Four Roses Private Selection Barrels

“Ask, and it shall be given you” – Matthew 7:7

Maybe I’m overselling that. Often, you don’t even need to ask. Express a little interest, show some curiosity about a topic, engage constructively with an open mind, and you might be surprised what you find coming your way.

Those who read my reviews here or follow me on Twitter might be chuckling ironically at that paragraph. If you don’t know me personally, I can understand why my shtick might make you think ill of me. I sometimes energetically rip into a whiskey that finds my disfavor. Even those I mostly enjoy often get treated roughly, with the punitive deduction of points for minor flaws or poor value for money. I’m also a gleeful gadfly, mocking both established brands and craft newcomers with memes of my own making.

So, I get it. Maybe you’ve decided that I am an inconsolably angry jerk, working out his unhappiness in the form of whiskey criticism. In my defense, I’ve been doing this for nearly five years, and I have met a surprisingly large group of whiskey friends – both virtual and in person – for whom I feel a genuine fondness and appreciation. When I’m around them and the whiskey is flowing, I’m typically in a pretty good mood.

I have one of these friends to credit for the subjects of today’s reviews. Back to my initial conceit: a grain of engagement can be rewarded with a good few ounces of whiskey, which is what has happened in this case.

Though I suspect that most whiskey hobbyists taste broadly across a variety of distilleries, brands, expressions, and styles, there are definitely those among us who hone in on one certain distillery. For example, I direct any Wild Turkey-related questions to my good friend David Jennings, a.k.a. Rare Bird 101. Brian Haara, author of “Bourbon Justice,” is my go-to source for information on Maker’s Mark. However, even those who are not (figuratively and literally) authoritative on a particular distillery can be founts of wisdom about – and whiskey from – their favorite producers.

One distillery that inspires this type of focused fandom is Four Roses. Speculating why this might be, I can come up with a few reasons. Their two mash bills are rare in that they’re both high in rye content, with the B (35% rye) extraordinarily so. Thus, anyone looking for the type of sipping experience that a high rye bourbon offers, and who is tired of Basil Hayden and/or Old Grand-Dad, might find themselves drawn to Four Roses.

For Roses’ core range (defined as Yellow Label, Small Batch, Small Batch Select, and Single Barrel) is pretty solid, and also reasonably priced. Their Limited Editions – while not always personal favorites of mine – offer something special to look forward to each year.

Really, though, what I think attracts folks to Four Roses and holds their interest over the years is the Private Selection barrel pick program. Two mash bills times five yeast strains equals 10 possible recipes, but it doesn’t end there. Not all barrels are created equal, and – speaking from experience – there is a lot of deviation in aromatic and flavor profiles to be found between them.

A wonderful thing about Four Roses fans (at least, the ones who deign to hang out with a grouch like me) is that they’re generous and enthusiastic about sharing Four Roses whiskeys with others. I have tasted far more Four Roses than I have purchased, and certainly many more of the most sought-after expressions than I would have ever been able to find – let alone afford – myself. To all those who open up their cupboards and home bars and make time to distribute samples: thank you. You’re the best part of bourbon.

It’s just this type of magnanimity that I have to thank for today’s tasting. Having seen my prior review of a Four Roses charity bottling, Ben (aka Debonair Gentleman) reached out and asked if I’d like to sample a few single barrels from his collection. I gratefully responded in the affirmative, receiving a short time thereafter the three whiskeys I’ll be trying.

The specifics of each are included just below the review heading; I’d like to highlight a few interesting angles here. I’ve got a 10, 16, and 18-year-old on my hands. I’ll be tasting these in ascending order of age, with an eye on charting the maturation of this whiskey over the years.

Interestingly, I also have two OESKs from separate rickhouses, which provides me a point of possible analysis, having never tasted head-to-head in this format (same recipe, different location) before.

Before I start tasting, a final note on price: I’ll be using $90 as a benchmark for the 10 year OESK on our price-sensitive scoring bands. For the 16 and the 18-year-olds, however, I had to rely on Ben’s site, which lists the retail prices as $90 and $200 (given it was a charity bottling), respectively.

Four Roses Liquor Barn OESK – Review

10 years, one month. QN 51-5Q. 61.3% ABV.

Color: Medium golden copper.

On the nose: Pretty restrained to start. I get a stiff whiff of acetone and not much else initially. Maybe a hint of strawberries and cream, and some soft floral aromas? Some time in the glass allows this to evolve a subtly meaty note of roasted turkey with herbal accents of rosemary, as well as a nip of cinnamon. More time and air reveals an effervescent and tingly nip of ginger ale. Another sniff gives carrot cake. Revisiting this later, I am getting eucalyptus and fudge brownie batter. I’m liking this more and more as I am able to be patient with it.

