Within the Four Roses community, there has been this sort of apocryphal belief that any Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch that falls on an even-numbered year is inferior to the odd-numbered year versions. Do I personally believe that? Not really. But the more I think about it, the more there might be a little bit of truth in that.
If anything, that belief may have stemmed from the 2016 release of Small Batch Limited Edition (or the 2014 version which seems to get a lot of hate). 2016 was the first year that Jim Rutledge had nothing to do with the blend or selection of barrels. It was all on Master Distiller Brent Elliot’s shoulders. In prior years, the two worked closely together to create the blends. But enthusiasts of the brand worship Jim Rutledge’s time as master distiller and refer to his time at the helm as the “Golden Years” of the brand. It is because of him that the brand was revived from a poor-quality maker of bourbon and blended bourbon (yuck) to creators of some of the most consistently great releases year after year.
What makes up the 2016 Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition?
Brent Elliot’s vision for the 2016 release (and every release for that matter) is to make it better than the previous years. To that end, he pulled out all the stops by choosing a 12-year-old OESO recipe as the batch’s base component. This was layered with barrels of 12-year-old OBSV recipe and 16-year-old barrels of OESK recipe. The goal was to layer in the fruit of the OESO with more age (tannins) and spice from the V and K recipes.
There was a lot of talk about consistency during the release of this batch. Apparently, fans – and even Brent himself – were concerned if he could keep it as consistent as previous batches. I think that’s an odd thing to worry about. The focus should be on making memorable limited editions. If you want consistency, then pick up a bottle of Yellow Label, Small Batch or Small Batch Select. But I digress…
One last thing item to note is that the 2016 SmBLE bottle count was significantly smaller than the previous two years and every year after that – by a substantial amount. According to the press release, there were only 9,258 hand-numbered bottles made for 2016 compared with the 12,000+ bottle batches from 2014 and 2015 and more than 13,000+ each year since. No explanation was given, but I wonder if there was supposed to be a fourth recipe that was meant to be blended into this batch and denied at the last minute. It’s not completely unheard of that SmBLE releases use only 3 recipes, but it hasn’t been the norm. I guess we’ll never know.
So how does this taste? Does its rarity among batches make it better? Does Brent’s first batch meet the expectations that enthusiasts had for it? Let’s find out all of these questions as we dive in. As usual, I tasted this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: On the nose I’m able to find a lot of signature Four Roses fruit scents. They are all intense and very well developed. Canned peaches, strawberry compote, cherries and passionfruit all get my salivatory glands ready for the treat that should lie ahead. There’s additional scents of black tea leaves and complex baking spices. There’s even a nice hit of aged oak that adds great complexity and polish to the blend. Sweetness also comes by way of melted toffee. The nose is a winner from every angle.
Palate: Expecting fruit flavors to be the star of the show, I’m surprised by a decent wave of rye-forward notes first. Cherry licorice (star anise) combine with cinnamon and lots of citrus – like grapefruit rind and orange zest. There’s even some peppermint that I can pick out. Additional fruit notes like rhubarb (sweetened a bit like the pie filling) and the sweet coating flavor of caramel bring more depth to each sip. Finally, I’m also pleased with the amount of seasoned oak I get in each sip. It’s not as common for me to find much oak in Four Roses products, but it’s always a treat when I do.
Finish: The fruits are still just as intense on the finish – kind of like the aftertaste of a Christmas Fruitcake. Rum-soaked cherries, anise, fennel and dehydrated apricots. The oak notes still linger as well. This is an enjoyable finish that seems to be missing something although I don’t know what that would be.
The 2016 release of Four Roses SmBLE has a lot of things to love. Great fruit, lots of rye spice and a wallop of oak every time you go in for a sip. I would sip on this every day if I had an unlimited supply. But if you’re familiar with my other SmBLE reviews, you’ll notice that it’s quite a bit on the low end (normally these hit 8.8 to the low 9’s. Why is this on the lower end? Because it lacks a certain “it” factor.
It’s almost like Brent Elliot played it too safe with this blend. It tastes like every flavor was perfectly manicured to play nicely with each other and that’s it. It’s an odd thing to call a bourbon “too good to get a better score,” but I think that’s what we have here.
I’m going to be careful not to make you think that the 2016 is a bad bottle. It’s not by any stretch of the imagination. But when people are hunting down the best product a distillery puts out, I imagine they expect to be blown away – not just “happy with their purchase.” What’s even more strange is that a lot of people seem to have realized this about this particular batch too. My bottle in these pictures came from a good friend in upstate New York who sent me a picture of it on the shelf along with the 2017 and 2018 versions asking if I was interested in any of them. The prices at the time (this was in early 2021) were $275 for the 2016, $325 for the 2017 and $350 for the 2018. I was skeptical why the 2016 was priced so low and he told me it was because it wasn’t as well-liked as other batches. The prices just confirmed it.
Sharing pours from this bottle to other friends elicited responses along those lines. Sometimes I got a friend who really liked it but most of the responses were along the lines of “it’s good.” Many went on to tell me about a particular Private Selection pick that they liked more.
That’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. Four Roses shows that not every Limited Edition can be a knockout. So maybe if you’re looking to start picking some of these up, your efforts would be better spent on a different year.
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