ORIGIN: LAWRENCEBURG, KY
Cinderella of Bourbon
Four Roses Bourbon hasn’t had an easy life; its history is murky, no one really knows where its name comes from, and at one point it was owned by a company that didn’t want it to succeed.
Before we go down that rocky road, let’s point out that today the distillery is owned by the Japanese brewing giant, Kirin. And they’ve done a fantastic job of setting the distillery and its brands up for long term success by investing in infrastructure and giving the talented team in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky the autonomy they need to consistently make great whiskey.
One unsubstantiated version of the brand’s history is that it was founded in 1888 by one Rufus Mathewson Rose, a distiller from Atlanta who named the whiskey for the four Roses — himself, his brother, and their two sons. Sounds plausible because Rufus owned the R.M. Rose Distillery, but it was in Atlanta and the company history doesn’t make any mention of the Four Roses brand. For the record, neither Rufus nor R.M. Rose Distillery is mentioned anywhere on Four Roses’ company approved history.
Four Roses states that in 1884 Paul Jones, Jr. moved his grocery business from Atlanta to Louisville. Apparently, the only thing we know for certain is that Four Roses was started by a gentleman from Atlanta. Nothing to see here, move along. Four years after the move, in 1888, Jones established the Four Roses trademark. The purported story of how he came up with the Four Roses name stems from a proposal that Jones made to a Southern belle upon falling hard for her beauty. It is said that after receiving Jones’ proposal, she replied that if her answer were “yes,” she would wear a corsage full of roses on her gown to the upcoming ball. She arrived at the ball wearing a corsage of four roses on her beautiful gown. The Four Roses website states, “He later named his bourbon ‘Four Roses’ as a symbol of his devout passion for the lovely belle.” It’s a wonderful tale, but rumors of an old bottle with a label explaining a different origin story have made their way around the message boards. I’ve never seen it. The rumor is that the label tells the story of the Rose family’s four daughters. Whatever the case, the spirit that bears the name on the bottle is exquisite and in a sense the lore surrounding the name adds a bit of mystery to the brand.
But what is by far the strangest part of this brand’s history is how poorly it was handled by the defunct Seagram Company. Seagram acquired Four Roses in 1943; at the time Four Roses was the best-selling Kentucky straight bourbon in the country. Inexplicably, Seagram launched a cheaper blended whiskey under the Four Roses brand in 1945. The product, obviously trading on the success of Four Roses Bourbon, sold well but the resilient bourbon was still the best seller. Again, for reasons that I will never understand, Seagram leadership decided to pull Four Roses Bourbon from the U.S. market and sold only the blended whiskey with a packaging that was almost identical to the bourbon, only the word “bourbon” was missing. Eventually savvy consumers caught on and sales of the Four Roses blended whiskey dropped. Fortunately, while Four Roses Bourbon could not be purchased in the United States, it was still alive and thriving in European and Asian markets. So when Kirin purchased the company in 2001, they moved swiftly to re-introduce Four Roses Bourbon into U.S. markets.
This single-barrel expression is a beautifully balanced whiskey with a complex nose of pear, maple syrup, vanilla, and spice. If you’re struggling to pick up notes on the nose, try nosing the whiskey at different angles and depths in a Glencairn glass or similarly shaped tasting glass. On the palate it is full-bodied and smooth with an explosion of cherries, wood, and apple pie with a long, luxurious finish.
Cigar Pairing: Davidoff Nicaragua
I went though several iterations to find the best partner for this complex spirit but the search was over when I arrived Davidoff Nicaragua. Both the Bourbon and the cigar are powerful enough to go toe to toe yet subtle and delicate enough to bring out the beauty in each.