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Four Roses Bourbon Tasting at Crop Bistro

A bit of blog-keeping / update to last week’s mention of the Chardon Healing Fund:

On March 19th, Cleveland chefs are hosting a pair of events on the East and West sides of the city to help the victims of the Chardon High School tragedy. In Moreland Hills, over 15 chefs will be hosting a tasting-style event at Flour. At AMP 150, Dinner in the Dark will be bringing in over 20 chefs for the west-side event.  

Guests at Flour will be able to participate in a one-time silent auction for a dinner for 10 prepared by Iron Chef Michael Symon. A $500 knife set, hotel package, theatre tickets and more are up for auction at AMP 150.

All proceeds from these culinary feasts will be donated to the families.  Tickets and more information can be found here: Flour event and AMP 150 event. Hat’s off to all involved for lending their culinary talents to support the Chardon community.

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Four Roses’ Single Barrel, Small Batch and Yellow Label bourbons at Crop Bistro’s recent tasting

Scott’s not usually the first one in line for top shelf drinks, and especially not straight bourbon. Since college his tastes have changed from the hardest of hard liquor to the lightest of light beers. But on a recent trip to Ohio City’s Crop Bistro, I turned away for a moment and when I turned back found him not behind me, but at the Four Roses tasting bar, sipping a sample cup of bourbon and listening to the history and production process of what he was drinking.

Even more surprising — after he sampled a taste, he asked for more; surprising until I tried some myself.

The Four Roses brand has been around since 1888 – when it was first distilled in Louisville, Kentucky’s “Whiskey Row” by Four Roses founder Paul Jones Jr.  In its early days, Four Roses became one of the preeminent bourbon brands – being one of only six distilleries allowed to operate through Prohibition.

Hard-boiled crime story fans may recognize the name since it’s featured in Raymond Chandler’s novel The High Window as Philip Marlowe’s – one of my favorite hard-drinking private eyes – drink of choice.

After Seagram purchased the brand and started using it for blended whiskey instead of bourbon, the name lost its appeal until it was sold to Kirin Brewing ten years ago. Since then, the Kentucky distillery has been working hard to return its unique bourbon to the U.S.

"Mr. Four Roses" – Master Distiller Jim Rutledge

A good deal of Four Roses’ resurgence can be attributed to Master Distiller Jim Rutledge, who helped host the Ohio City bourbon tasting a couple of weeks ago.

Rutledge has been with Four Roses for over 40 years and the Master Distiller since 1995. When Kirin first bought the brand, Rutledge helped initiate the idea of bringing their bourbon back home.

A member of the Bourbon Hall of Fame’s inaugural class, “Mr. Four Roses” not just watches over the consistent quality of every barrel, but also spreads his knowledge and passion for bourbon as he travels from tasting to tasting.

Personally, I’m a novice bourbon drinker. I started drinking it only a couple of years ago thanks in part to Mad Men. (Yes, I’ll admit a tv show piqued my interest in the whiskey.) But regardless of why I started drinking it, there was no judgment from Rutledge, who was a welcoming host.

The Four Roses distillery where they produce 10 distinct bourbon recipes. (Photo from Four Roses)

Chatting for over an hour, I learned not just about Four Roses’ storied history, but about the recent resurgence of specialty bourbons throughout the U.S. and the distillery’s unique process for crafting each barrel of Four Roses.

Four Roses is the only bourbon distillery that combines 5 strains of yeast with 2 separate mashbills to produce 10 distinct bourbon recipes, which they then age in a one-of-a-kind single story rack warehouse. To create one of their more popular bourbons, the 2010 World Whisky Award-Winning Four Roses Yellow, all 10 recipes are married together through this process by Rutlege and his distillers.

At the tasting, we got to enjoy the Four Roses Yellow, as well as their Small Batch and Single Barrel bourbons.

After comparing the three, my personal favorite was the Small Batch Bourbon. For the Small Batch, four original and limited bourbons were selected by Rutledge at their peak to mingle together. Although the Small Batch’s aroma had a strong fragrance, I found the taste mellow enough to sip neat without a harsh burn – even better on the rocks.  There was a slight sweetness and creamy, thick warmth that reminded me of honey.

Comparatively, the Single Barrel‘s nose was more complex – both sweet and earthy – and its palate more distinct with a lot of spice jumping out at me.  Although I enjoyed the Single Barrel, my preference is for something with less of a bite. The Small Batch fit this bill perfectly – very pleasant, it was something I would easily choose to drink on its own.