In the mouth: Similarly subtle on the palate, this has a vaguely rounded nuttiness and not a great deal else. Keeping in mind the lessons of the nose, I keep sipping. At the front of the mouth there’s a hot bite of alcohol, which blooms to propel this across the tongue and into the middle of the mouth. There, the flavors seem to want to develop more, but are choked by the constriction of a tannic woodiness at first. However, coming back to this, I am greeted with a luscious, pure note of candied cherry. This turns again toward that note of eucalyptus, which blooms to fill the back of the mouth with a mentholated, almost medicinal flavor. There’s a sudden and unexpected burst of lemon juice before this eases into the finish, which intertwines notes of wood and nuts as it lingers on the tongue.


I’m surprised that this comes from the lower-rye E mash bill; it’s got a hard-edged aspect to it in places that would have made me guess the B mash bill, had I been tasting this blind. Nonetheless, this is redeemed by some of the more interesting fruit and herb flavors. It’s far from perfect… but it is compelling, which is what I want from a Four Roses single barrel. To reflect that, I am scoring this a notch above the middle of the range.

Score: 6/10

Moving along, we have this “Kentucky Strong” barrel, a sister barrel to the one I tried before in this same outturn of charity bottles.

Four Roses Kentucky Strong OESV – Review

16 years, six months. RN 36-3S. 58.5% ABV.

Color: Similar medium golden copper, perhaps a shade more brown.

On the nose: This is exuberant immediately, with a cheery burst of sweet candy and perfumed floral aromas. That candy note morphs into the strawberry flavor of Shriver’s Salt Water Taffy. There’s a mix of herbal aromas underneath this, but they’re hard to access, so forceful are those topnotes. There’s a darker note lurking, as well, making me think of freshly poured asphalt on a road on a summer day.

In the mouth: The first kiss has a momentary sweetness, though this pivots quickly to a sweet-and-spicy-and-tingly nip, again bringing ginger ale to mind. In the middle of the mouth, this takes on another floral aspect, this time dried, in the manner of potpourri. A brief chalky interlude leads to the finish, where this doesn’t quite have the staying power of its predecessor, instead taking on a desiccated woodiness and fading rather abruptly.


A promising start on the nose did not fully translate to the mouth. This rolled from the front to the back of the mouth as though downhill, and indeed the flavors became less and less appealing as it did so. As before, it’s hard to take price into account here, as this was a bottling for charity. I’m going to score this just below the middle of the range; it will likely enchant some Four Roses fans, but didn’t quite hit the mark for me.

Score: 4/10

Finishing up with the most senior of the trio, here we have the 18 year old “Happy Holidays” OESK. This was a distillery release to commemorate the festive season. Despite its age, it was a veritable Christmas gift to the distillery’s fans, being released at the price of $90.

Four Roses Happy Holidays OESK – Review

18 years, five months. RS 38-31. 60.7% ABV.

Color: A yet slightly darker and more brown shade of golden orange.

On the nose: An entirely different variety of sweetness this time, with sticky brown notes of maple syrup and caramelized sugar. These meet with more intense herbal aromatics, again reminiscent of eucalyptus, but with added nuances of basil and mint in a very potent presentation. There’s a note of Meyer lemon in here, but mostly this is a noteworthy departure from the fruity profile of the other two.

In the mouth: That dark sweetness is again evident on the front of the mouth. It seems to sink deeper and deeper into the gums and tongue, diving into layers evoking black licorice and eventually that asphalt note from the nose. The midpalate, on the other hand, is dominated by a drying chalkiness, before being brought back into balance by a juicy burst of orange right before the finish. This doesn’t hang around, but it also doesn’t disappear. Rather, it recedes slowly and gracefully, leaving a subtle aftertaste that is a whispered echo those robust herbal notes from the nose.


Unlike any Four Roses I have ever tasted, in a very good way. This comes close to the epic “Mutant Yeast” OBSV, albeit with an entirely different flavor profile. I can’t believe they sold this for $90; at that price, it was more than a giveaway. As a present to fans, I can’t think of any better one. Incredible and unique bourbon, justifying a score to match.

Score: 8/10

Beyond being a great deal of fun, this was also an educational experience for me. Comparing these barrels – especially the two OESKs – illustrates an important point: for all the detail we get from the recipe codes, it’s impossible to reduce Four Roses barrels to just those letters. Similarly, (as with other whiskies) age doesn’t tell the entire story either. If you want to understand Four Roses in its totality, you’ll just have to taste every example you can get your hands on. Fortunately, I know a whole lot of people who would be happy to help you with that.

Photos courtesy of Debonair Gentleman.


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