Do you ever feel like whiskey comes at you in waves? I do, and I’m pretty sure it’s not just my tendency toward the deep dive format and horizontal tastings. Put differently: when it rains, it pours, and those April showers have brought me blooming roses this spring.
After a long period of inattention to the Four Roses distillery, I found myself inundated with new varieties to try recently. First, there was the Small Batch Select, which was released last year and only just made it to the Land of Lincoln. Following shortly thereafter, a local retailer announced a pair of Single Barrel selections. I’m currently waiting on the fourth (get it?) but for now I’ll have to be contented with these three different bottles.
Speaking of different bottles: we’ve talked in this space about “expression sprawl,” the tendency for larger distilleries or brands to release a metastasizing list of whiskeys. Working through the American distilleries of significant size, I count 11 different whiskeys coming out of Brown-Forman (not counting flavored whiskey, barrel picks, and one-offs). Wild Turkey has 15, Heaven Hill has 20, Beam (Clermont) has 24. Buffalo Trace takes the crown with 42, excluding the overseas Blanton’s variants. Meanwhile, Four Roses focuses on its five core expressions.
I admire this, sincerely. It’s like the difference between going to a cozy restaurant with a small selection of dishes curated by the chef and being handed the biblical tome that is the Cheesecake Factory menu (for those overseas readers who haven’t been to the Cheesecake Factory: your luck will run out at some point). Doing a small number of things exceedingly well is better, in my opinion, than trying to be everything to everyone.
While this limited range may not pacify those in need of constant novelty, Four Roses still keeps it interesting with their recipe codes. I have previously discussed the codes, as has Adam, but for the convenience of newcomers I’ll again provide a crash course: Four Roses has 10 recipes, representing each of their different mash bills (two: E and B) and yeast types (five: V, K, O, Q, and F). These are inserted into the format O_S_, where the “O” signifies the distillery (Four Roses, in Lawrenceburg, KY) and the “S” signifies Straight Whiskey. Roger that?
As for the mash bills: both are comparatively high in rye, with “B” at 35% and “E” coming in lower, at 20%. Each of the yeast strains is assigned a descriptor: “V” is “delicate fruit;” “K” gives us “slight spice;” we get “rich fruit” from “O” while “floral essence” is the marker of “Q;” finally, “F” produces “herbal notes.”
Most folks will be familiar with recipe “OBSV,” as this is the only one which is released widely, in the form of the retail version of Single Barrel. This expression is 50% ABV and – at around $45 for a bottle – is a solid pour, says Jason. The other nine recipes are blended into the straight bourbon or small batch releases. The only way to taste them in isolation is to pick up one of the Single Barrel store picks.
If you’re the type of person who immediately grasps the potential associated with this: congratulations, dork! Of course, it takes one to know one. One of my dream tastings is ten of these babies lined up for comparison, with each of the different recipes represented. Until that happy day arrives, I’ll be forced to make sporadic point-to-point comparisons in order to populate a mental library of tasting notes.
Today’s review will be comprised of just such a comparison. We have two bottles here, from two different barrels with two different recipes. They were selected by Warehouse Liquors or, more accurately, by the store’s proprietor Gene Charness. Gene will be familiar to Malt readers from the several store picks I have reviewed from him, as well as from our lengthy chat about his philosophy and process.
A quick note on price: I paid $85 each for these 750 ml bottles. That’s higher than I paid for my last Four Roses store pick ($60) and above even the high end of the range these typically appear in nowadays ($60 to $70). As I’ve mentioned before, I’m always happy to shell out the extra few bucks to support local retailers. Given the evolution of global events since I snagged these bottles, I’m even more happy to have done so. Nevertheless, this higher level of pricing will be accounted for in my consideration and scoring.
First, we have barrel 73-IV, from Warehouse R5. This is recipe “OBSV,” which utilizes the aforementioned higher-rye mash bill “B” (50% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley) and yeast strain “V,” which combine (says Four Roses) to give us the “Delicate Fruit, Spicy, Creamy” profile. This was aged for 10 years, 7 months, before being bottled at 52.7%.
