One of the aspects that makes tasting bourbon so exciting is the variation that occurs from one release to the next. A bourbon that is “batched” is a blend of several barrels that tastes uniform across every bottle. People know exactly what to expect when they buy a bottle of Woodford Reserve or Maker’s Mark. A bottle of “Single Barrel” bourbon, however, can taste markedly different from bottle to bottle. The whiskey from one barrel may have a markedly different taste profile from the same distilled whiskey in every other barrel. Just a few of the contributing factors include: the time the whiskey has been in contact with the barrel, the location of the barrel in the warehouse (and the resulting temperature swings) and proof differences in the whiskey when it is removed from the barrel.
A good analogy is when you go to your favorite BBQ joint. You know before you order that the ribs are likely to be unbelievable, but they might not be this time. The meat is always the same, but it may be slightly overcooked. It may sit in a different part of the smoker. On and on. It’s the same principle when it comes to bourbon.
There’s a reason some people search for a bottle from a particular barrel number (The “Honey Barrel”). When a bourbon hits all the right notes, it’s like a symphony in your mouth. No brand gives you more opportunity to find that perfect bottle than Four Roses. Their single barrel releases are not only relatively affordable, but they begin with any of ten different mash bills. Once you’ve narrowed those down to your favorite recipes, you can have a lot of fun hunting for your very favorite.
The ten recipes are identified by four-letter codes, which are actually very simple to understand. There are only 2 letters that matter: The second and the fourth. The first letter is always “O” (indicating it’s from Four Roses) and the third letter is always “S” (indicating it’s straight whiskey.). The second letter designates which of the two mash bills was used: The high-rye (“E” – 20% rye) or the higher-rye (“B” – 35% rye). The fourth letter indicates which of the five different yeast strains was used. From the two mash bills (“E” and “B”) and the five different yeast strains come the ten unique Four Roses recipes. Understanding these two letters will give you a much better idea of what the general taste profile of the bourbon is likely to be.
A store will pick a single barrel of a Four Roses recipe, generally bottled at cask strength and aged somewhere between 8 and 12 years. With ten unique recipes and countless private barrel picks, knowing which recipes best suit your palate is the key to enjoying these terrific whiskeys. To that end, I’ve taken versions of the five different “B” (higher rye) recipes and tasted them side-by-side. Trading samples with friends and tasting at stores is a good way to do this yourself.
I won’t name the stores who did these picks, but the whiskey details are provided. I’ve ordered the five recipes from my least favorite to my favorite.
Click on the five recipes using the tabs below to read my review.
The “F” yeast is listed as “essences of herbal aromas.” I’ve talked with several people who love the flavor of the “F” yeast. To me, it’s the oddball of the group.
Age: 11 Years
Nose: The rye spice blends into a unique fruity essence I can’t quite put my finger on. Given the high proof of this bottle, it is still balanced remarkably well, in that the aromas blend seamlessly. Unfortunately, it’s just not one that I enjoy.
Taste: The fruity essence on the nose never presents itself in the flavor, while a wave of dry oak and rye spice hits immediately. You can tell it’s been aged.
Finish: All oak and spice on the finish. It’s longer-lasting, but it doesn’t leave me eager for another sip.
Conclusion: I can see where some people will love the nose on this “F,” as it’s very different from the typical bourbon. Water did improve this one a great deal for me, but after tasting it, I’m confident there won’t be another “F” bottle I will want to try. For me, it isn’t about the oak or the proof. I just don’t like the herbal tones. Therefore, I know I can safely remove the “F” recipes from my future bottle hunting list.
Every store pick is going to be different, and in an ideal situation, you’d be able to taste every pick before buying a bottle. Since that’s not always practical, knowing your recipes can go a long way toward getting the best bottles for your taste profile. Once you do, you can experiment with differences like proof and age and begin to appreciate the variations that make drinking bourbon such a terrific experience.
One of my favorite Four Roses picks ever was a 12-year OBSQ. From this tasting, however, the picks I enjoyed more were the younger ones, while the older picks had a dryness and bitterness that negatively affected the taste for me. My main takeaway from this experiment is that I should probably taste anything over ten years old first before purchasing a bottle. I also have a much better frame of reference for the five different yeast variations when faced with purchasing a store pick in the future.