13 Four Roses Bourbon Bottles, Ranked

Two mash bills. Five strains of proprietary yeast. From these 10 variations comes every expression of Four Roses, a bourbon that regularly appears on both "best bourbons" and "best deals" lists. Every Four Roses label includes a table of recipes used, matched in turn to four-letter codes that all start with O for the Four Roses Distillery where they were made, possibly due to the historical Old Prentice Distillery that serves as the company's headquarters.

The second letter will be E or B, referring to the respectively high-corn/high-rye and hey-now-that's-very-high-rye mash bills used.

The third letter is S, because all Four Roses product is straight bourbon whiskey, meaning the mash used never exceeds 160 proof (80% ABV). To this, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau says, only water or other straight whiskey distillate made in the same state can be added, without bringing the proof below 80 or above 125 at the start of aging in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years. (Four Roses ages its whiskey at least five years.)

The fourth letter, perhaps the most crucial one, refers to the yeast, which Four Roses categorizes as V (delicate fruit), K (slight spice), O (rich fruit), Q, (floral essence), and F (herbal notes). You can read more in Four Roses' guide to its process, which is frankly one of the best overviews on the web about how whiskey is distilled.

So how does all that variety stack up? We've ranked every accessible Four Roses expression.

13. Four Roses Bourbon

While you can find Four Roses on lists of great-deal bourbons and underrated bottles, they typically praise Small Batch and Single Barrel. And that's true, but let's take a second to say it: Four Roses stock (all but officially known as The Yellow Label) ain't bad either. That said, the basic edition doesn't stand so far out ahead of its price-point peers the way its higher expressions bang for your buck. But isn't it better to be always worth the markup?

This serviceable bourbon contains a lot of what came through in the Small Batch, but dampened to its benefit. Strong citrus on the nose, then oak through and through. The burn sticks around, nipping at you while you're trying to get to know it better, but eventually, you two can talk. By the company's own advice, it's about two-thirds mixer and one-third sipper, but not a bad choice when you want to budget for a bottle that can pull double duty, say if you're making some of the best drinks to mix with whiskey.

The mellow of the yellow is Four Roses' selling point, and easygoing whiskeys are always welcome. Still, at 80 proof, it feels like the flavor has more potential to tap. You'd love to try the full suite combination again at 100 and see if it's stronger rather than just boozier.

12. Four Roses Small Batch

It seems obvious to put Four Roses Small Batch ahead of standard issue, but it was bottom-ranked until final-round tests. Yes, it has more complexity going on, but so does speed metal when all you want is a reliable radio banger. Small Batch is a wildcat, diving in with a sharp nose that promises everything tumultuous to come. How oaky do you like your bourbon? Some might savor this taste, but dare we say over-oaking is a real phenomenon? Even if you're all in from acorn to barrel stave, the distillate side of this pour is as pointed as its aroma, with a long burn that never quite goes away.

If you're down for all of that, you might esteem the current Small Batch as unfairly bounced on this ranking, because it does offer up more sensory intrigue behind all the noise that never entirely dies down. But you have got to be in a mood for this one, and most of the time the regular edition really is the better pick. Small Batch is only about $10 more than the regular edition on Drizly, so you're not risking much to level up, but it just seems likely you'll reach more frequently for the classic version, which is less raucous and more versatile. Small Batch wins by being better: A) with food, and B) mixed in cocktails — after all, we do rate it as one of our best bourbons to use in an Old Fashioned.

11. Four Roses Small Batch Select

Now here's where things take a turn. Four Roses Small Batch Select really marks the passage into Wowsville. This expression of six blended recipes, using yeasts V, K, and F each with mash bills B and E, was only introduced in 2019, so most casual whiskey drinkers don't know what they're missing yet. Its nose resembles Wild Turkey 101, though more than double the price.

Still, this is a really well-balanced whiskey. It's sweeter than the other Four Roses labels, then quickly becomes a rollicking cascade of smoky and tart. The burn lingers for a bit, as seems to be typical of Four Roses (and, let's be fair, more bourbons than not). You can't always say whiskey is better at a higher proof, and a lot of it depends on the processes used to hit a target ABV, but boy is it the case here. It casts scents of spice rather than the citrus we've seen here.

