Four Roses master distiller reveals the secrets of selecting the 130th Anniversary Small Batch

Four batches go into the Limited Edition Small Batch. | Photo by Sara Havens

Each fall, Four Roses releases a Limited Edition Small Batch to much fanfare among bourbon aficionados. This year, the Kentucky bourbon company is celebrating a milestone with the release, as it commemorates 130 years of enduring, surviving and succeeding as a bourbon mainstay.

The special small batch will hit shelves later this month — timed to also celebrate National Bourbon Heritage Month — for a suggested retail price of $140. If you’re lucky to find a bottle of the 108.3-proof bourbon, it’ll make a fine top-shelf addition to your collection.

Four Roses Master Distiller Brent Elliott and Senior Brand Ambassador Al Young hosted a small group of media Tuesday morning at the Lawrenceburg distillery to share some secrets behind selecting the 130th Anniversary Limited Edition Small Batch. And, of course, there were some samples to help us — ahem — truly understand the process.

The 130th Anniversary Limited Edition Small Batch will be released later this month. | Courtesy

Elliott says the process of selecting a limited edition small batch usually begins in November or December, and it’s “probably the most fun I have every year.”

Because of inventory constraints on older barrels, Four Roses has put a hold on its Limited Edition Single Barrel series but plans to continue releasing a special small batch each fall.

This one, says Elliott, came with some extra pressure.

“This year we’re doing the same thing, it’s the same concept, but it’s very special for us because we’re commemorating a milestone we’re all very proud of — 130 years is quite a long time to go through the ups and the downs, switching hands, switching locations, expansion, growth, leaving the U.S. market and returning,” he says.

While the first Four Roses Small Batch came out in 2006, the first limited release launched in 2008 as a nod to Four Roses fans to get a new way of experiencing the 10 recipes and two yeast strains that make the company and its bourbon so unique.

Elliott explains the Limited Edition Small Batch gives him a somewhat blank canvas to create a new expression, but the notes found in the bottle always fit within the perimeters of the Four Roses flavor profile.

Four batches of barrels went into this latest release, which translates to about 133 barrels. So just how limited is this limited edition? Elliott says there are about 13,140 bottles released in the United States, 3,000 in the European Union, and 300 in Japan.

Senior Brand Ambassador Al Young recounts the history of Four Roses. | Photo by Sara Havens

During our tasting session, we got to sample each of the four batches, which included a 14-year-old OESV, a 10-year-old OBSV, a 13-year-old OBSF and a 16-year-old OESK. Those letters represent the recipe of the bourbon, and Four Roses nerds will immediately be able to tell you the varying flavor notes of each one.

Elliott says he usually picks the base of the small batch first — the batch that’ll be the dominant one in the mix. In this case, that was the 14-year-old OESV, which displayed beautiful flavors of mellow caramel and smooth vanilla.

Master Distiller Brent Elliott walks us through the process. | Photo by Sara Havens

The 16-year-old batch was used the least, because it expressed extreme notes Elliott referred to as “antique oak.”

But in this mix, it worked. And that’s the thing with batching bourbons — sometimes you find two pristine barrels, you put them together and — ka-boom — it doesn’t taste so great. So you go back to square one and keep trying. (Sounds a little like dating, doesn’t it?)

Elliott and his team found this perfect match after 23 tries, which is pretty good.

“Sometimes we’ve gotten up to 70 or 80,” he admits.

Finally, after trying all four batches, we got to sample the final product, and it was indeed worth the wait.

A fruit-forward zest mingled well with the soft vanillas and caramels, and we even detected some bright apricot notes. The finish, while quite smooth, lasts longer than usual and expresses some hints of cinnamon and more fruit.

Expansion Update

The Spanish-style distillery was built in 1910. | Photo by Sara Havens

The Four Roses Distillery is on the tail end of the first phase of a $55 million expansion. They’re basically doubling the distillery, adding everything to scale so that the process remains balanced and unchanged.

But it’s been quite tricky, Elliott notes, because they’re attempting to do it within the four walls of the historic, 108-year-old distillery.

“If we’re going to mess with anything, unfortunately the only way we could do it was the most expensive and most difficult way,” he says.

After the first phase is over, there will be two stills, two doublers, six yeast tubs, two cookers and eventually 48 wood and stainless steel fermenters.

A new $8.5 million bottling facility also was recently completed at the company’s Cox’s Creek location, and there will be three more barrel-aging warehouses built on that site as well.