Thursday, February 6, 2014

Dusty Thursday: Four Roses - The Bad Old Days

Given the love heaped on Four Roses these days, it's easy to forget that it's only been a big name in quality bourbon for about a decade, at least in the U.S.  Prior to 2002, it was owned by the now defunct Seagram's Company.  It had been popular in the post-prohibition years, but around the 1960s, Seagram's decided that it would concentrate on the export market.  The only thing Four Roses made for the US was crappy blends.  All of that changed in 2002, when Kirin, the Japanese beer company, purchased the distillery and let the roses bloom.

Today, I'm going back to the bad old days and tasting a circa 1978 Four Roses Light Whiskey.  Light whiskey is a whiskey distilled to more than 160 proof, a higher distillation proof than is permitted for most American whiskey, such as bourbon or rye, for which 160 proof is the maximum.  Light whiskey can only be stored in used or new uncharred oak.  This is a blended light whiskey, which means it is mixed with straight whiskey, but the straight whiskey must be less than 20% of the total composition.  Light whiskey lies somewhere between bourbon and vodka on the spirits spectrum, though unlike regular "blended whiskey," it does not contain any neutral spirits (which are spirits that must be distilled at above 190 proof).

Four Roses Light Whiskey, A Blend, 43% abv

The nose has an ever so slight vanilla note.  The palate is...awful.  It tastes mostly of alcohol.  It's like a lightly sweetened vodka, with honey and maybe a touch of wood.  There is not much whiskey character at all.  This stuff really has no redeeming value.

Whenever you hear someone (like, say, me) mourning the old days when bourbon had a special taste that you can't find anymore and things were cheap and plentiful, remind them (or me) that not everything was better back then.  Exhibit A is Four Roses, a whiskey that went from terrible to amazing in a few short years.

Thanks to Matt P. for the picture and sample.


Josh Feldman said...

Amen. There has been crappy whiskey in abundance in every era.

Eric said...

If I recall Jim Rutledge is hunting down and destroying these bottles. Well, Four Roses pulled the bottles from store shelves once Kirin gave the okay. I see some people couldn't resist and held on to some bottles.

weller_tex said...

I understand from older relatives Four Roses back in the 50's was popular and quite good, though.

EllenJ said...

Unfortunately, both for you and for your point, you happened upon possibly the worst example you could have found of blended Four Roses. No way should it be (nor was it ever intended to be) compared to the likes of Four Roses straight bourbon, or any other straight whiskey. Seagrams offered it as a lower-price/quality alternative to Seagrams 7 Crown, or Philadelphia, or Kessler. Personally, I prefer Kessler, but then I prefer that to 7-Crown as well.

The REAL Four Roses Blended Whiskey was the most popular brown liquor in America and the only real threat to Seagrams' blended Scotch whiskies in the U.S. That began in the 1950s, and Four Roses straight bourbon whiskey ceased to be sold in the United States after that. What WAS sold was a blend of 60% GNS and a blend of straight whiskies, of which 20% was 4 years old, 12% 6 years old, and 8% was 8 years old. It was pretty d@mn good blended whiskey, and although SOME sources like to say "it was quickly replace by a cheaper blend", that formula actually hung around for nearly 30 years before they joined the rest of the blended whiskey industry and changed to 60% GNS and 40% NAS straight whiskey. You know, the stuff most straight whiskey is today.

Google has some funny quirks, and one of them is (or at least was several years ago) that my own website seemed to show up at the top of the list for people doing a search on "Four Roses". Also, in those more innocent and inexperienced times, many people seemed to feel that -- if a page turns up at the top of the list -- then it must be the homepage of the target. Thus, shortly after posting my article on Four Roses (the Lawrenceburg, Kentucky distillery of straight bourbon), I was swamped with email deriding me for having the nerve to remove their (or usually their father's or grandfather's) favorite whiskey from the market. I thought that amusing, but I also realized (and still do) that, for many Americans, Four Roses MEANS the inexpensive blended whiskey that once challenged (and bested) the likes of Cutty Sark, Vat 69, Teachers, Kessler, Windsor, Schenley, and so many others.

I know it's embarassing to the makers of the current Four Roses straight bourbon, and I certainly understand the difficulty facing Jim and Al at what was once called the Old Prentice distillery. I also know that the whiskey once known as Four Roses, neither the blended version nor the original straight bourbon version, was never of the quality being produced at that same distillery today. But the fact is that, had Rutledge been able to call his bourbon something like "Old Prentice Straight Bourbon Whiskey" in the United States instead of the brand name that Kirin was so successful at marketing in Asia, and then released a high-quality American blended whiskey as "Four Roses" he just might have gotten the best of both worlds, and Diageo (Seagrams 7 Crown) and Beam (uh, whoops, I mean Suntory) (Kessler) would have found themselves with a formidable competitor.

P.S. - I have an example of the same Four Roses Light that you tasted. Pooh-y!!!

JAZ said...

Loved your article but there are a few clarifications I'd like to add.

From the comment above: "I know it's embarrassing to the makers of the current Four Roses straight bourbon, and I certainly understand the difficulty facing Jim and Al at what was once called the Old Prentice distillery."

As someone that had to be forced to try the "new" Four Roses because of my not so fond memories of the past product, I was overwhelmed with the incredible taste. I then learned more about the history and witnessed the passion of both Jim and Al as well as the company culture that so passionately spreads the word. EMBARRASSING is far from describing Jim and Al's outlook. How about excited, gleeful, a joyous time to regain the brand back to it's glory. Rebirth… All words very far from embarrassing. Their passion and staying with the brand speaks volumes about who they are, but they are certainly not embarrassed.

