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A Four Roses Head-to-Head-to-Head Tasting: Small Batch, Mariage Collection 2009 & Limited Edition Small Batch 2012

Posted on by Eric Burke

So I was reading my Google Reader subscriptions yesterday when I ran across a fairly alarming blog post on David Driscoll's K&L Spirits Blog. It seems that the Award-Winning Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2012 Release has been reported to be oxidizing quicker than expected. (And what that means kids is this: drink your whiskey. Having it sit open on the shelf too long doesn't necessarily prolong enjoyment. Sometimes it actually lessens it.)

Well, after reading that post, I sent my wife an email. "Honey," I said "we need to take a sip of that there whiskey tonight and see what's what." 

hmm...it seems that in my memories, I talk an old prospector...

She had an even better idea. She said that after we tasted a little bit of it, if it was still ok, maybe we should sit down and do that second head-to-head-to-head tasting that we were thinking of doing. I married a smart woman. The plan had been to compare our 2009 Mariage with the 2012 Limited Edition Small Batch. But as I was setting up the two glasses, I drew a third circle on the papers and poured the regular Small Batch as well. My thought was: this is the baseline standard. A control in the experiment as it were. Plus it's my favorite every day whiskey and I don't pass up a chance to have some.

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All three whiskies poured and awaiting tasting

The set up was the same as before. It was a double blind tasting which means that I poured them into glasses on a sheet of paper labeled A, B and C and then I left the room. My wife then came into the room and moved each glass onto the numbered sheet that you see above. This way I knew which bourbon was which letter and she knew which letter was which number, but neither of us knew which bourbon corresponded to which number. Fairly simple way of removing label bias.

So what were the results? Did I find that all the releases were over rated and I loved the regular release Small Batch the best after all? First: all bourbons were tasted neat. After we had our initial notes, my wife added a tiny bit of water to her glasses. Also, all of these bourbon have been open for a while. The LESB was opened in September. I didn't notice much oxidation, if any, but it was still 2/3 full. The Mariage was opened at the end of July at the celebration of a very big milestone. Same thing here. Stayed relatively full and I didn't notice much difference. The regular release Small Batch was a gift from my daughter's boyfriend at Christmas and helped me through that.

Bourbon 1:

Nose: Initially all I get is vanilla extract. But I take my time with it, figuring that it probably had a little something more to give. After a while I get an unidentified fruity odor. To me this always smells like JuicyFruit gum (my favorite gum when I was a child: five sticks, just a quarter). I get that a lot with Four Roses, so finding it here wasn't a giant surprise. With a little water it seemed to transform into an almost earthy honey smell. Reminded me of the buckwheat honey I had for a while.

Mouth: This dries the mouth, but doesn't burn. Strange. Big caramel. It has a sweet, floral taste, but not delicate. If I didn't know better, I'd think Four Roses had swapped a straight rye whiskey with a high percentage corn into my glass.

Finish: Almost no burn here. Finish brings that JuicyFruit flavor back again

Overall: Wow. This might very well be the best Four Roses, I've ever had. My wife normally puts a small piece of ice in every bourbon. She asked me to remind her that this one she wants neat from now on.  

Bourbon 2:

Nose: I'll admit, I was confused by this one. So confused that I went out to the spice cupboard and started smelling things to see what it was that it reminded me of. I settled on a mix of allspice and oregano with a little molasses thrown in. After a little water it get's mintier. (And after I move back up the line from three before tasting: wow! Big hit of alcohol. Guessing this is one of the higher proof releases).

Mouth: My first thought: "ooh, that's a Four Roses..." and I just closed my eyes and enjoyed that first sip. After I opened them again and took another sip, I got spice, and some of that JuicyFruit flavor. Sweet. Spicy. Fruity. Yum.

Finish: Short burn on this one. Sweet and spicy fading into a sharpness. It leaves a tingle on the tongue for a little while. My wife: "the finish makes me want more"

Overall: This one was confusing. It was very rich and full flavored, but I had a hard time picking out what those flavors were beyond their basic "Four-Roses-ness" Once my wife added a little ice, to replicate how she would normally drink a bourbon, this was her favorite of the three.

Bourbon 3:

Nose: After the other two, this is like a sweet floral perfume. It's very delicate. After a little water, not much different.

Mouth: This has a surprising sharpness along the sides of the tongue. More alcohol flavor than I expected. But after revisiting it a little later. It's much more sweet.

Finish: Short burn with a lingering sweetness.

Overall: While this was our least favorite of the three, it is still a very good bourbon. I could drink the heck out of this one at a bar with friends, watching tv or with a good book. It's a great everyday bourbon.

So which was which? Well, the rankings my wife gave them were as follows. Neat: 1, 2, 3. With a tiny piece of ice: 2, 1, 3. I'd rank them similarly even though I only had mine neat. It's a toss up between 1 and 2 for me. Both amazing, but different enough that I'd stand there for a moment trying to decide and then choose one at random. Number three was good, but not great. So that said, it isn't too surprising that Bourbon 3 was the regular release Small Batch. Number 1 is the 2012 Limited Edition Small Batch and Bourbon 2 is the Mariage Collection 2009 Release.

2012 LE SB

2012 LE SB

2009 Mariage

2009 Mariage

Small Batch

Small Batch

Last time I did this, I told you "If I could only buy one going forward..." Well, it seems that is probably going to be the case in this instance. I had a hard time picking up a second bottle of the 2012. It is in the bunker. I'm working my way through my second (and last) bottle of 2009. It looks like I'll be out of luck regarding that one too. But that's ok. There will be more wonderful bourbons to taste and I've had the good fortune to pick up two of each of the rare ones. That said, if I had the opportunity to buy the last bottle of any of these and could only pick one. It would be hard. My 15th Wedding Anniversary was celebrated at the 2012 LESB Release Party. The 2009 bottle was cracked open to celebrate my wife showing no further evidence of cancer after her chemo. Both have a bit of nostalgia there. But ultimately, and after a lot of soul searching, I'd choose the 2012. I stand by my initial reaction that it might be the best Four Roses I've ever had.

This might have been the most fun I've had at a tasting with just my wife. We knew going in that we were going to really like all of these. If asked independently we'd both say that Four Roses is our favorite bourbon producer and we knew that for us, the bar started at Very Good before we sat down to analyze them. Then it just became a matter of analyzing and exploring. It was a lot of fun.