From Coke to Cask Strength Header

From Coke to Cask Strength – Part Two

In Banter by Bob Bennett7 Comments

“My only experience is bourbon & Coke.” That was the answer when I asked Kevin, who purchased a VIP trip to the Bourbon Trail, what he typically drank. Read Part 1 of From Coke to Cash Strength to get the full story as we head into Part 2.

As with most people who visit the bourbon trail, they come away with a personal connection to certain distilleries and the people who work at them. For Kevin, that indeed was the case & it helped shepherd him along at a remarkable pace regarding what his palate enjoyed. After our first day on the trail saw visits to Maker’s Mark & Jim Beam, our last day was dedicated to all things Four Roses.

Alright, full disclosure: I love Four Roses Bourbon, and I don’t try to hide that. I am also fortunate to have an excellent relationship with Dan Gardner, their manager of regional sales and one of the kindest, most genuine people you’ll ever meet. Having been in the industry for more than 30 years, Dan has great stories, and I always learn something when I’m with him. When planning this trip together, he was hugely supportive & assisted me in multiple ways to ensure that we had a great experience. If you ever have an opportunity to attend one of Dan’s events, do not miss it.

We decided to spend the morning at the distillery, have lunch in Bardstown, then Dan would meet us at the warehouse & bottling facility at Cox’s Creek that afternoon. Even though the distillery wasn’t completely open to the public because of renovations, it was worth us making the trip to get acquainted with the Four Roses process and taste their portfolio. We hit on a day where two barrel strength recipes selected by master distiller Brent Elliott were available, both of which were included in our tasting. Those used to be regularly available at the distillery & bottling facility, but not as much anymore. Lucky us!

Four Roses Distillery Group Photo

Our tasting took us through the regular three expressions, then both barrel strengths they had on hand (OBSV & OESF). I was interested in watching Kevin as he was guided through the expressions, since I knew he was already a fan of the 80 proof. The nightly tastings had seen him come away enjoying a lower proof pour, but he walked out of Maker’s preferring cask strength. What would happen here?

With almost a repeat of the previous morning’s tasting, Kevin came away enjoying the barrel strength OESF most (barrel location KE, 56-1K for those of you playing along at home). Coming from a first-tier barrel, he enjoyed the subtle herbal notes from the F yeast strain and found it a very easy drinker at 108 proof. He also preferred the lower rye “E” mash bill over the “B” after sampling the OBSV barrel strength. Since Dan had arranged a private experience for us, we were able to take our time with the tasting and Kevin was able to enjoy everything Four Roses had to offer really. Since the barrel strengths weren’t really Kara’s cup of tea, he happily finished hers as well. That lightweight label was slowly fading away. He was also impressed with the beautiful vintage bottles in the tasting room, saying later that someone really took great care to make a bottle that beautiful. He had pretty much declared Four Roses as his go-to at this point, and despite what many may think, I did not push him in this direction, he came to a decision on his own.

“Every bottle is touched by an actual person, it’s just a very personal connection.”

After lunch at the Old Talbott Tavern, we caught up with Dan for a tour of the bottling & warehouse facility. This was my first time in the new bottling facility, and a perfect opportunity for Kevin to really spend some time studying the line. Having only seen the old line, I had no idea of the shock I was in for with the new one. We were standing over the line as the shift came back from break, and Kevin was further pulled into the Four Roses web when learned that the single barrel bottles are all still hand-labeled for the barrel location & the hangtag. He was drawn to the human connection that brought with it. When we met up a few months later, he went into a further commentary on how much that had stayed with him. “Every bottle is touched by an actual person, it’s just a very personal connection.”

We were then led into the private barrel selection room. I wasn’t sure we’d get the opportunity for what happened next, but sure enough, Dan arranged for us to thief straight from the barrel.

I can attest, if you want to sell a newbie on bourbon, let them thief from the barrel. Kevin was super excited about this. We were standing in front of eight barrels that had been rolled out for possible selection that day. Dan poured us a sample from an OBSV barrel which was beautiful. We learned more about the bourbon, more about the private barrel program, and were envious as we stared at all the private barrels that had been pulled, awaiting bottling. Just as we were wrapping up, we started talking about the “O” yeast strain and how those barrels were becoming rare to see in a private selection. Mandy Vance, who manages the private barrel selection process, said: “I have an OESO over there.” My eyebrows raised, I looked at Dan and realized I could finally complete my tasting vertical. This was the only recipe that had eluded me all these years. Dan looks at Mandy and says, “Okay, what do we have to do to pop that OESO so Bob can have a taste?” When I insisted I did not need them to do that, Dan called me out on it: “YES YOU DO!” Yes, I did.

This was the icing on the cake for the whole trip, not just for me, but for Kevin. From the beginning, he really enjoyed the fruit notes from everything he had tasted from Four Roses. Now, he had an extremely rare opportunity to sample a fruit forward yeast strain, with the low rye mash bill he preferred, straight out of the barrel. It was hands down his favorite pour of the entire trip. He liked the fruit, and this had it. I was shocked at how fruity it was, almost like Juicy Fruit gum. As with the OESF earlier, it was from a lower tier (tier 2 this time), so it wasn’t overpowering at all. Very light, very mellow, strong fruit on the palate. If he could have, Kevin would have bought that barrel on site. He later said, “it’s very hard for me to describe how good that was.”

