I wasn’t sure that I could contribute much on a straight review of any of these Limited Edition Bourbons, especially when one of these competitors was named the Whiskey of the Year last year (the second year in a row that Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch snagged that honor), so I decided to throw them all into the same ring. But doing that still makes my head spin. How can I possibly rank these against each other? Would the acclaim of last year’s 125th Anniversary Small Batch put subconscious pressure on me to rank it highest? Or maybe I’ll be expecting too much and score that expression too harshly? Plus, these are all stellar and they’re all bottles that you’d better buy if you luck into an opportunity, but I have to find some way to critique them, right?
Jim Rutledge – who has been the Master Distiller at Four Roses since 1995 but is pushing 50 years of experience since he goes back to the Seagram’s days where he started in Research & Development in Louisville, before moving with Seagram’s to New York and finally to Lawrenceburg, Kentucky – is pretty much a genius. Jim is the mastermind who finally got the rotgut off the shelves and real Four Roses available again in the U.S., although it took years of his efforts and the demise of Seagram’s before it was a reality. Plus, Jim is gracious with his time, meticulous with his art, and proud (without arrogance) of the brand he has built.
Now we’re a dozen years into the return, ten years into Four Roses Single Barrel (OBSV), and eight years into the Limited Editions, so just under the wire before 2015, let’s review 2013 and 2014:
Four Roses 2014 Limited Edition Single Barrel – Bottle No. 2,206
Age: 11 Years
ABV: 54.5% (109 proof)
Total bottles: 7,122
The color of many Four Roses Bourbons is remarkably consistent, and the dark amber with an orange/reddish shimmer of this Limited Edition is no exception. The nose is big, with dark fruits, cinnamon, vanilla and mint. The 2014 Single Barrel doesn’t hold back on flavors. It has the classic flavors of toffee and caramel with fresh orange zest followed by creamy vanilla, pear and cherry pie, leading to a bit of dark chocolate, leather and mint. There’s a lot going on. For the finish, the 2014 Single Barrel brings oak, cherries and fresh mint. This is a true gem to savor and drink neat.
I had my doubts about the OESF recipe. The lower rye content combined with the “herbal essence” yeast seemed to me like it was bound to underwhelm. I was about as wrong as I’ve ever been about Bourbon. Still, out of curiosity, I compared this 2014 Single Barrel to a private barrel of OESF, which was 10 years and 8 months old, and 56.6% ABV. While the color is essentially the same, the private barrel has more floral and herbal notes both on the nose and in the taste, the fruit is not as rich, and the finish is not as long as the Limited Edition. Overall it’s comparable, just not in the same league. It was also a good lesson about Jim Rutledge being able to pick out the honey barrels; you just can’t match that.
Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Single Barrel – Bottle No. 2,725
Age: 13 Years
ABV: 57.7% (115.4 proof)
Total bottles: 6,559
I remember really anticipating this Limited Edition Single Barrel because of the combination of the “B” mash bill (higher rye) combined with the “K” yeast strain (slight spice) because I thought it would be a true powerhouse, and word has it that OBSK is one of Jim’s favorites.
Color-wise, there’s nothing significant; it’s the darker amber expected from a 13 year-old Bourbon, with a slight orange/reddish hue. The nose is restrained but complex. It has caramel, honey, citrus zest layered in with toasted almonds and mint. The taste starts with sweet flavors of butterscotch and honey, pear, and banana, along with the richness of dark chocolate and dark fruits, balanced with the powerful spice that I expected to find. The finish finally brings a little more oak into the picture, along with maple syrup, for a sweeter finish than I expected. Overall, this was not the pure spicy beast that I expected, and instead it was full of flavors and incredibly well balanced.
Between the two – based on my expectation of the respective recipes – I thought that I would prefer the 2013 LE Single Barrel, but I actually preferred the 2014 LE Single Barrel. Normally though, I think I will default to the OBSK.
