This past April, Zach and I visited Brent Elliott, master distiller of Four Roses. I asked Brent about the Small Batch Limited Edition (SBLE) and the process of making the limited release whiskeys. It was incredibly eye opening. The Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition is my perennial favorite limited release bourbon and I’ve always wondered how exactly Brent makes it.
I had a lot of questions for him. How do you sift through so many barrels of aging whiskey? How do you know when it is ready? Where do you even begin? The following is a synopsis of the process itself along with some insights into what they were trying to accomplish with previous releases and what they have in store for us this year.
Setting Aside the Good Stuff
To understand how Brent’s team selects the right barrels of whiskey for SBLE, it is important to grasp how Four Roses lays down whiskey on a day-to-day basis.
Four Roses has a high-rye mashbill and a medium-rye mashbill (35% rye and 20% rye, respectively) and five different yeast strains (V, K, O, Q & F) that combined allow for 10 distinct recipes, all made at the same distillery. Four Roses rotates which recipe they are producing and barreling every day, laying the whiskey down in batches. They put the barrels of each batch in the same location within the warehouse. While no two barrels of bourbon are the same, Four Roses controls for the recipe, the distillation run and location of the batch within the warehouse, allowing the barrels in each batch to have consistent, distinct qualities.
As the quality control team samples the whiskey over the years, they mark superb batches to be reserved for SBLE. It is a brilliant way of sorting and managing thousands and thousands of barrels. Really, the process of making SBLE starts years before they begin working on the concept or the blend itself.
Where to Begin
On a conceptual level, Brent and his team look to innovate and divert from previous expressions while retaining the signature mellow, balanced and rich aspects of Four Roses bourbon. The 125th Anniversary Edition, released in 2013, was the exception to the rule. Brent explained, “We generally try to do something different every year, but in 2012, it was so well-received, we decided to make 2013 similar to 2012 because people were bummed they didn’t get it. So we used some of the same batch. We were looking for the rich and spicy V and K yeast flavors, really looking for balance, elegance and no dominant characteristics.”
Not only did Four Roses create a similar blend, they also nearly tripled the production from 2012 to 2013, increasing from a 4,200-bottle release to a 12,000-bottle release. They’ve since stayed around that production level.
Finding the Right Batches
In a given year, 20 to 25 different batches of barrels are ready to be blended into SBLE. The quality control team pulls samples from each batch, and Brent and his team select 6 to 10 of the ripest batches from which to work. Brent spends several weeks getting intimately familiar with each selected batch before picking the batch or pair of batches that will act as the foundational piece of the blend.
Picking a Direction
Once Brent finds a superb batch, he considers how he can fill in the blend around the foundational piece. This is the most impressive aspect of the entire process. This part of the process reveals and takes advantage of the master distiller’s experience and ability. It requires the highest level of creativity, intuition and familiarity with the whiskeys and how blending different recipes will manifest certain flavor combinations. It is like watching a composer create and orchestrate a symphony. He must understand how all the different pieces fit together around a common theme in order to produce a masterpiece.
Brent usually has four or five different directions he can take the whiskey, so he and his team experiment and make initial test blends in search of the right path. For example, Brent explained that in the 2016 release, “We found a great OESO and a great OBSV and both had such nice fruit. It was really something we had never tried before. We pretty much never had any success with V and O character, never done it at all. I knew it would be one where everyone would like it but it was a little more polarizing. I felt like anyone who liked the strong fruit flavor was going to absolutely love it.”
Iteration after Iteration
Once Brent and his team pick a direction, it becomes a process of refinement and iteration. They must get the right combination and ratio of barrels from each recipe. This process varies greatly from year to year. The 2015 only required 15 test blends. Brent told me, “It was one of those great moments where it just spoke to us.” Conversely, the 2014 was not nearly as cooperative. They cycled through roughly 80 test blends before settling on a final product, almost missing their deadline.
Four Roses will release two special editions this year. While the regular 2017 release will not be a huge deviation from previous releases, the Al Young 50th Anniversary Edition (which should come out this month) went in a whole new direction. Brent told me, “Al was adamant to go out on a limb and try something different. He wanted to use some older barrels. We found some barrels from 1994 that are very good. We tried throwing in some of those and some F’s. Some F’s get to 13 years and get raspberry and aged fruit. This one has some real unique, nuanced aged-fruit character. I couldn’t be happier with it.”
The most intriguing aspect has to be the amalgamation of the creative and intuitive components of the process with the scientific, almost regimental, components. Brent explained how he has learned over the years to trust the process in order to allow himself to be creative with the whiskeys at hand. It illustrates that whiskey making is just as much a scientific process as it is an elusive art form. It makes tasting the SBLE all the more exciting. I cannot wait for this year’s releases.