Photo of Dan Gardner of Four Roses

After checking out the rickhouse, a signed bottle from Brent Elliot was waiting for everyone, and Dan handed us Al Young’s book as we departed. Our final stop gave Kevin the biggest thrill of the trip, and the most talked about moment. Thieving that OESO was a perfect way to cap the trip. I’m exceptionally grateful to Dan and everyone at Four Roses for making the day so special for us.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped by Liquor Barn, where Kevin picked up some favorites from the nightly tastings, plus some suggestions I had made. We live in Missouri, which fortunately has some of the best pricing on bourbon in the country. But Kevin walked with Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond, 1792 Small Batch, Henry McKenna Bottled-in-Bond, & what would become a new go-to pour for him, Old Grand Dad Bottled-in-Bond. Having been home for a while now, he continues to tell me how much he loves the OGD and that he tells anyone who will listen what a great pour it is. He’s drinking it neat, or with a couple cubes, but that’s it.

For the final flight of the trip that evening, I took Kevin’s new appreciation for barrel strength bourbon for a spin and chose Old Grand Dad 114, Bulleit Barrel Proof, and Wild Turkey Rare Breed. Turns out, I was a little overambitious. Getting through the burn is a bit more difficult for him outside of the distillery. More proof that your surroundings affect your palate. See the excellent article Lee Stang did last Winter on this very topic here.

Kevin preferred to add a couple cubes with these but was still picking up more notes with his tastings, even more so once having an almond or berry to pair with it. None of them elicited a response even close to the barrel strength Four Roses he had earlier in the day, but as with the Booker’s he had the day before, none of them sent him running for the hills. What was also interesting was that he didn’t immediately say they brought strong ethanol, which was a tribute to how he had adapted over the course of the two days. The burn was there for him, and honestly, that wasn’t a surprise. The lowest proof was the OGD 114, with the Rare Breed clocking in at 116.8 & the Bulleit at 123.4. Once he moved past the burn, he was able to enjoy the pour.

The barrel strength flight is the final flight of the trip, and as we said goodbye for the evening, Kevin told me that he wants to do this again. I wanted to ensure he enjoyed himself and got everything out of the trip he was looking for, and he did.

“He is one of my most prized students.”

I am happy to report that Kevin has continued to #DrinkCurious since his return from the trail. He has purchased multiple decanters to hold his new treasures, and now regularly drinks bourbon neat when he’s out. When meets his parents for dinner, his dad now has a Four Roses waiting for him. I’m still shocked when I think that he went from lower proof bourbon mixed with Coke to barrel strength neat in a couple days. I’m reminded of a comment my friend made 20 years ago when he first introduced me to liquor, then I quickly progressed to higher proof spirits neat: “He is one of my most prized students.”

About the Author
Bob Bennett

Bob Bennett


The fifteen months Bob Bennett spent living in Lebanon, KY, as a child may have laid the groundwork for what would happen years later (something in the water…literally). Originally from Corning, NY, he grew up in a household where happy hour was celebrated every night. Surprisingly, Bennett didn’t start drinking until he was 23 years old. He quickly made up for lost time, gravitating to bourbon as his preferred libation immediately, and proudly filled the bar that was passed down from his father. In the years that followed, not only did he develop a deeper appreciation for bourbon, but began to cherish the opportunity to talk about the spirit he has grown to love. As the Artistic Director for Jazz St. Louis, Bennett has become the unofficial bourbon ambassador of jazz, spreading the gospel of good taste to musicians everywhere. It also helps endear him to the St. Louis community, which is needed, as bleeding Dodger Blue tends to rub those Cardinal fans the wrong way.


  1. Avatar

    Loved this article. Have long been a Makers fan but in last few years had heard more about a revitalized Four Roses, the gut rot of my youth, and last year we made another bourbon run and took in the distillery. Just love their product now, usually enjoy the Small Batch while saving Single Barrel for special evenings. A brother in law uses their Yellow Label.
    This trip you put together indeed sounds very special, glad it turned out so well!

    1. Bob Bennett

      Thanks very much Rusty! Glad you chose to #DrinkCurious and experience the return of Four Roses Bourbon. Cheers!

  2. Stephen Coomes

    Nice piece, Bob! Took a lot of work.

    BTW, I didn’t get a chance to mention the other night that I’m a Dodger fan, too.

    1. Bob Bennett

      Thanks Stephen! LA is starting to hit their stride, let’s hope it continues after the All-Star Break. 30 years is long enough between championships!

  3. Avatar

    Thanks Bob, I really enjoyed this article. I am in the preliminary stage of planning my first Kentucky Bourbon Trail trip (as part of a larger trip) and already realize I have been “overambitious” as you stated in your article, by planning to do too much in a short period (two days). However, I don’t know that I have any more days to add at this point. Who knows if I will ever get a chance to go again. It is a long way from West Texas. Thanks.

  4. Avatar

    First article I have read of yours and it was awesome, thank you! I’ve learned some just from reading it.

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