Everything’s coming up roses for me…

I was equal parts excited and nervous when I learned that the Bourbon Crusaders, of which I am a member, were allocated a Four Roses barrel pick. At the least, this meant that I’d be able to purchase a bottle of the resultant selection. My true hope, however, was that I’d be one of the fortunate six chosen to travel to Kentucky to participate in the pick.

Since I nonchalantly plucked a Four Roses barrel pick (formally known as Four Roses Single Barrel Barrel Strength) off a store shelf back in 2018, these have become some of the most desired of bourbon whiskies. I had to rush to a local retailer when a pair became available in early 2020, just before pandemic lockdowns shuttered my city. By that time, picks were trading hands on the “secondary market” at multiples of their retail price.

The news of a “sticker ban” (not exactly) illustrated that demand for these bottles far outstripped supply, to the extent that the implicit threat of being excluded from future picks was seen as a sufficient deterrent to sticker foolishness. A 40% expansion in the program (to 1,200 barrels per year) doesn’t come close to satiating whisky lovers’ appetite for this format. Thus, our group was lucky to be awarded one of the 50 annual “marketing barrels” set aside for non-retail customers.

Having previously enjoyed my experiences picking Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and Old Forester Single Barrel Barrel Strength with the Crusaders, I was keen to throw my name in the hat. I’m pleased to say that a random drawing went my way, and I prepared for a late June trip to the Four Roses Bottling Facility in Coxs Creex, KY, where the selections take place.

The six of us were hosted by the gracious Mandy Vance, who related some interesting tidbits to us prior to the tasting. For example, did you know that the “O” in Four Roses’ “O_S_” stands for “Old Prentice,” the name of the distillery in Lawrenceburg purchased by Seagram in 1946? Throughout the tasting Mandy was able to share her expertise and experience with us, and I’d like to thank her for her kind hospitality.

One unique aspect of the Four Roses pick process is that unlike other distilleries – which usually offer only a handful of barrels from which to make a selection – Four Roses allows us to choose from 10 barrels, representing each of the recipe codes. For all but the most voracious collectors, this will be the only chance to taste all of the recipes side-by-side.

However, there’s also the challenge of making a discerning judgment on such a voluminous amount of whiskey. Going into the tasting, I was hoping that a few barrels would be such standouts as to allow for the easy elimination of the better part of the field. To that end, we established the following rules for tasting:

  1. Each taster would try all 10 barrels and award their top three selections a score of three points (first choice), two points (second choice), or one point (third choice).
  2. The three whiskies with the highest scores would then be set up in a blind arrangement by our hosts.
  3. The three finalists would be tasted blind, with taster given the choice between awarding a score of two points (first choice) and one point (second choice), or awarding a score of three points to a single whiskey (standout favorite)

We would not know any of the details about recipe, age, rickhouse, or proof until we made our final selection.

With those rules in mind, me and my five fellow Crusaders undertook the task of picking the best of the barrels offered. While I would love to give you detailed tasting notes on each barrel we tried, the time allotted and the sheer quantity of whiskey to be considered rendered this impossible. However, I am able to share with you my sketchy notes and the scores awarded at each point in the process, which will perhaps help illustrate the dynamics of the selection.

First Round:

Barrel 1
Nose: Floral, rich, caramelly, grape soda, rye bread.
Palate: Firm and sweet.
Result: 10 points, finalist.

Barrel 2
Nose: Sweet, confectionery, grape bubblegum.
Palate: Astringent and sweet.
Result: 3 points, eliminated.
Reveal: OBSO, 10 years and five months.

Barrel 3
Nose: Green, grassy, grape.
Palate: Round, nutty.
Result: 0 points, eliminated.
Reveal: OBSV, 10 years and five months.

Barrel 4
Nose: Sweet and herbal.
Palate: Round and fruity.
Result: 6 points, finalist.

Barrel 5
Nose: Floral and salty/savory.
Palate: Firm and tannic.
Result: 3 points, eliminated.
Reveal: OBSF, 11 years and 3 months.

Barrel 6
Nose: Floral and cinnamon.
Palate: Warm and round.
Result: 3 points, eliminated.
Reveal: OBSQ, 11 years and 3 months.

Barrel 7
Nose: Spicy and herbal, licorice.
Palate: Sweet but slightly thin.
Result: 5 points, eliminated.
Reveal: OESV, 11 years and five months.

Barrel 8
Nose: Floral and woody.
Palate: Round and nutty.
Result: 6 points, finalist.

Barrel 9
Nose: Candy and herbal.
Palate: Corny, sweet.
Result: 0 points, eliminated.
Reveal: OBSK, 9 years and four months.

Barrel 10
Nose: Grainy and herbal.
Palate: Rye driven and woody.
Result: 0 points, eliminated.
Reveal: OESF, 11 years and three months.

At this point our group stepped outside while Mandy removed the eliminated barrels and rearranged the remaining contenders. She marked each glass with a color, and we re-tasted the three.

Second Round:

Red
Nose: Round, licorice.
Palate: Tart fruit, minerality.
Result: 0 points, eliminated.
Reveal: Barrel 7 from above, OESV, 11 years and five months.

Black
Nose: Cocoa, spice.
Palate: Thinner and more tart, astringent wood.
Result: 8 points, second choice.
Reveal: Barrel 1 from above, OESK, 10 years and four months.

Blue
Nose: Mint, herbs, wood, fruit
Palate: Tart and tannic, woody, rounds out nicely.
Result: 10 points, winner.
Reveal: Barrel 4 from above, OESO, 9 years and 3 months.

We have a winner! This is barrel #O13B26-B12BNB-1, from the east side of warehouse H, rack 36, tier 2, position M.

I believe there are some interesting observations that can be gleaned from this experience. In no particular order:

The blind format is valuable in terms of keeping our preconceptions out of the process. For example, we picked the youngest of the ten barrels offered to us, proving once again that age isn’t everything.

More fascinating, I believe, is that the consensus favorite from the first round came in second. For anyone setting the rules for their own pick (or perhaps as a fun idea for a blind tasting), the break and re-blinding of the barrels proved that perceptions can change drastically from the first impression.

I’m now eagerly awaiting my bottles of this, not least of all so I can make a more full and detailed assessment under circumstances more conducive to patient tasting. I am planning a follow-up piece where I taste it against some other barrel picks… if I can find any, that is! In the meantime, I should say that this experience was a great deal of fun (thanks again to our kind hosts), and I’d strongly recommend it to anyone who can get themselves included on a pick.

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