As to your statement about difficult time facing them. Again once someone taste it, they are a fan for life. Not only that, but there is a huge part of the Bourbon drinking population that never experienced the old brand. Four Roses has become a formidable competitor in the United States as they always were overseas where they always shipped a similar product that we taste here today.

I sent a copy of your article to a friend in the liquor industry. You would consider him a key player from a family with a long history in the forefront of the industry. There are a few years difference in our ages. His statement speaks volumes: "I didn’t know that it was that bad.” He would be considered age wise as the key demographic that buys Bourbon today. So they do not have to battle for taste or market share there based on the brand sold in the United States that carried their name in the past.

Shedding some additional light on the article. The “Light” whiskey was an experiment by Seagram which didn’t last long and it was far worse than even the blended whiskey. A few other facts wrong – a blended whiskey must include 20% or Greater (not less) straight whiskeys. It can also include (like most Seagram blends) corn whiskey, barley whiskey, light whiskeys and most included GNS – grain neutral spirits (vodka.) You also inferred that the Four Roses Distillery made the bad stuff. All they ever made in Kentucky was straight Kentucky Bourbon….which was sold in the international markets since the 1950’s as a leading world class brand. Four Roses Kentucky never distilled the "rock gut" whiskey you referred to in the article. It was a Seagrams product with a Four Roses label. Fortunately Seagrams kept the Kentucky Distillery alive making the excellent top shelf product for export. As I understand it Seagrams thought (and it may had been true at the time) that American taste favored their blended whiskeys.

Other than that an enlightening article.

sku said...

Hey Jaz, thanks for your great comment. A few clarifications.

It seems like you are conflating some points I made in the blog and some made by EllenJ above in the comments. Your comments are most welcome, but I just wanted to be clear that some of the things you seem to be attributing to me were actually EllenJ's words.

While you are correct that a blended whiskey must contain at least 20% straight whiskey, a blended light whiskey is a different category and "is mixed with less than 20 percent of straight whiskey." 29 CFR 5.22 (a)(3).

Thanks again for your comments.

danz said...

I had some of the Four Roses Premium American Light Whiskey recently, with a different label and possibly earlier in the line's lifetime. It was quite bland, but it did not seem as awful as you describe. I would not seek it out again, though.

EllenJ's comment above says: "the whiskey once known as Four Roses, neither the blended version nor the original straight bourbon version, was never of the quality being produced at that same distillery today." I also recently had some late 1940s Four Roses Blend of Straight Whiskeys, which I thought was very good. Possibly the very top offerings from Four Roses today are better, but I think it compared favorably to today's regular small batch and single barrel offerings. Also, and it may be due to power of suggestion, it did seem to have a good amount of family resemblance to the modern offerings.

JAZ said...

I have been sharing this thread with Four Roses Master Distiller Jim Rutledge. He loves it. He sent me an email in regards to this thread that I thought was worth sharing with everyone. He senses this is a group that enjoys bourbon and whiskey and it's heritage. He's always excited to talk to enthusiast.

From Jim: "Some more facts – as I know and remember them. (Keep in mind I’m getting OLD.) Seagram came out with a 100% light whiskey blend in the early `80’s and it was bottled at the Dundalk, MD distillery “One” time only. (Dundalk was 1 of 2 Seagram distilleries in Baltimore.) The light whiskey came out under two names one of which was “Galaxy” – a blend of 100% light whiskeys. I’m not aware of a Seagram “light whiskey” that included any straight whiskeys. I honestly don’t know the definition of “light whiskey.” It wasn’t a distilled spirit worthy of much thought…. I just know Seagram’s venture into light whiskey lasted for only one bottling run. Light whiskeys are also distilled at 189 proof or less, but greater than 160 proof – EllenJ was correct. Light whiskeys are aged in used barrels for a minimum of 4 years. Barrels may not be dumped at less than 4 years age, while there are no minimum age requirements on Bourbon – other than the fact to be a straight Bourbon it must be aged in a new barrel for a minimum of 2 years. However, If a straight whiskey is aged less than 4 years and bottled, the age must be on the bottle label.

I better quit – I’m straining my old brain and memory!

Jim Rutledge

Master Distiller
Four Roses Distillery
1224 Bonds Mill Road
Lawrenceburg, KY 40342

sku said...

Thanks Jaz, so great to have comment from Jim Rutledge!

EllenJ said...

Well, first of all it's certainly an honor to be part of a conversation that includes Jim Rutledge.

If I left anyone with the impression that I feel Mssrs. Rutledge and Young approach the challenge of re-establishing the Four Roses brand identity as "embarassing", it's only because I misused the word, or at least allowed some to misinterpret my meaning. What I intended to convey is that the product most Americans knew as "Four Roses" before Kirin (actually even a couple years before that, as Jim had managed to convince even Seagrams to allow the real thing to be sold in Kentucky and Indiana) was an "embarrasment" to the name.

Also, I think I many have been unclear that (except as noted above) the whiskey produced at what was once the Old Prentice disillery was never what was called "Four Roses" in the United States, not even the straight bourbon sold in the '30s and '40s. That bourbon was from what the "Frankfort Distillery", which may or may not even have existed as a unique location. As far as I know, though, the Four Roses enjoyed by Europeans and Asians was always produced at Lawerenceburg. Jim or Al might be able to add to that, since I believe they were there even back then.