Four Roses 2014 Limited Edition Small Batch – Bottle No. 9,224
Recipes: OBSK (9 years); OBSV (13 years); OESV (12 years); and OBSF (11 years)
ABV: 55.9% (111.8 proof)
Cost: $110.00 (gift shop price)
Total bottles: 12,516
After two years of winning “American Whiskey of the Year,” the 2014 Limited Edition Small Batch heaped pressure on Jim Rutledge, and he answered, while not with a “three-peat,” with an excellent Bourbon. With a deep amber color, without approaching brown, it looks pretty standard. The nose has caramel, pears and vanilla, noticeable citrus, and never getting drowned out by the scent of alcohol. The taste follows up with more of the traditional caramel and vanilla, but more prominently features pear and honey for the sweetness, balanced with rye spice, pepper, clove and oak, and then some mint. The finish is punchier and more oaky than 2013 and is medium length with great warmth.
Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Small Batch – Bottle No. 516
Recipes: OBSV (18 years), OBSK (13 years), OESK (13 years)
ABV: 51.6% (103.2 proof)
Total bottles: 12,468
I’ve tasted the 2013 Limited Edition Small Batch blind, and while I scored it very high, I didn’t score it stratospheric, as might be expected. So in this non-blind comparison, I tried to be especially cautious about not getting swept up in the wave of accolades heaped on this award-winning whiskey, or the magic that is contained in the 18-year OBSV.
The color is standard amber, with good legs in the glass. The nose is pretty remarkable, though. It starts with tea, ripe pear, plum, caramel and vanilla, and also has hints of fresh sweet cherries. The taste follows up in a huge way with the traditional caramel and vanilla, but adds the richness of dark berries and cocoa balanced with rye spice, pepper, leather and oak. Both the nose and the taste hid the proof, or maybe that’s because this is the lowest proof of the four. The long finish keeps the same balance has lingering warmth that slowly fades. It had the longest finish of the four.
As good as the 2014 LE Small Batch is, the 2013 LE Small batch outshines it in every way. The bar is so high for the Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch, and the 2013 LE is the standard-bearer.
Single Barrel Winner: 2014 Limited Edition Single Barrel
Small Batch Winner: 2013 Limited Edition Small Batch
The small batch winner was a no-brainer and the single barrel winner surprised me because I initially focused too much on the respective recipes. Between these two winners, my ultimate favorite was really difficult to call, in part because they’re so similar. The color is basically identical, the noses are similar (but I liked the 2014 slightly more), they have similar taste profiles (but the 2014 is a more robust), and the 2013 has the best finish. I might pick one or the other on any given day depending upon mood. Both the 2013 LE Small Batch and the 2014 LE Single Barrel are as close as I’ve considered to an outright “5” on my five-point scale. But at post time, with the chilly December weather, it’s the 2014 single barrel for me.
A normal single barrel probably shouldn’t ever prevail over a fine-tuned small batch. Except for a true “honey barrel,” a single barrel will almost always have a raw element that can’t be hidden, whereas with the small batch Jim can complement the strengths of certain barrels and mask minor deficiencies in others. Still – at least over this month’s comparison tastings – I slightly preferred the robust punch of the 2014 Limited Edition Single Barrel over the lighter, perfectly balanced, flavors of the champion.
Should the color really be this identical?
Scores on The Sipp’n Corn Scale
2014 LE Single Barrel: 4.5+
2013 LE Small Batch: 4.5+
2013 LE Single Barrel: 4.0
2014 LE Small Batch: 3.5
Liquor Barn’s Private Barrel OESF: 3.5
The Sipp’n Corn Scale:
1 – Wouldn’t even accept a free drink of it.
2 – Would gladly drink it if someone else was buying.
3 – Glad to include this in my bar.
4 – Excellent bourbon. Worth the price and I’m sure to always have it in my bar.
5 – Wow. I’ll search high and low to get another bottle of this.