But we're not done! It becomes almost a completely different drink on the back half of a sip, turning into honey and wine. Small Batch Select is non-chill filtered, and the result here makes the case for never filtering again. (Distillery Trail digs into the filtration process's effects, particularly on Small Batch Select if you're curious.) We say let a little haziness reside in a pour; we'll take it as a sign of quality. Master Distiller Brent Elliott should be very proud of the newest addition.

10. Four Roses Single Barrel

Yep. Single Barrel is the best version of Four Roses on regular shelves — at least, if you're lucky enough to hold a bottle of 74-1J from Warehouse E. If Small Batch Select is a bebop quartet, Four Roses Single Barrel is a high-rye bourbon of 100 proof (which — plus or minus 5% ABV — really seems like a sweet spot for bourbon, but nobody tell that to our top pick in our ranking of every Buffalo Trace Antique Collection bottle). All 10 combinations of yeast and mash bill typically go into the basic Four Roses, though Breaking Bourbon records it's sometimes eight or nine, while others get a selection. In the case of this single-barrel bourbon, that selection is the lone recipe #1, OBSV. In that case, you're attacking the peppery, spicy rye with the full appetite of the very fruity V yeast. And hey, look at that, one was all you needed.

The nose is promising and you'll happily savor its piquancy. When you do finally dive in, the taste is much less forceful, equal measures salty and sweet. This is one of the best bourbons under $50 out there. But move on it quickly. When we named it one of our bourbons every collector needs to find just a couple of months ago, the price was lower, and in big cities it's already up to $80, so it may continue to rise quickly — especially because Breaking Bourbon esteems it higher than the Platinum and Black labels.

9. Four Roses 2017 LE Small Batch

Available is a relative term with the limited editions, but here are the most recent ones. Four Roses 2017 LE Small Batch bucks the mold with lower viscosity, and seems to lose depth with it. All three recipes used in this bottle are the lower-rye, though that's a somewhat relative term with Four Roses. After recommending it with enough water to bring baked goods out of its dual earthiness, Drinkhacker places it a bit short of the hall of fame.

The way Whiskey in My Wedding Ring tells it, 2017 tastes like autumn brunch: cinnamon, berry preserves, nuts, chocolate, graham cracker. Those all sound wonderful, but assessment across the board says this expression wouldn't make big waves even without standing in the shadow of the finer Al Young 2017 release.

Whiskey Wash quotes Elliott as striking the right combination early with this blend, but it might have benefitted from some experimental developments along further lines. The site's review differs as wildly from the other two as they do from each other, with fruit and mint exploding at every turn.

And finally, one Reddit reviewer, as the biggest fan of this bottle thus far, calls it simple and straightforward with oak and red fruit. So the real question with 2017 LE is not how good it is, but whether it's a cipher that reveals more about its reviewer than it bequeaths. It's a hard one to pin down, other than leaving room for improvement.

8. Four Roses 2022 LE Small Batch

Four Roses' autumnal, limited-edition small batch releases are highly sought after, limited to about 15,000 bottles, and don't come cheap. Of late, the company prices them at $180, up from $100 just a few years ago, but you'll only find them higher in the wild if you find them at all when experts often can't. Wine Searcher already lists last year's 2021 at $716 and up. Your only sure method is to enter Four Roses' annual end-of-summer lottery, but even winning is prohibitive, as not everyone can spare a trip to Kentucky to pick it up.

Breaking Bourbon thinks Four Roses 2022 Limited Edition Small Batch is divisive, but a great chance to try old-tasting bourbon as the demand makes the average aging younger and younger. The Whiskey Shelf is indeed divided on this one, and it's a reviewer of one, concluding that it's got the goods, but not the know-how to put them together. It's another case of these more fragile tones of herb, fruit, and mint getting blasted aside by the oak. And Whiskey Reviewer also enjoyed it to a great degree, while — let's be fair — disagreeing that the fruitiness beats out that woodiness, but worries a lot of folks are going to find it prohibitive.

And Paste says while the Limited Editions never disappoint, this wonderful whiskey is less memorable than its brethren. All considered, this one comes in at the low end, behind previous expressions with more staying power.

