Thursday, December 8, 2011

Q&A #7 with Four Roses Master Distiller - Jim Rutledge

Q: With all the attention the ultra aged Bourbons are getting (15 to 20 yrs old) It stands out that Four Roses does not offer an "older" age stated bourbon. I would have guessed that the lighter char on the barrel, and the lower proof in the barrel, would be great conditions to produce a great "aged" bourbon. Why is it you don't have one? Any plans to release one?

JR: I know older Bourbons have gathered more interest in recent years, yet I am not a fan of older Bourbons as a general rule, but I have seen some nice ones. As a norm, Bourbon peaks in performance between 5 to 8 years age, but there are exceptions. Most of the flavor and color during maturation are developed during the first year in a barrel, but continues at a far slower rate up to the time the natural sugars present in the white oak have dissapated. Then the Bourbon begins to take on too much woody characters and harshness.

I've had debates over the years with our marketing people who tell me we NEED an Older Bourbon with an age claim on the label. My response is always - "not as long as I'm around." The reason is we never know when the sugars will be depleted and once that happens we need to use the barrel within about 6 months. IF we must wait on "Birthdays" of barrels to attain say a specified age we could have a few barrels that have "gone south" in quality which would destroy the target flavor profile. And, if we can't be assured we're doing our best to fill bottles with only great Bourbon it's just not worth it to me. However, I also know (as mentioned) that there are some really good older Bourbons and that's what we use for our Limited Edition renderings.

I talked about our LE series previously and there were questions regarding our 2008 and 2009 Mariage offerings. I liked 2008 better than I did 2009, but in lab analyses I preferred the 2009. When I tasted the finished product I Knew something was not right. We were to use ~9.3% of a 19 year old OESK in the recipe. (We also used a 12 YO OESK at a far higher percentage.) When the barrels were dumped the 19 YO barrels were dumped first, but the average proof gallon yield was greater than anticipated and we ended up with about 20% of the 19 YO in the Mariage. 9.3% of the 19 YO complemented the flavor profile, but at the higher percentage the end product was a bit too woody (with a touch of harshness) BECAUSE of the Older Bourbon. Some people told me that was the best LE we've ever bottled, but in asking questions everyone that told me that were also Scotch drinkers and the `09 Mariage had less sweetness.... But, I'm an old-timer and a traditionalist and prefer the targted sweetness of Bourbon.

It is correct in saying that most of our better aged Bourbons are found in the bottom two tiers of our 6 tier high single story warehouses, but there are exceptions even here. I've seen some really good older Bourbon in which the barrels were aged in the top tiers. I don't "think" that would happen too often in a multi-story warehouse - from the 2nd floor up.

The vast majority of our barrels are heavy (4) char, but we use ~15% medium (3) char. We fill our barrels with 120 proof distillate. We've run experiments at 105, 110, 115 and 125 proof. We continue to run experiments, but I have been amazed that in blind taste tests the 120 proof filled barrels (with a little more age) has faired as well as the lower proofs. The taste tests were so close it was not worth changing our entry strength - even if we have to age the barrels 6 mos. to a year longer at 120 proof. Plus, at a lower proof the age in the bottle could be lowered and as discussed earlier the perception is that more age is a good thing. Lowering the age of Bourbon for bottling might be an economic plus on the production end of business but totally offset in the market. (I'm just talking out-loud and theorizing as I go along.)

Our single story warehouses benefit us via conformance to standard flavor profiles and consistency and could be beneficial IF we had an older Bourbon (including an age claim) on the market.

I think most Bourbons on the market (> 15 years age) are limited editions -even if it is not stated on the labels. That's all we will ever have LE older Bourbons - at least until the time I retire. I hope someday we can have a really old LE Bourbon, but in all honesty it's doubtful.

Question #8 

1 comment:

  1. This series of Q and A was fantastic Greg. Many thanks for taking the time for these posts. Some really good information nuggets in here.