War of the Four Roses Header

The War of the Roses, Part 1

In Banter by Brett AtlasLeave a Comment

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.

OBSF RECIPE

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.

Proof: 119.4
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.

OBSO RECIPE

The “O” yeast is listed as “Rich fruitiness, light vanilla, caramel and full-bodied.” In other words, classic Four Roses characteristics.

Proof: 111.8
Age: 12 Years

Nose: Classic rye nose immediately with a definite floral scent. Interestingly, the “Q” yeast is supposed to be the floral one, but this “O” definitely exhibits similar properties. Some light tobacco shows itself as well. This one was very enticing.

Taste: Some leather leads into a dry oak and bitterness. I was expecting more complexity, but it was far too one-dimensional for me.

Finish: There was a long and warm finish, but ultimately it was too bitter and dry for me. I found it pretty disappointing. I added some water to see if it would tame the bitterness, but it didn’t help the taste and also muted what was an otherwise excellent nose.

Conclusion: I liked the nose on this one, but it did not carry over into the actual flavor. I’ll be interested in trying another OBSO that’s a bit younger to see the difference. I’m going to follow up with another sample.

OBSK RECIPE

The “K” yeast is listed as “Light spiciness, light caramel and full-bodied.”

Proof: 111.3
Age: 8 Years

Nose: Terrific. Caramel and Butterscotch.

Taste: A nice balance of sweetness and spice with notes of butterscotch and banana. I was glad to see the flavors from the nose translate to the taste. Not an overwhelming oak influence, which isn’t surprising given its eight years in the barrel.

Finish: Medium and satisfying. Dryness and rye spice linger.

Conclusion: I enjoyed this one and look forward to finding a bottle of it to spend more time with. At 111.3 proof, I didn’t even consider adding water to it. The main improvement I was looking for was a longer finish. It will also be interesting to see if an OBSK at a higher proof will lengthen the finish while still preserving the flavor. Given that there is already a dryness present at eight years, I won’t be looking for much more age in the next one. This is what I enjoy most about the journey we take when experimenting with store picks.

OBSV RECIPE

The “V” yeast is listed as “light fruitiness, light vanilla, caramel and creamy.” This is a very similar description to the “O” yeast, and obviously, Four Roses likes it because the standard shelf Four Roses Single Barrel is always OBSV.

Proof: 116.6
Age: 9 Years

Nose: Caramel and fruit along with slight oak and spice. It’s everything a Four Roses fan has come to expect.

Palate: dark berry and rye spice.

Finish: Medium-long and very satisfying

Conclusion: It’s easy to see why the OBSV is the standard Single Barrel recipe. A classic bourbon with the trademark signature fruitiness of the best Four Roses bottles. If you want to have some fun, try a barrel proof version of the OBSV side-by-side with the standard 100 proof Single Barrel.

OBSQ RECIPE

The “Q” yeast is listed as “Essence of floral aromas.”

Proof: 114.8
Age: 8 Years

Nose: Fantastic. Caramel, floral, some dry rye spice. It’s the only recipe that literally caused my face to smile.

Palate: Dryness and rye spice along with a perfect sweetness. This is everything I love about bourbon.

Finish: warm and long lasting

Conclusion: OBSQ was hands down my favorite recipe. While I enjoyed the OBSV and the OBSK samples, the OBSQ was on another level.

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.

About the Author

Brett Atlas

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Mark Twain said, “too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” A passionate whiskey hunter & gatherer, Brett serves his opinions and reviews just like his bourbon – straight and not watered down. A native Chicagoan, he attended the University of Kansas and Chicago’s John Marshall Law School before moving to Omaha, Nebraska, where he runs a packaging distribution company and enjoys opening bottles with good friends.