7. Four Roses 2020 LE Small Batch

The Four Roses 2020 LE Small Batch presents fruit flavors in all forms of preparation: fresh, dried, baked, and reduced, alongside syrup and powerful vanilla, all of which, unsurprisingly, compound to fruit cake.

Bourbon Culture does remark on its maybe-not-unpleasant furniture polish aspect, which is not uncommon in whiskeys. It may be related to the solvent flavors in beer due to ester production at the fermentation stage, described by Brew Your Own. The Whiskey Wash seems to think so, describing the production of fusel oils from barley, though barley is minimal in both Four Roses mash bills and may be why they're only present in welcome amounts here. At any rate, whether this polish flavor is peachy or unpleasant is really a matter of degrees, so consider it a note rather than a warning.

In two departures from the Four Roses profile, those who have tasted 2020 say it comes in with much lower heat, and Whiskey Wash also finds the 2020 to be lighter on the oak. If you get notes of polish, at least they don't reside atop the furniture itself. And while that same review calls it middling for what it is, other write-ups lean closer to Whiskey Raiders, who mark it higher and even notable, saying the twin mash bills are performing at their peak. Bourbon & Banter warns, though, that as enjoyable as this is, its value doesn't exceed its price. Maybe one to order at the specialty whiskey bar.

6. Four Roses 2016 LE Small Batch

Four Roses 2016 LE Small Batch is something of a classicist, striking some of the most common notes according to Breaking Bourbon, then weaving them into a crescendo on the finish. While reporting on the transfer of duties from Master Distiller Jim Rutledge to Elliott, the review calls it one of the best bourbons in a very worthy lineup, and worth both the hunt and the cost of procuring them.

While that's all the recommendation you need, it does land at four out of five barrels, which coupled with the Whiskey Wash's summary of "well, it's better than 2015" amounts to uncertainty over whether this remains a priority when you can find better for cheaper from more recent releases. As Drinkhacker says when ranking it the poorest of the previous half dozen years, the overwhelming fruitiness is good but imbalanced.

All in all, the 2016 amounts to a pleasant drinking experience to luck into, but is less advisable as a purchase due to the strong differential in reviews from best to worst and so-so in between. Whiskey Raiders says it's one of the Four Roses small batches that comes in hot, and really, you're just going to have to either embrace that about these labels or accept it grudgingly.

5. Four Roses 2018 130th Anniversary LE Small Batch

To hear the company describe Four Roses 2018 130th Anniversary LE Small Batch (whew! Now there's a mouthful!) it's a walk from spring to summer to autumn in your mouth. The Whiskey Jug reports that the spice rules over this dark, sweet, and oaky, suggesting it may taste similar to the Al Young release so widely praised.

Though over 40 user reviews place it more in the middle rather than the top of the list, it does seem like you get out of Four Roses what you're looking for. You have to know it's a hot spice bourbon with an inclination towards oiliness and oakiness, which usually means greater flavor, and all of that is present in the 2018. If you accept these terms, Breaking Bourbon calls this an intriguing mixture of tastes that blend well but don't melt into one another. It cautions that drinkers might fool themselves into thinking it is understated instead of getting to know its nuance.

If that's the case, then you can mentally tack half a grade onto the reviews for the 130th Anniversary. The issue running through all of these LE Small Batches is the worst of them are still excellent, so pulling off a five-star is like winning Olympic gold. A four-star LESB is prorated, and the lousiest performance is still all but guaranteed to be world-class.

4. Four Roses 2017 Al Young 50th Anniversary LE Small Batch

Named in honor of distillery manager, historian, and brand ambassador Al Young, this almost 109-proof bourbon is one of two small batches released in 2017. Journalist Steve Coomes describes a series of sweet joys that resembles an eating tour of a fall fair, and somewhere in between the peak rye punches, there's a silken goodness that breaks from the usual Four Roses virtues. This just might be the premium bourbon for people convinced the Four Roses profile isn't for them.

Reviewers agree the taste is dark, sweet, and spicy. Molasses desserts appear commonly in all the reviews. It ranks very highly across the boards, compiled at Whiskey Raiders, whose own review is the most critical of how it bows towards high spice and heat. Bourbon & Banter is inclined to agree, saying its body needed more oomph, but still finding it a share-worthy, enjoyable bottle to impress knowledgeable drinkers.

