Once a year, Four Roses releases its Small Batch Limited Edition (SmBLE) bourbon, a unique blend orchestrated by Master Distiller Brent Elliott. You won’t see a bottle sitting on a shelf unless the store is asking over $400 for it, and even then you might not see one. The reason is simple: These are consistently among the strongest whiskey releases of the year.
Among the many reasons Four Roses is special (aside from the people, which is #1), is their ten different bourbon recipes. These ten recipes are identified by four-letter codes, which bourbon geeks toss around, but they aren’t very difficult to understand. The first letter is always ‘O’ (indicating it is the Four Roses Distillery) and the third letter is always ‘S’ (indicating it is straight bourbon). Therefore, all you need to focus on are the second and fourth letters.
The second of the four letters is either ‘E’ or ‘B’, and that is because there are two mashbills (or recipes): A high rye (75% corn, 20% rye and 5% malted barley) and a higher rye (65% corn, 35% rye and 5% malted barley). The high rye is the ‘E’ recipe and the higher rye is the ‘B’ recipe. The fourth letter indicates one of the five yeast strains:
V – Delicate Fruit
K – Slight Spice
O – Rich Fruit
Q – Floral Essence
F – Herbal Notes
Four Roses has a helpful diagram on its website.
Five yeast strains and two recipes combine for a potential of ten different recipes to choose from. Add the powerful variables of barrel composition, warehouse location and aging time and you start to understand why selecting private barrels at Four Roses has become one of the most exciting activities in all of bourbon. It is also why we cannot wait for Brent to hunt through all those barrels and create something masterful. Just like last year, the blend is all V’s and K’s, with one key difference. Last year, there were barrels of 15 and 11 year OESV, 15 year OESK and 21 year OBSV. For 2020, barrels of 12 year OBSV and 15 year OESV meet barrels of 16 year OESK and – are you ready for this? – 19 year OBSK! It’s fun to form opinions about the recipes included, but without knowing just how much of each is included and what those barrels actually tasted like, it’s all speculation. What matters as always is what is in the bottle.
The standards at Four Roses have been elevated to such a ridiculous degree that even a strong SmBLE release can almost feel disappointing by comparison, despite being objectively as good or better than most of what is released by other distilleries. When a release hits all the right notes for one palate, it is very difficult for the next release to achieve the same result, particularly when the goal is to keep evolving and innovating. This may also explain the curious effect of odd-numbered years being significantly more enjoyable for me than even-numbered years. For example, 2015 and 2019 are among my favorites, with 2017 not far behind. So coming off the outstanding 2019 release, considered by many to be Brent’s finest yet, if the trend holds for me, this is going to be a disappointment.
So is the 2020 SmBLE release as good as the 2019?
No, it’s not.
Whiskey: 2020 Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition
Distillery: Four Roses (Lawrenceburg, KY)
Age: 12 years old (including bourbon as old as 19 years)
There will be just over 14,000 bottles available in the U.S., and my guess based on previous years is about 3,000 bottles going to the U.K. Retail will be $150, but only if you’re one of the store’s favorite customers. Otherwise, expect to pay 2-3x that.
My Tasting Notes:
Nose: Rye Spice | Oak | Vanilla | Cherry | Apple
Palate: Chewy | Oak | Spice | Cherry
Finish: Fruit comes late and is washed away in a pleasant warming wave
There are two words in all-caps on my notepad, and they are ‘BALANCE’ and ‘CHEWY’. There is no blast of alcohol on the nose, and the more it sits in the glass, the more you appreciate it. It becomes even more balanced and complex over time. The mouthfeel is incredible. The finish is not overpowering, nor is it underwhelming. Water is not necessary and does not add anything to the experience for me.
Anticipating the obvious question many are asking (“How does it compare to the 2019?), I tasted the 2020 and 2019 side-by-side. I still love the 2019, but the differences are immediately apparent. The 2019 has more fruit and more of a pear flavor upfront. The 2020 is drier and spicier, delicately rounded out by bolder fruits like apple and cherry. This would seem to make perfect sense since the 2019 appears to have had more fruity ‘V’ barrels and the 2020 appears to have more spicy ‘K’ barrels. Sadly, I wasn’t in the room blending them. The other difference is in the mouthfeel, where the 2020 is just so damn chewy it’s almost unfair. The finish may not numb your insides, but the flavor is still dancing around in my mouth as I type this!
The 2020 SmBLE is not a major departure from the outstanding 2019 release, but it is most definitely not the same. It is bolder, thicker and expertly balanced, at least according to my palate. It is the most recent confirmation that Brent Elliott knows he has it dialed in over there. Whether it is the quality of their private barrel program or limited releases like this one, everything seems to be coming up roses.
My score: 4.5 / 5
5 – Among the best I’ve had in this category
4 – So good one bottle isn’t going to cut it
3 – Good, something I will share and enjoy
2 – Disappointing, only hope is a mixer
1 – Drain pour, wouldn’t risk my reputation pouring this for anyone
*Four Roses provided me with this outstanding sample tasting package.
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