There are more than 800 whiskey distilleries in America, with around 95% of all bourbon being made in Kentucky. Steeped with a rich spirit-making heritage, conducive lime water supply and industry talent-pool, it really is the US bourbon hub.
With over 100 bourbon distilleries within the bluegrass state, there’s a myriad of choice when it comes to choosing your next Kentucky tipple. But in today’s article, I’m focusing on two of the most famous brands on the market.
In this blog post, I’ll compare Elijah Craig vs Four Roses – evaluating their small batch bottles of Kentucky straight bourbons in terms of smell, taste, and price value.
Let’s dive in.
Quick brand overview
Elijah Craig are a premium Kentucky bourbon brand produced by the Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown KY. Their core range of four whiskeys are primarily sold as straight bourbon, ranging between small batch, single barrel and toasted barrel; they also produce a straight rye bourbon too. The brand is named after the Baptist preacher and entrepreneur, Elijah Craig who founded his own distillery in 1789. To this day, he’s claimed to have originated the use of charred oak barrels to mature whiskey.
Four Roses are also a Kentucky bourbon brand, with their own dedicated distillery in Lawrenceburg KY. Their core range of four whiskeys are sold as straight bourbon, consisting of their ‘Yellow Label’, ‘Small Batch’, ‘Single Barrel’ and ‘Small Batch Select’ bottles. Owned by Kirin Brewing Company (Japan) Four Roses are renowned for their unique 10 recipe system which uses a combination of two mashbills and five different yeast strains to make their range of bourbons.
What is small batch bourbon?
Small batch bourbon is made when a distiller selects and combines a small range of unique barrels to create a single batch of whiskey. Compared to using a typically wider ‘pool’ of barrels for lesser quality (wider) blends, small batch is much more selective. This method allows the master blender to maximise specific barrels’ characteristics to create a superior and focused product. This careful selection and blending is more labour intensive, which generally makes small batch bourbons more expensive than standard bottlings but cheaper than single barrel bourbons.
Despite the seemingly better quality of small batch whiskey, it’s worth mentioning that this term is completley unregulated. Therefore, there’s no legal limitation of how many barrels can be used to make a ‘small batch’ whiskey. Most bourbon brands use this phrase to define their mid-tier bottles within their range; usually above their ‘core’ signature bottle and below something like a single barrel.
For context, Elijah Craig blend around 200 barrels to make their small batch bourbon, whilst Four Roses are rumoured to use around 250. Not to discredit or undermine either of these companies, but it’s something to keep in mind when navigating this bottle-style and overall comparison.
Small batch Elijah Craig vs Four Roses small batch
Elijah Craig Small Batch
Nose: Cardamom, orange, cedar & honey
Palate: Cinnamon, nuts, cooked apples, more honey & baked cookies
Mouthfeel: Buttery & astringent
Finish: Oaky with nutmeg
Age: NAS (8-12 years average)
Barrels: Level 3 charred oak
Mashbill: 78% corn, 10% rye & 12% malted barley
Strength: 47% ABV / 94 proof
Price: £45 / $56
Four Roses Small Batch
Nose: Spice, honey, buttered toast & florals
Palate: Manuka honey, toasted oak, winter spice & dried fruit
Mouthfeel: Full bodied & rich
Finish: Long with rich sweet cream
Age: NAS (6-8 years average)
Barrels: Charred, new American oak barrels
Mashbill: Dual mashbill (E&B)
Strength: 45% ABV / 90 proof
Price: £31 / $38
A closer look at Elijah Craig Small Batch
Designed to replace their 12 year small batch in 2016, Elijah Craig small batch bourbon is made of carefully selected whiskeys from batched of over 200 barrels. Aged between 8 and 12 years, it’s positioned as their signature bottle within their core range, offering sweet and spiced notes for bourbon lovers akin.
Nose: Poured into a glass, this bourbon has a light and slightly hard-to-find aroma. First, you get aromatic notes of cardamom, followed by orange peel, cedar wood, and sweet honey. There are also subtle hints of vanilla bean, sweet fruit and fresh mint that mingle together to create a pleasant and captivating bouquet.
With a little swirling and a chance to breathe, there’s a mild hint of espresso in there, mixed with winter spices. Cinnamon and cloves mostly, mixed with roasted nuts. Overall, it’s an ‘okay’ nose that reluctantly promises what lies ahead.
Palate: On my first sip, The Elijah Craig Small Batch bourbon has a palate of sweet caramel and vanilla that is accompanied by some nutty notes such as hazelnut, almond, and walnut. There’s also some up front heat with a little burn going on, which encourages me to add some water. On it’s own, this bourbon is a little harsh for me so the water should help open it up.
