It took nearly a year of coordination to get a barrel selection date at Four Roses. As it turned out, with total time on the ground of just four hours, this would be the very last barrel selection of 2016 to be snuck in just under the wire!
Our previous barrel selections were based on samples that were sent to us, but the program has since been dramatically revamped due to supply issues. Four Roses barrel selections are now only available to those that have purchased barrels in the past and selections must be made at the distillery. It makes sense when you think about it- sending out samples ties up barrels until decisions are made. When you multiply those decision trees out among those that want barrels, the math becomes apparent. We went back and forth on availability of barrels and trying to find dates that worked, but I finally made the plans to arrive in the wee hours of the final weekday of 2016, rent a car to make the short trek from Louisville, taste some world class bourbon and then reverse course.
I’d been to Four Roses before, but never to the Cox Creek facility where my appointment was. The barrel selection room is in a nondescript building nestled between a neighborhood of Four Roses’ signature single story rickhouses. These warehouses are tiny compared to some of the monster, six to ten story rickhouses normally used in the area. The diminutive warehouses were built to ensure a more even temperature from top to bottom and therefore a more consistent aging process.
Four Roses makes their bourbon using two different mashbills and five different yeast strains which provides ten different recipe variants. For some detail about the recipes, check out the Four Roses’ Infographic. The recipes are noted on the label and there is quite a difference from one variant to the next. As you become familiar with the distillery you establish preferences, but also an appreciation for the entire lineup.
With barrel selections I’ve made in the past, several of the recipes were unavailable. I was ecstatic to open the door and see nine barrels waiting there for me! The only missing recipe, OBSO, is the whiskey that goes into the 100 Proof Single Barrel product that is widely available. I was told that the resulting shortage of this recipe means no more single barrel selections of OBSO for another two years. Oh well, nine will do! I asked my host if it was possible to assemble a nearly complete set of nine for our shop, but allocations wouldn’t allow me to be greedy- I’d have to narrow the field. We proceeded by drawing barrel samples with a thief, setting up all nine glasses, and getting down to business!
As with all tastings, I spend some time nosing all of the whiskey we will be tasting. Nine different samples is a lot for one session and it takes a bit of time to get your head around what makes them each special. I asked to blind taste the samples- I didn’t want to know the ages or the recipes until after so as not to be influenced by anything other than the bourbon itself.
Candidates for the Barrel Selection program are hand culled from the general population by distiller Brent Elliott. He focuses on exceptional barrels that best represent each recipe. This ensures the store picks will be a grade above the rest. While there wasn’t a bad barrel in this bunch (I have had what I considered sub-par barrels before), I definitely have my preferences with Four Roses and could pick out the two SQ variants immediately. When choosing store picks, I tend to work backwards and eliminate my least favorite, so these two were on the hit list.
Tasting this many cask strength bourbons straight from the barrel takes a bit of time. Go too fast and your palate is thrashed too much to appreciate the differences. Slow, small sips with palate cleansers do the trick and reviewing the field a couple of times helps solidify the decision. We tasted, we talked, and narrowed the field down to two. I again implored my host just to release nine barrels to us so we didn’t have to choose, but I’d only get one.
As it turns out, the two the field were narrowed down to were the OBSK and the OBSF, and I was torn between the two. Both were off the charts tasty with explosive blasts of flavor- vanilla, caramel and the things you’d expect from bourbon. But the OBSK had a more impressive finish and a bit more cinnamon spice. It turns out, our OBSK bottling saw 9 years and three months in oak before being bottled at 57.1% ABV and sent to us. This fine bottle is now available for purchase online while supplies last.