One of the great pleasures of writing about Scotch all the time is that it gives you a good basis by which to “compare” other spirits. Recently, I had the opportunity to sample a few different expressions from Four Roses Bourbon. Bourbon is a type of American whiskey made in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Bourbon, like Scotch, is a distilled spirit that is aged in barrels but the primary component is corn (Scotch whisky relies on barley malt, rather than corn). Like Scotch, there are a series of rules that are required of spirits carrying the bourbon name. For example, the grain malt has to be at least 51% corn and must be bottled at 80 proof or higher. One big difference between scotch and bourbon, besides the malt used, is that bourbon is aged in new, charred oak barrels and is usually aged briefly (two years minimum and usually less than four years).
The end result is a spirit that has a different character than scotch. It’s a lot like what you’d expect out of a precocious United States versus an Old World Scotland. As you’d expect from a spirit aged longer, 12 year scotches are typically smoother than bourbons aged less than four years. Bourbons typically have less of the oak components you associate with red wines and scotch. They do, however, have their own delightful characteristics that add to the character of the spirit and makes it suitable for many occasions.
Four Roses has a variety of expressions but the three I tried were the Single Barrel, Small Batch, and Yellow. I tried each neat, no ice or water.
Single Barrel – 100 Proof
Their notes: “A premium Single Barrel Bourbon with a taste you’ll want to savor again and again. Complex, full bodied and surprisingly smooth with a delicate long finish that’s unbelievably mellow. Contains hints of ripe plum and cherry tastes with fruity, spicy aromas including maple syrup and cocoa. Drink straight up or on the rocks. 100 proof.”
The nose was distinctly fruity in ways I’d never experienced (yet) with scotch. Whereas scotch has a lot of vanillas and orange notes, this bourbon’s cherry note was distinct as it shined above the mellower maple syrup flavor. It was spicy on the palate, reminiscent of a Glenlivet 12, and you could feel the heat of the 50% alcohol.
Small Batch – 90 Proof
Their notes: “Marrying, or mingling, multiple Bourbon flavors is an art in itself. Four original and limited Bourbons have been expertly selected by our Master Distiller at the peak of maturation to create a perfectly balanced small batch Bourbon that rewards you with a mellow symphony of rich, spicy flavors along with sweet, fruity aromas and hints of sweet oak and caramel. Finishes soft, smooth and pleasantly long. Best enjoyed straight up, on the rocks, or with a splash. 90 proof.”
When I sampled it I didn’t realize I was enjoying a blended bourbon but that made sense. It felt more well rounded than the Single Barrel with a strong oak component, which I was surprised detect after such a short stay in a barrel. Again it was fruity, like a scotch aged in port pipes, with enough complexity to make each sip a fun journey. It lacked the spiciness, or the heat, of the single barrel, which made for a more deep exploration.
Yellow – 80 Proof
Their notes: “A worldwide favorite, especially when creating mixed drinks with a sophisticated, contemporary flair. Hints of pear and apple compliment floral aromas and mix with a taste of honey and spice. Smooth and mellow with a unique, long and soft finish. 80 proof.”
I think the Yellow was my favorite of the bunch, it was smooth and had strong honey notes. I think the lower proof allowed the flavors to really shine and there wasn’t any spiciness on the nose or the palate. Fans of Islays will probably enjoy but not love this bourbon, since it is somewhat like listening to one section of an orchestra (rather than the whole thing), but they do it well and I definitely enjoyed it.
One of the great things about bourbons is that they’re relatively inexpensive. When you don’t have to store a scotch for 10+ years, you can sell more of it and thus at a more affordable price. The Single Barrel is the most expensive of the bunch and only around $40, the price of a 12 year single malt. The Small Batch can be had for $30 and the Yellow is the most inexpensive at $20.