My go-to beverage of choice has certainly changed through the years as my tastes and net worth have improved. High school's Fighting Cock* and Cokes have been replaced by snifters of oaky golden scotches and bourbons. Last summer as I sat in the den of the condo we were renting during a home renovation and watched the walls of boredom close in on me, I finally weaned myself off sweet mixers and learned the value of a just a few cubes of ice and a splash of water as the only ingredients to add to my bourbon.
As the liquors became more expensive, I learned to savor them and enjoy one or two drinks instead of multiple Cuba Libres. At that point, I began to taste my way through the Kentucky Bourbon Trail from the comfort of my own couch. After lots of enjoyable research, I finally came to the conclusion that my favorite bourbon for the money is Four Roses Small Batch. Not too hot at 90 proof, Four Roses Small Batch starts out strong at first taste and mellows to a lovely soft smoothness as the ice melts and the water opens it up. At a retail price of around $29.99 for a fifth, Small Batch is not cheap; but I think it's a great value for my spirit dollar.
So imagine my excitement when I heard that "Mr. Four Roses" himself was coming to town. Jim Rutledge has been the master distiller at Four Roses since 1995 and is a 44-year veteran in the distillery business.
Unfortunately, I didn't have hours to spend with him as his Nashville schedule was jam-packed, but he did set aside some time to share his philosophy of distilling and flavor creation with me as I sat rapt. Well, maybe my attention did wander for a second or two when he opened that box containing samples of every different grain recipe and yeast combination currently in use at Four Roses. But after racking my brain for a distraction that would allow me to spirit away those precious spirits, I came up with nothing and returned to being a good little kōhai listening to my senpai. But don't think I didn't consider the old "fake seizure in the aisle" trick.
The two different mashbills and five distinct yeast profiles allow Rutledge to create many flavor formulas. It's difficult enough to maintain a consistent product year to year without introducing that many variables, but Rutledge believes that rather than trying to chase the same flavor every year, it's better to aim for quality as the common element to every batch and let the nuances sort themselves out. To demonstrate the success of this strategy, it's fairly well known around the bourbon world that Four Roses actually makes the base spirit that ends up in the barrels of several other Kentucky distributors. Rutledge was too much of a gentleman to brew and tell, but if you watched the receiving dock at Bulleit, you might just see a familiar truck pull up every now and then.
Jim was in town specifically to promote a special lot of his Single Barrel Bourbon that had been produced just for two Nashville liquor stores, J Barleycorn and Grand Cru. Both stores split the production from one specific barrel that they tasted and selected at the distillery. Made with a higher percentage of rye and a light, fruity yeast, the Single Barrel has a spicy nose, a delicate mouth feel and a long, smooth finish. Unlike Tennessee whiskeys that are charcoal filtered, Four Roses is almost unfiltered. After just a quick run through a sieve to remove particulates, the dominant flavors of the mellow oak and caramel are allowed to sing out.
The individual bottles have the liquor stores' logos on the label, and Rutledge personally autographed some of the inventory. You'd better believe I bought a couple of those for myself, but there's no way I'm not cracking the seal on them. I told Jim that at least I'd refill them and use them like decanters. He then told me that if I filled them with anything else other than Four Roses, the glass would immediately melt.
For certain, this little kōhai believes it would happen.
*Hey, don't be hating on the Kickin' Chicken!