...where distraction is the main attraction.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

NOT Single Malt Report: Taste Off! Maker's Mark vs. Four Roses Single Barrel

Quote of the day: "Tell me this doesn't smell like farty maple syrup!"

* * * * *

I just sighed deeply as I began this Report.  I'm still such a bourbon novice and this writeup may not do anything to strengthen anyone's opinion of my American whiskey knowledge.

But let's do it!

Here are the players:

DistilleryFour Roses
Type: Kentucky Straight Bourbon (Single Barrel)
Region: Lawrenceberg, Kentucky
Age: over 7 years, probably 8 to 12 years
Mashbill: 60% corn, 35% rye, and 5% malted barley (source)
Maturation: charred white oak barrels
Alcohol by Volume: 50%


DistilleryMaker's Mark
OwnershipBeam Global
Type: Kentucky Straight Wheated Bourbon
Region: Loretto, Kentucky
Age: minimum 2 years, likely 6 to 8 years
Mashbill: 70% corn, 16% soft red winter wheat, and 14% malted barley (source)
Maturation: charred white oak barrels
Alcohol by Volume: 45%

The Maker's Mark is from a 375mL bottle.  The Four Roses Single Barrel is from a 50mL mini I found at Hi Time Wine Cellars.  The bottles themselves are great.  Maker's has its distinctive shape and the dipped wax phallus at the top.  And the Four Roses had the heaviest sturdiest glass mini bottle I've ever bought (and I've bought a few).

The biggest difference (to me) between these two are the mashbills.  Maker's Mark uses wheat instead of rye in their mix and is heavily corn-ed.  Four Roses Single Barrel also has a bit of corn (51% is the minimum allowed for bourbons) but has a large balance of rye in there as well.  A second difference is that the Four Roses is, per the label, from one barrel while the Maker's is from a combination of a large number of barrels.

I really had no idea what to expect.  I'd never tried any Four Roses product previously, though I've been reading many raves about them.  I had bought the Maker's to perfect my citrusy boubon old fashioned recipe, but hadn't spent much time with it neat.  So, I thought trying them side by side would be a good way to sort out the nuances.

Just before I did the taste off, I read The Coopered Tot's six-part blind Canadian rye tasting.  It inspired me to do my mini taster blind as well.

As if trying to figure out two bourbons wasn't enough for me, I was about to set myself up for the embarrassment of not being about to tell these two very different bourbons apart.  Awesome!

But I did it anyway.  Kristen did the one ounce pours and labeled the glasses A and B.

After allowing the whiskies a 15-minute adjustment period, I dug in.  Here are my results:

Bourbon A
Color - Reddish copper
Nose - Black cherry syrup, milk chocolate, cocoa powder, the inside of the oak barrel, Cool Whip
Palate - Old school Robotussin, treacle, maple syrup, a little hot, a little aspartame
Finish - Long and warm, whipped cream, but more of that sticky aspartame thing

Comments - It's a little busy but enjoyable, though I could do without the aspartame notes.  After the first couple of sips I said aloud, "Oh no, I think I like Maker's Mark."  That means I kinda liked this bourbon and I guessed it was Maker's.

Bourbon B
Color - Clove honey
Nose - French oak-type pencil shavings, sweet oranges, cherry lolipops, gassy, maple syrup, frosting
Palate - Pencils, root vegetables, very sweet at first then mellows out, vanilla, sugar cookies, but ultimately very tame
Finish - A good length, more ethyl, floral and vanilla, marshmallows

Comments - Mild and tame, the sweetness would work better than A for mixing.  I thought that the mellowness meant that it was Four Roses.  So that was my guess.

Well, first thing's first.  My guesses were wrong.

A = Four Roses Single Barrel
B = Maker's Mark

I hadn't looked up the Four Roses mashbill beforehand.  Had I done so, I would have seen the good dose of rye.  My brain should have recognized the black cherry, cough syrup, and cocoa notes as the rye elements I like.  I knew Maker's had no rye.  I based my guesses on the mellowness of 'B' and the aspartame notes in 'A'.  So my guesses were silly.

Secondly, blindly tasted, I liked the Four Roses better.  (Do I get to keep any of my street cred?)  It was a little hectic, not necessarily messy but active.  The diet coke artificial sweetener note was odd though. It kept showing up with every sip.  Without that, it would have challenged Blanton's for my favorite bourbon.

Maker's is still quite the sweetie.  I don't mind having it around as a mixer.  Though I don't foresee myself jonesing for a glass neat nor on the rocks, it's still better than most cheap scotch blends.

Kristen seemed to prefer the Four Roses a little more too.  But neither swayed her opinion of bourbon in general.

After the taste off was done, I blended the last 0.5oz of Four Roses with 0.5oz of Maker's Mark (creating a fake mashbill of 65% corn, 17.5% rye, 9.5% malted barley, 8% red winter wheat).

It was wrong.  It was so bad that I rushed the glass over to Kristen, exclaiming, "Tell me this doesn't smell like farty maple syrup!"  For some reason she refused to smell it.

