; a perfect equilibrium of body, alcohol and flavour. Nothing harsh, nothing that burns; every element working in tandem and unison. Bourbon, in short, as bourbon should be. Yum. (Technical tasting term.)
Love of Four Roses significantly deepened from tasting the flight and meeting the maker, I trotted back downstairs and continued doing my duty by the bottles available. The health-conscious will be relieved to know I made full use of the spittoons, though I can’t promise that once or twice something truly special didn’t slip down the right way.
Both Ed and I were thrilled to have attended the masterclass, and I was deeply sorry to have flown off to Bordeaux a couple of days later when several BBS members met up with Brent for a few more pours. The take-home is that we all love Four Roses, and we hope to see more of the people involved very soon. Oh – and do pick up a bottle of that 2016 if you can get your hands on one. I’ve a notion they’ll move pretty quickly...