Today, I’ll be hoping to revisit a peak whiskey experience.
I have tasted a lot of Four Roses whiskey in the now four and a half years since I began writing for Malt. Starting with the entry-level “yellow label,” up through Small Batch and Small Batch Select, all the way to several of the annual Limited Edition bottlings (with a good number of single barrel selections thrown in), I felt like I had a pretty good grip on the range of outcomes from this distillery.
However, I had not had the chance to taste all ten recipes side-by-side. That changed when I finally joined my fellow Bourbon Crusaders down in Coxs Creek to pick a pair of barrels. Though I thought this would be the apotheosis of my Four Roses journey, I was pleasantly surprised when a fellow Crusader brought out a bottle that elicited gasps from my fellow tasters, as well as our host: the 17 year, five month OBSV single barrel, from the “mutant yeast” batch.
Those who have not heard tell of the mutant yeast can read more about it here. In short: the V yeast had mutated, which was discovered during a fermentation run. Rather than chuck out the mash, Jim Rutledge made the decision to barrel it with fingers crossed. This ended up becoming his favorite Four Roses whiskey ever; unfortunately, it is never to be recreated, as the mutated yeast strain was not preserved. Bottles were released to commemorate the opening of the new visitor center in 2012.
Our host, Mandy Vance, recalled wistfully that bottles of this were sitting around on the gift shop shelf long after they were set out. She mentioned calling friends to come down and purchase them, with the promise that they were actually “really good.” This is nearly impossible to imagine in the year 2023, a sign of how much things have changed over the past decade both for Four Roses and for the bourbon industry more generally.
Perhaps even more remarkable than the story behind this weird bourbon was how good it was. To call it “delicious” is like calling the Burj Khalifa “tall,” an understatement made ridiculous by its restraint in comparison to the experience of actually tasting this stuff. I wasn’t taking notes when I tried it, nor am I certain that they would have sufficiently communicated the sensations stimulated by this bourbon. I can tell you this: a friend was observed extending his tongue to lick the last drops off the inside of his Glencairn glass, so irresistible was this extraordinary whiskey.
Though I’m not tasting that whiskey again today (alas), I will be reviewing a similarly aged Four Roses that I hope will take me close to that pinnacle. This is a 16 year, 6 month bourbon is recipe OESV, from a set of 23 barrels bottled to support Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief. Specifically, this is from barrel RN 36-3H. Bottled at 116.4 proof (58.2% ABV), SRP was $200, with the proceeds going to aid the flood victims. This taste comes from a sample generously shared with me by Scott, who has my sincere thanks.
Four Roses OESV RN 36-3H – Review
Color: Medium-dark brownish orange
On the nose: A dramatic departure from most other Four Roses whiskies, though not in a bad way. This has a heft to it on the nose that starts with a rich note of butterscotch, before developing meatier aromas of roast beef and some ancient funk. An alluring note of acetone reminds me of being a kid and sniffing mom’s bottle of nail polish remover. With some time in the glass, this takes on more of an antique woodiness, as well as some medicinal notes of eucalyptus. There’s also a bit of egg yolk in here, and now chocolate fudge? This continues to evolve.
In the mouth: Much more Four Roses-like than the nose, the comparatively high rye (in even this lower-rye Four Roses mash bill) is evident from the very first sip. This starts with a pert and peppery kiss of rye on the front of the tongue, with the flavors broadening out only gradually as this moves toward the middle of the mouth. The extra years in the barrel are evident in the form of a tannic texture, and a woodiness that feels astringent, though not bitter. Toward the back of the mouth, I get a faint taste of cigarette ash before a pleasant (and much needed) reprise of that last chocolate fudge note from the nose. Feeling altogether higher in ABV than the 58.2% bottling strength, this tingles the tongue, roof of the mouth, and lips with a prickly heat long after the last swallow.
Sad to say, this isn’t quite at the level of the epic mutant yeast barrel. That’s not to say that it’s not an improvement on regular old Four Roses… or, indeed, on many of the single barrel selections I have tried. This has a depth and a breadth of aromatic and flavor development that is not easily found. The extra age has imparted some unique notes, more suggestive of dusty bourbon from the middle part of the last century than of anything you’ll find on the store shelves today.
My appreciation of this bourbon is tempered by a few outlier notes that, unfortunately, detract from the overall presentation. That acetone note on the nose might bother a taster, depending on their sensitivity to it. As mentioned, I have a nostalgic predilection for it, but even so I found it a little overdone. In the mouth, this didn’t quite have enough body through the middle to offset the hardness of the rye and the wood.
All in, though, it’s solidly above average bourbon, and another fascinating pin in my mental map of Four Roses. If you’ve got friends as generous as mine, you might encounter an open bottle or sample of this, and you’d be remiss not to give it a try.
Image courtesy of Denver and Liely.