Four Roses Single Barrel 73-IV, Warehouse Liquors Pick – Review
Color: Medium dirty golden orange
On the nose: A wave of vanilla meets some ripe fruity aromas. Clementines mingle with confectioners’ sugar and a stalky green note. I’m getting some baking chocolate and a faint whiff of key lime pie if I reach, but otherwise this might be the most understated nose on a Four Roses that I can recall. After a long time open, this reveals some smoky and savory notes of burnt ends.
In the mouth: With a tart, citric entrance, this suddenly blooms into a creamy wave of vanilla at the front of the tongue. Halfway through the mouth, this broadens out into more of a wood-inflected note, like freshly-polished furniture, with a nutty accent. The rye is evident on the finish, where a grainy and peppery texture takes over as this lingers persistently, lapsing occasionally into a woody bitterness.
This never really gets there for me. There are some high points, like the barbecue notes on the nose and some of the rich woodiness in the mouth, but they’re sandwiched between some awkward and unbalanced sensations, particularly on the palate. In total, this combines the good of a single barrel (unique character) with some of the bad (lack of balance and harmony). In light of this, and the price, I’m scoring it a touch below the middle of the range.
Let’s now compare that with barrel 31-IV, from Warehouse MW. This is recipe “OESK,” combining Four Roses’ lower-rye mash bill “E” (75% corn, 20% rye, 5% malted barley) and yeast strain “K.” Per Four Roses, we’re in for a “Spicy, Full Body” profile. At an age of 10 years, 11 months, this was bottled at a higher strength of 57.1%; again, I paid $85 for the bottle.
Four Roses Single Barrel 31-IV, Warehouse Liquors Pick – Review
Color: Similar medium dirty golden orange, maybe a shade darker
On the nose: On first opening, soft and creamy scents of floral soap caress the nose. Some more herbaceous smells of bay leaves and dry barbecue spice rub give this a bit of a nip, but the majority of the aromatic profile is dominated by the smooth sweetness. After some time left open, this changes into the scent of dried banana peels, a salty nuttiness, mocha, and a faintly ashy nuance. Adding a few drops of water releases the meaty scent of chicken broth.
In the mouth: At first, this is very all-together, which makes it hard to pick out individual notes. Not that it’s one-note, mind you; texturally, it’s quite variegated. The front starts sharp and tart, like a warm knife blade sliding across the tongue. The middle of the tongue is entirely comprised of a gritty note of freshly planed wood. There’s a fleeting sweetness at the back of the mouth before this settles into a finish heavily laden with floral perfume.
After some time and aeration this starts to broaden out in a way that makes it easier to discern the component flavors. The tip of the tongue has a kiss of salty peanut. This transitions to midpalate with a distinct flavor of cola. Through the middle and the back of the mouth, a more astringent texture combines with the sense of burnt ashiness on the finish. A few drops of water soften this up considerably, allowing for the emergence of lemon towards the front of the mouth and bouillon towards the back.
This, again, suffers from a mismatch between several appealing attributes and the overall sensation, which comes across as hard-edged and disjointed in places. As an experiment, I mixed half of each of these and was better pleased with the resultant blend. It presented a more cogent experience, with the flavors progressing in an orderly way, rather than jutting out occasionally or singing out one by one at random. Better than the OBSV, but still far from the best that Four Roses has to offer.
Store picks are akin to the independently bottled single casks of Scotland, in that they’re a gamble. Unless you’re able to try one before you buy, you can’t really be sure what you’re getting. The variation inherent to the format can surprise on both the upside and the downside. I find this risk/reward to have a positive skew; the few underachievers are more than made up for by the mind-blowing whiskeys that fully change one’s perception of a given distillery’s potential.
These two sit somewhere in the middle of that continuum. With Four Roses, in particular, the lure of the store pick remains strong given that it’s the only way to taste nine of the ten recipe codes in isolation, and the only way to taste them all at barrel proof. While I wouldn’t run out to snatch up another bottle of either of these for my personal library (not that there are likely any left; these things sell like hotcakes), I’m not wringing my hands with regret, either.