After adding some water and a bit of ‘chewing’ I start to get hints of citrus fruits like oranges and limes which give a sort of astringent tang. This is offset by sweet notes of cherries, followed by liquorice, oak wood, cinnamon, and clove spice.
The flavours have a nice balance between the sweetness, richness and depth without too much burn from the alcohol. When you sip it there’s an initial burst of boldness that quickly mellows down for a smooth finish with lingering notes of oak woodiness.
Mouthfeel: The mouthfeel is thick with a velvety texture that coats the tongue and gives off pleasant aromas. Elijah Craig’s Small Batch bourbon is truly classic and offers all the classic flavours you would expect in a quality Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. Compared to it’s light nose, this bourbon has a fairly robust mouthfeel which I like.
Finish: Elijah Craig Small Batch bourbon has a soft, smooth finish that lingers on the tongue. Peak notes of sweet caramel and creamy vanilla are later followed by hints of oak tannins, coffee grounds and citrus peel. As the finish fades away, it leaves notes of sliced apples, citrus peel and liquorice as well as dark chocolate. It’s a pretty good finish for this tasty bourbon.
Price: For it’s price point of $55 (£45) EC Small Batch offers decent flavour and quality. Produced in high-volumes, this bourbon falls into that grey-area where you question the limits of what ‘small batch’ can really be. Made with over 200 barrels, it’s certainly a broader blend which I actually really enjoyed.
Overall, this is a pretty good bourbon to try if you’re looking for robust flavours and plenty of complexity. The palate was more varied than I expected for a small batch, with nuttiness, honey, apples and spice. For the price, it offers some enjoyable notes that make it a good value for money bourbon.
Elijah Craig Small Batch food pairings
For starters, Elijah Craig Small Batch goes great with smoked meat dishes such as ribs with BBQ sauce or brisket, as the smokiness from the whiskey complements the smoky flavour from the meat. Elijah Craig also plays nicely with both sweet and savoury appetizers such as salmon terrines, salami of chocolate or even fried sweet potatoes served in mini tacos for an interesting contrast.
For main course pairings, Elijah Craig pairs exceptionally well with classic Americana comfort food like macaroni and cheese topped off with crispy breadcrumbs or buttermilk fried chicken served over mashed potatoes; Elijah Craig’s full flavour will perfectly complement these crowd-pleasing favourites. For something more adventurous, Elijah Craig makes an excellent match for pork belly slathered in a spicy chili glaze or sliced steak charred on the grill served over cheesy polenta.
For a dessert to round out your meal Elijah Craig pairs nicely with chocolate-based treats like truffle or fondants; Elijah Craig is also perfect for spoon desserts like crème brûlée or apple pie – its light smokiness adds an unexpected surprise element to these traditional favourites.
Elijah Craig Small Batch cocktail suggestions
A closer look at Four Roses Small Batch
To kick things off, Four Roses Small Batch is a mid-level offering within their core range of Kentucky straight bourbons. Contrary to widespread belief, this bottling isn’t just a higher proof version of their colloquially known ‘Yellow Label’ bottle and instead, is a more ‘focused’ bourbon blend.
How so, you may ask? Well, by name alone, it’s made from a smaller selection of barrels, rumoured to be in the regions of 250 or so. Additionally, it uses only four of their ten recipes within it’s blend, which I’ve explained further below.
Aged between 7-8 years, it’s a bit younger than the Elijah Craig. Despite that, it’s got a reputation as being one of the best bourbons on the market with it’s accessible price point of below $40. With a strong advocacy for mixing and cocktails, I’m keen to see how it tastes.
Nose: Opening the bottle, the smell of Four Roses Small Batch bourbon is smooth and inviting with a hint of spice. Poured into my glass, I get more of these spiced aromas with wafts of clove and cinnamon. There’s also an underlying honey sweetness that comes-through which brings subtler floral notes of grass, hay and honeysuckle. Strangely, there’s also a waft of toasted bread which, by anyone’s measure, is a lovely smell indeed. Overall, the nose of this bourbon has really got my attention.
Palate: On my first sip, I’m immediately met with a rich and velvety texture. There’s a distinct sweetness that starts off the taste, reminiscent of manuka honey. Underlying this sweetness is more of the same winter spice; delivering flavours of cloves and cinnamon, along with toasted oak for a slightly drying flavour.
Compared to the Elijah Craig, this bourbon is smoother with very little burn. At 45% ABV, it’s soft and easy drinking. For me, I don’t need to add any water as this is going down nicely.
Further into my glass, I can taste sweet dried fruits. I taste raisins, apples, dates and some fig which add complexity and depth. There’s also a slightly tart flavour of cherries. This tartness is backed-up with a creamy touch from the crème anglaise, adding a luxurious layer.
Mouthfeel: The texture of this bourbon is smooth and decidedly creamy. It reminds me of custard, with a velvety sort of mouthfeel. It’s got very little harshness which makes it super easy to sip.
