CocktailWonk Rating: 6/10 ($5)
Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Four Roses distillery. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.
Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, is a town with much to tell about whiskey redemption and renewal. Situated a thirty-minute drive west of Lexington, the town is bordered by the Kentucky and Salt Rivers, both supplying precious water to two iconic American bourbon brands. Wild Turkey went through a few decades where its namesake bourbon was associated with rough living lowlifes and considered bottom shelf. But that story pales compared to the rise, fall, and rebirth of Four Roses.
The Four Roses story dates back to the 1880s. The current distillery was built near the Salt River in 1910, incorporating Spanish architectural elements found nowhere else in Kentucky at the time. The company’s fortunes rose, and according to Wikipedia, it was the top selling brand of bourbon in the U.S. in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. In 1943, the Seagram Company bought the brand’s parent company, and that’s where its woes began. Seagram wanted to focus on blended whiskies and so split the brand’s expressions geographically – Asia and Europe got the top-quality Four Roses bourbon, while the U.S. market received cheaper, inferior blended whiskies using neutral grain spirits.
Those of you of a certain age may remember a time in the 1990s when Japan was on the rise, and many people in the U.S. feared that Japan would soon dominate or take over once great U.S. industries. While those fears turned out to be unfounded, generally speaking, we can thank the Japanese for purchasing the Four Roses brand and restoring it to a place of honor in the American Whiskey pantheon. In 2002, after a complicated set of transactions, Kirin Brewery emerged as the new owner of Four Roses. After cleansing American shelves of old, inferior Four Roses products, genuine Four Roses straight bourbon appeared on U.S. shelves in 2004. Since then, the distillery has produced a parade of special releases and won numerous tasting awards including Whisky Magazine’s “American Whisky Distiller of the Year” for four of the past five years.
As you drive up to the distillery, you notice two things: First, the aforementioned Spanish architecture, noted in nearly everything written about the distillery. It’s a nice change of pace from the rural Kentucky surroundings, but I was somewhat underwhelmed–growing up in California, I’ve seen a lot of Spanish-style buildings, and these were nice, but not awe-inspiring. Second, all the buildings are monotonically yellow. In the fog of a distillery march, these yellow buildings leave no doubt about where you are.
The tour begins with the dreaded distribution of headsets, and the typical accompanying tourist pandemonium. Everyone then watches a ten-minute movie explaining the basics of bourbon distillation and a few unique aspects of the Four Roses process. Having heard the basics of American bourbon for the sixth time in 48 hours, I fiddled with my phone during that part (and Mrs. Wonk may have taken a brief nap), but I snapped to attention when they got to the mash bill and yeast lettering system.
The gist of the story is that Four Roses distills with two different mash bills and five different yeast strains. Doing the math, there are ten different mash/yeast combinations. The mash bill is represented by the letters E or B and the yeast by the letters V, K, O, Q, and F. All ten distillates are used in creating the entry-level Yellow Label brand. Other expressions use a smaller set of the ten, and the single barrels contain only one, of course. For instance, I purchased a bottle of single barrel labeled OESQ: O means it was distilled in Lawrenceburg, E is the mash bill (75 percent corn, 20 percent rye, and 5 percent malted barley), S means it is “straight whiskey,” and Q is the yeast strain (“essences of floral aromas”). This detailed specification of how the bottle was made warms my wonky, bourbon-loving heart.
Leaving the visitor’s center, we learn that a Four Roses advertisement is in the background of the iconic Times Square VJ day photo of a sailor kissing a nurse. Of course there’s a blown up version of this picture and having looked closely for the first time, they’re right! Mind. Blown.
The short distance to the distillery building thankfully doesn’t include a bus ride. There’s a short stop at the outdoor station used for filling tanker trucks with new-make spirit for the 45 minute ride to Cox’s Creek, Kentucky. Unlike the other big Kentucky distilleries, Four Roses has a completely separate facility for bottling and aging, just down the road from the Jim Beam distillery. Bonus tip: Your $5 tour fee in one location gets you into the other, if you don’t mind crossing the state a bit. We unfortunately were short on time, so didn’t get to visit the Cox’s Creek location this trip. Next time for sure!
Out in front of the main distillation building, the tour pauses to take in the beautiful Spanish style fountain and barrel display while learning how the Spanish architecture came to be – long story short, back when it was built, the owner had fallen in love with Spanish architecture.
Four Roses distillery grain bins
Immediately inside the distillery building is the grain milling and mash cooking. Giant bins loom overhead, with a mash cooker high on a pedestal. After the guide provides the obligatory overview of mash bills and grain cooking, it’s then up a flight of stairs and across a catwalk to the fermentation room.
A giant mural of the Four Roses logo adorns the far wall. Dozens of wooden fermentation vats hold mash that bubbles happily away, turning all that corn, rye, and barley into distiller’s beer. Compared to some of larger distilleries like Buffalo Trace, the vats here are relatively small – sixteen thousand gallons, rather than ninety thousand. In addition to wandering from tank to tank, you can also climb a set of stairs to a small deck, letting you take in the whole room at once – a treat you don’t get on other distillery tours.
Exiting the fermentation room, it’s a short catwalk to the stills. I was somewhat disappointed that we couldn’t get up close and personal with the Vendome column still, instead peering at it from thirty feet way. A small bit of consolation can be taken from the beautiful, copper onion-domed doubler, which anybody could reach out and touch – not advised though. It gets quite hot! If you’re not familiar with a doubler, it’s essentially a second distillation pass that removes additional impurities.
There’s also a section of a column still with the side cut away, letting you see the bubble caps within, something near and dear to still wonks like me.
The tour ends just where you’d expect, in the tasting room adjacent to the gift shop. The two tasting stations are decorated to look like a country kitchen, albeit one where every cabinet brims with bourbon. A nice bonus is getting to keep your tasting glass, a serviceable old fashioned glass with the four roses logo embossed on the bottom.
Overall, the Four Roses tour is enjoyable. The grounds and surrounding countryside are certainly pretty, and you see several of the typical bourbon distillery highlights. However, it was the least comprehensive of the dozen-plus distilleries we’ve visited in Kentucky and Tennessee. (I’m leaving Heaven Hill out of the equation. It’s a very different beast.) And of course, the overall experience should encompass much more if you find the time to visit both the Lawrenceburg and Cox’s Creek locations.
In addition to the usual logo-ware, the gift shop offers readily available expressions (Yellow Label and Small Batch) but only two of the single barrel expressions. If you’re a bourbon hound, definitely seek it out. But if you only have time for one distillery while near Lexington, a trip to Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, or Woodford Reserve may be a better choice.