Building the “World’s Best” Bourbon

Learn more about the art and alchemy of blending an award-winning bourbon with Four Roses’ Master Distiller Brent Elliott

In February, judges at the World Whiskies Awards selected Four Roses 130th Anniversary 2018 Limited Edition Small Batch as this year’s World’s Best Bourbon. It’s an admirable distinction in a market brimming with world-class examples. Even more so considering that, from the late ’50s until the early 2000s, Four Roses—founded in 1888 and once America’s top-selling bourbon—was only available stateside as a bottom-shelf brand made from a little bit of whiskey mixed with neutral grain spirit (essentially, vodka).

Four Roses’ return to prominence began when Jim Rutledge became master distiller in 1995, and especially when Kirin Brewing acquired the brand in 2002 and reinstated it as a straight bourbon whiskey. Historically Four Roses combines ten distinct bourbon recipes—each made using one of two grain bills and one of five yeast strains—to create consistency in its core product. Under Rutledge, and now in the hands of current master distiller Brent Elliott, cherry-picked barrels of select recipes and vintages are also combined to create one-of-a-kind releases like the 130th anniversary edition.

Four Roses introduced its first limited-edition small batch bourbon in 2008, and comes out with a new one each fall. These special releases have developed a cult following and are highly sought after—even without the “World’s Best” appellation. Bourbon fans know what many more are discovering: Four Roses is among the best at mingling separate strands to create a singular small-batch bourbon.

In April, the distillery introduced Small Batch Select, its first new year-round product in more than a decade. It was created using the same blending process as the 130th and prior editions, just using younger stocks (Small Batch Select, bottled at 104 proof, brings together select barrels of six of the ten recipes, each aged 6 to 7 years) and produced in greater quantities.

For special offerings, Four Roses details exactly which recipes are included on the bottles’ labels. Understanding the four-letter designations, however, requires some decoding.

The first letter, O, signifies that the bourbon was produced at Four Roses’ distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky (the “O” comes from Old Prentice, the former name of the site). The second letter indicates one of two grain bills—E for 75 percent corn or B for one made with a higher percentage of rye. The third letter, S, signifies that it’s a straight bourbon whiskey aged for at least two years. And the last letter indicates one of the five yeast strains; V (light fruitiness), K (light spice), O (rich fruitiness), Q (floral), or F (minty).

The alchemy comes in deciding which barrels to bring together and in what proportions. Distillers taste each new batch as it comes off of the still, and again after a year in barrels. “When we find batches that are aging really well, we’ll set aside some number of those barrels and sit on them, hoping that they’ll develop some nice characteristics,” Elliott says.

When it’s time to create a new blend, Elliott first spends several weeks evaluating samples before narrowing it down to the dozen or so barrels he wants to work with. “The temptation is to start throwing things together, but the most important thing I’ve learned is to take my time on the front end,” Elliott says. “Most years it’s finding the right base—nothing too flashy or oaky, but that’s very mellow and smooth on the palate. Something we can build on.”

For the award-winning 130th anniversary blend, Elliott selected older stocks made with the F and V yeast strains, which “combine to make something different from the sum of its parts,” he says. “It’s like a fruit that hasn’t been invented yet—like a minty, grapey, raspberry, apricot.” He also included a spicy, oaky, older bourbon for contrast. The final blend—test batch No. 23—includes a 10-year-old bourbon made from the OBSV recipe, a 13-year-old OBSF, 14-year-old OESV, and 16-year-old OESK. “By mingling these different flavor profiles, I think we achieved a wonderfully balanced, complex, and unique bourbon,” Elliott says.

With hundreds of ear-marked barrels aging in Four Roses’ warehouses like so many tools in a master craftsman’s workshop, you can bet bourbon fans are eager to taste what Elliott and company put together next.