I buried that bad blend underneath an Old Fashioned and was much happier with that result.

The bourbon journey continues.

Maker's Mark
Availability - Everywhere
Pricing - $19 to $24
Rating - 77

Four Roses Single Barrel
Availability - Some US liquor specialists
Pricing - $40 to $45
Rating - 82


  1. Brilliant tasting. But, you madman! How could you vat them? Here's what I tweeted:

    Diving For Pearls blog tastes @4RosesBourbon & @MakersMark head2head blind. But then vats them disastrously together! http://thekrav.blogspot.com/2012/08/not-single-malt-report-taste-off-makers.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+blogspot%2FsjomU+%28Diving+for+Pearls%29

    You're utterly nuts! ..but in a good way.

    1. Vat fail! I'm 0-for-2 in vat attempts. I won't even go into detail about the Ardbeg/Balbair mess I made in March. Just think: peated ham varnish.

      This time, I should have just kept them in their separate rooms. They didn't play well together. But that won't stop me from trying again!

  2. I've actually got my own MM review in the works. It's... not good... I found myself with a bit of an ethical dilemma because one of their reps offered me samples a few days ago. I'm not sure how I feel about taking stuff from them when I'm about to crap all over their main product.

    1. Does he rep anything else with promise? Bakers, Bookers, and even Old Grand-Dad are Beam products. Or will he spite you and hand over some Old Crow and Red Stag?

      I don't mean to make fun. That is a dilemma. But I guess if a rep expects you to be a PR echo chamber in return for a few bucks worth of brown fluid then he may want to rethink his strategy.

      Congrats on the opportunity, though! It's sort of like what one would want, but also nothing like what one would want. Like when my brother's friend told him that he'd bought him a bottle of Macallan for his birthday, then handed over a bottle of McClelland's. :(

    2. Also, now I'm totally looking forward to your MM review when it hits.

    3. Which McClelland's was it? The McClelland's Islay is actually quite decent for a really young Bowmore.

    4. Yeah, I heard that one was good too. But he got the Highlands, young Glen Garioch (shouldn't be that bad in theory).

    5. I think it's OK to take a sample for something you don't know and then give a negative review when you discover the product using that sample. The sample is freely given to experience the product and as a reviewer you must honestly report what you think.

      However, It's not good to accept a sample if you already know you don't like it. Then it feels like false pretenses to say you'll give the product a fair shake when you have already made up your mind. I would suggest that you still might ethically do it if you intent to put it into a blind sampling. Then, perhaps, the product might change your mind.

      The issue is complicated by factors such as batch variation. Maybe you don't like the product because of a batch you had and a different sample might taste better to you?

      However, in the case of Maker's Mark - I agree. I don't like it either. It's too simple and shy for me. If I want that kind of bourbon experience I'd rather have Jim Beam White or Evan Williams Black for half the money.

    6. Well, in this case I think it's Maker's 46 on offer, which would at least be a little bit different than their main product. But I feel like it'd be a wee bit tricky to a 100% unbiased review.

      Re: McClelland's Islay, I feel like you might as well spend the extra couple of dollars for Bowmore Legend. Probably not much older, but at least it's single malt instead of a blend. Or if you really have to get a blend, maybe Black Bottle?

  3. The thing that you need to know if you're getting to know Four Roses is that they make ten different recipes. Their yellow label is a vatting of all ten; their "small batch" comes from vatting of four recipes at a time, and the single barrel is available at different times and different places in any one of the ten. You still have a lot of work to do!

  4. Did you mention tasting Bulleit Bourbon in an earlier post? If so, then you've had Four Roses before. Tom Bulleit doesn't actually distill his own bourbon so it's made under contract at Four Roses (sorry to burst some bubbles but contract distilling is an open secret these days). The Four Roses Small Batch may come closest in flavor to the Bulleit since both are small batch bourbons (and share some of the same recipes).

    1. Yeah, Bulleit Bourbon must be one of the OB mash bills since it's high rye. Four Roses Small Barrel is OBSV as per their site.

      Bulleit's big sales must keep that distillery running!

    2. Just realized I recently picked up a private barrel selection from K&L that's also the OBSV recipe but barrel proof (61.6%). It never occurred to me that the standard 50% Single Barrel was the same recipe even though I've had the Single Barrel before. I'm getting a bit more cinnamon on the nose and a very creamy (vanilla?) texture on the palate but overall it's similar to the Single Barrel. I'm willing to bet this is perfectly drinkable neat but I had to put a little water in the glass (which brought it closer to the standard Single Barrel profile). Cinnamon seems to be a lot more common in barrel proof Four Roses and it might be my favorite note in the bourbon.

    3. That's cool. I've been eyeing those private barrels too. When I do finally go with one, it'll be the high-rye, now I just have to pick out which yeast strain to go with.

      Which do you prefer at this point? The 50% Single Barrel bottle or the private barrel bottle?

    4. Definitely the private barrel. The Davids actually asked Jim Rutledge for some good barrel samples which he picked himself (Jim probably does this every day when he's not on the road).