Crop Bistro’s Four Roses cocktail

If you like your bourbon in a cocktail, one of Crop Bistro’s mixologists Nathan Burdette handcrafted a drink using the Four Roses Yellow Label. With 10 different bourbons mingled together, it provides an excellent base for complicated cocktails like the one we were served.

Overall, Burdette’s was a very well-balanced drink.  While you could distinguish the bourbon’s taste in the cocktail, it was subtle and didn’t overpower the sweetness of the other ingredients. My favorite touch was the bourbon-soaked date that accompanied the drink. If you’re looking for more cocktail ideas, Four Roses’ site has a nice sampling of drink recipes.

In discussing all things whiskey with Rutledge, he explained how each bourbon can taste different – oftentimes drastically – from person to person. I was curious about other people’s reactions after tasting the Single Barrel and Small Batch bourbons so as different individuals came up, I loved listening in.

Whereas I and a number of others thought the Small Batch was mellower than the Single Barrel, just as many others had the opposite view.  And each person found different notes – from rye and caramel to maple and floral hints.

My favorite of the evening – Four Roses’ Small Batch bourbon (Photo from Four Roses)

What everyone could agree on, though, was that Four Roses provided us with a very unique and enjoyable drinking experience.

For a classic brand like Four Roses, Crop Bistro was an ideal setting for the tasting. When Crop moved from the Warehouse District to Ohio City a few months ago, they took over an old bank. With its marble pillars, carved plaster ceiling, and touches of old walnut, it had a very nostalgic glamour I delighted in.

Scott and I sat in the bar area which I found to be a nice, intimate space thanks in part to the short wall segmenting it from the rest of the restaurant. I definitely want to go back and sit in the main dining room, an expansive space with very high ceilings, to see if the experience changes.

Crop Bistro’s deviled eggs with prosciutto

After we had our fill of bourbon, Scott and I took the opportunity to try out the changes to their menu. I’ve been a fan of theirs for a few years, having first fallen in love with their deviled eggs during a PlayhouseSquare dine-around.

Although some items have changed in the move and because of the seasons, I found the quality stood up.

Braised pork belly on waffle with Apple Cherry Port Demi

We started by splitting the braised pork belly appetizer. It sits atop a small waffle and is topped with an Apple Cherry Port Demi. While I thought the demi was really well made and had a full, sweet taste, Scott – who is a huge fan of pork belly – wanted some more of that flavor to peek through.

For my meal, I ended up ordering a small serving of the Chile Deviled Eggs and a Grilled Flatbread.  The deviled eggs with prosciutto were as good as I remembered and the grilled flatbread with mushrooms, Amish swiss, peppadews, arugla and balsamic was enough to split with a second person and full of many different flavors.

Grilled flatbread with mushrooms, Amish swiss, peppadews, arugla and balsamic

Additionally, the colors in both dishes were incredibe.  While presentation is not usually a huge component of why I like a meal, in this case the vibrant colors of both raised the dishes to the next level and made them even more appetizing.

Scott ordered the Ohio Ribeye.  It comes with Crop’s Sunday Supper Mashed Potatoes and Brussel Sprouts which were both delicious. But what made it the evening’s winner – and while it’s top on my list to order next time we go – was the smoked shallot demi. Between how tender it was prepared and the smoked flavoring of the demi, Crop’s ribeye was one of the more succulent cuts of beef I’ve had in a while.

Ohio Ribeye with Sunday Supper Mashed Potatoes and Brussel Sprouts

Even if you’re not looking for a full meal, I’d recommend Crop just for drinks. While we stuck to bourbon for most of the evening, I perused their impressive libations menu and finally decided on an Ohio City Flip.

As much as I enjoyed the Four Roses, gin’s still my drink of choice and Crop’s combination of Plymouth Gin, House Lime Cordial, Chartreuse, Cherry Heering, Egg White, and Lime Zest was a transcendent experience.  The fact that the bartenders look like they’re right out of a speakeasy – many sporting vintage-looking suspenders and vests – didn’t hurt either.

Ohio City Flip with Plymouth Gin

All in all, the Four Roses Tasting at Crop was an evening well-spent for this bourbon neophyte and her non-bourbon-drinking husband. We not only discovered a new brand for our bar at home (and in Scott’s case he discovered he could handle bourbon), but we also rediscovered an old favorite of Cleveland’s dining scene.

Disclosure: I was invited by a representative of Four Roses Bourbon to attend this tasting at Crop Bistro. As always, the opinions expressed here are 100% my (and Scott’s) own.