The standout characteristic? Whiskey Reviewer is a fan of the unusually smoky finish that might appeal to Islay scotch fans. And Drinkhacker is hard-pressed to name a better small batch in recent memory, owing to its kitchen-sink complexity that still manages the neat trick of a balanced landing. This squares with Whiskey Wash, which finds it exemplary of Four Roses' appealing characteristics. All told, it's a worthy testament to a living legend's legacy.

3. Four Roses 2021 LE Small Batch

Reddit's r/bourbon enthusiasts spent 2022 ranking 2021 Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon as one of the best-scoring bourbons in recent years. Uproxx calls it functionally perfect but says it stops just short of blowing you away. A Reddit review by u/MarrowX agrees, giving it A-minus marks, which is just about as high as common consensus goes for obtainable whiskeys over there. This may be due to 2021 leaning towards older bourbons, the youngest of which is aged 12 years, a regular element in LESB bottlings, but not one that always takes the form of the taste.

Bourbon Culture notes the Q yeast is the most divisive but says the V strain ends up king of the hill here. Mindful of the Q's outsized floral presence, Elliott kept it minimal at 6% according to Forbes, which also recommends taking as long as you can drinking it, and doesn't think ice will diminish your experience since the oiliness of the 114.2 proof can take it.

In fact, you may desire it iced, since The Whiskey Wash found 2021 to be explosively hot, prompting a trip to the freezer and reporting that once on the rocks, it turned into a cornucopia of deliciously fruity and sugary flavors, which includes an intriguing rarity of sarsaparilla. Root beer flavors themselves are pretty divisive among beverage drinkers, and even root beer fans, which makes this, in a way, a perfect fit for the philosophical debates among bourbon cognoscenti.

2. Four Roses 2016 Elliott's Select LE Single Barrel

To celebrate Elliott's taking the reins as master distiller, Four Roses devoted a special release to his debut, Four Roses 2016 Elliott's Select. Each of these 10,000 bottles is a barrel-strength single barrel that uses the OESK recipe and represents one of the few times you'll see magnolia as a tasting note. It appears most of the barrels come from Warehouse Q's north side, though the south side of Warehouse S is also in evidence.

As expected, the bottles' ABVs vary depending on which single barrel was used, and Whiskey Reviewer says it's between 100.5 and 120.7 in an emphatic review that recommends opening it up with water and not fearing any loss of potency on the rocks.

Whiskey Apostle describes this one as a pie a la mode that's lacking only the apple and assesses it as a must-try. Perhaps its strongest recommendation is disclaiming any great affection for the OESK combination and still finding this one fantastic, meaning it will impress doubters and establish its own merits.

Drinkhacker finds a similar profile but bookended in briny and nutty, with black pepper from the rye, even though this is the lower of the two mash bills. And in a minority on this list, both reviews say the oak doesn't come in too heavy. While Barrels and Mash finds the oak strident, it's still within hand and agrees with the fruit-to-pepper journey. All told? A very reliable and favorable bourbon that any master distiller would be proud to call their foray.

1. Four Roses 2019 LE Small Batch

When you pine for everything we haven't been able to enjoy since 2019, don't forget to include the best darn LESB since, oh, let's say 2015. Four Roses 2019 LE Small Batch is dearly recalled and even more dearly priced if you spot it at your high-end liquor store. It's non-chill filtered, and heavy on the oil, which we say is a great proof of concept, but some people will find that texture a challenge.

Who cares? Flavor usually beats texture, and the reviews agree. The Whiskey Jug esteems 2019's flawless palate and unimpeachable finish very high, alongside the best they've had in this series, which was 2013's 125th Anniversary edition.

Bourbon Culture sums up all the various reviews as declaring this one the best of the past half-decade, and therefore the best you're ever going to even see behind your local liquor store's glass case. Forbes asks if it's the best of all time, but you won't find many people who have tried 2013 and 2019 to say for sure, let alone 2015 as well. So while taste is subjective, baseline is not, and everyone agrees, this triumph is as good as you're going to find outside of the collector's market ... but hurry up, because those speculators are already well aware of it. If you get one of the 13,440 bottles produced, add a drop of water, and drink it as slowly as you can.