Finish: On the finish, this bourbon delivers a long and lingering aftertaste which combines all of the elements I’ve tasted throughout my glass. The sweet manuka honey flavour melds in harmony with the winter spices whilst the toasted oak provides a drying effect. Lastly, there’s a resurgence of crème anglaise that adds an almost dessert-like sweetness on the very end.
Price: I terms of positioning, the Small Batch by Four Roses is a much better bottle than their signature Yellow Label. At a higher proof of 90 (45% ABV) it delivers much greater flavour with more depth and a greater finish. For the extra money, their small batch edition is a much better expression which I found far more enjoyable.
At less than $40 ($31) 4RSB is a great value bourbon. With a creamy smooth texture and ample flavours of spice, honey and fruit, it’s everything you want from a mid-shelf whiskey. Compared to the Elijah Craig, I found it easier to drink with less ‘bite’.
The Small Batch recipe: If you’re new to bourbon (and Four Roses) it’s worth knowing about this distillery’s unique recipe system. As with all bourbons, the grains (mashbill) used to make the whiskey are a minimum of 51% corn, plus rye and malted barley.
However, Four Roses use two different mashbills which they use with 5 different types of yeast to make their famous ten bourbon recipes, each with their own unique code. These ten bourbons are aged separately in charred oak barrels prior to blending, depending on the whisky being made. What differentiates the ten recipes are the mashbill and yeast strain used.
For their small batch bottle, they use recipes 2 and 3 from a ‘high rye’ mashbill B, mixed with recipes 7 and 8 from lower rye mashbill E. This might seem a little confusing, but they do this to balance the spicier rye mashbill with their sweeter corn mashbill for an overall more rounded flavour.
- Mash bill B: 60% corn / 35% rye / 5% malted barley
- Mash bill E: 75% corn / 20% rye / 5% malted barley
If you’re exploring Four Roses for the first time, their recipe system can seem a little overwhelming, but it’s actually pretty simple if you take a look at this handy blog post. It’s basically a matrix of ten unique bourbon recipes which are blended and balanced according their flavour profile.
Four Roses Food pairings
For snacks, Elijah Craig’s sweet notes of honey and orange make it perfect for spicy-sweet pairings like barbecue chicken wings or a plate of nachos. Elijah Craig’s tough and smoky flavour complements charred flavours found in hot wings and adds a pleasant sweetness to the creamy cheese topping on nachos.
For starters, Elijah Craig pairs well with cured meats such as prosciutto or bacon. Elijah Craig’s hints of cinnamon, raisins and almonds offer a pleasing contrast to the saltiness of cured meats. For something more substantial, Elijah Craig can also be paired with charcuterie boards loaded with assorted cheeses, nuts and fruits.
For mains, steak or pork chops are excellent choices for Elijah Craig bourbon pairings. Elijah Craig provides an ideal balance between its caramelised sugar notes and robust oakyness that complement steak’s natural flavours. Elijah Craig also brings out the subtle sweetness in pork chops while adding an oaky layer to each bite.
For desserts, Elijah Craig pairs perfectly with indulgent puddings such like pecan pie or chocolate mousse cake. Elijah Craig has strong notes of vanilla that add complexity and depth when combined with sweet desserts like these. The bourbon’s spiciness even helps bring out the nutty flavour within pecan pies while adding richness to chocolate mousse cakes.
Four Roses cocktail suggestions
Considering their age and quality, both these bourbons are very reasonably priced. As main market contenders, they’re both pleasant drams with typical flavours of sweet, spice and fruit.
For me, the Elijah Craig was the harsher of the two. The nose wasn’t too descriptive either, and took a while to identify the spice, nuts and sweetness. On the palate, there was an up-front peppery heat which required ‘negotiating’ with some water. This helped calm the heat and thankfully encouraged some of the floral sweet notes to eventually came through. As a mixing whisky, this would work really well for cocktails or with soda. The spice would really liven-up a Old Fashioned or a Manhattan.
In comparison, the younger Four Roses small batch had a much better nose. It revealed the flavours within, offering a bouquet of winter spices and sweetness which developed on the palate. The mouthfeel was also incredibly creamy and smooth with flavours of honey and florals. What really shone was the array of orchard fruits, fig and cherry. As a sipping whisky, the Four Roses was a better all rounder with a fruity sweet flavour profile with very little burn.
Comparing these small batch bottling between Elijah Craig vs Four Roses, I’d go with the team from Lawrenceburg. The Four Roses small batch won me over with it’s sweeter flavour profile and silky smooth mouthfeel. I could easily drink this neat or with ice. Personally, I think the Elijah Craig is better for mixing drinks and making cocktails, where its harsher edges can be tamed.