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Monday, October 9, 2023

Four Roses: 10 Private Barrels, 10 Recipes, 10 years too late

Diving for Pearls celebrated 13 years of whisky reviews last month! Or rather it/I didn't. Children, work, and a certain Bunnahabhain cluster had my attention.

Also around that time, Columbus Scotch Night held an event that offered me a moment to be part of the audience rather than holding court as the edjumacator. Two very generous fellows, Anuj P. and Matt M., opened their whisk(e)y bunkers and provided bottles of 10 Four Roses private barrel picks of all 10 Four Roses mash/yeast recipes, all of which were distilled during the Jim Rutledge Era. As usual, I took my wee pours home for dissection.

It's been a while since I've said anything about Four Roses on this site, so here's a quick recap of the Four Roses recipe naming convention:

Four Letters:
O = Four Roses Distillery
B or E = Mash bills: B is 35% rye, E is 20% rye
S = Straight distillation
F or K or O or Q or V = Yeast strands

So there are really two variables, not four. Two mash bills * five yeast strains = ten combinations.


I can't write this without thinking how much more vital and exciting this post would have been in 2013, when whisk(e)y geek hunger for honest, independent exploration was more vivid. And at least some private picks would have been easier to obtain ten years ago, when FOMO levels were less destructive. I remain deeply grateful for all the folks who offer up their bottles for group tastings, especially when at a fraction of the secondary market's price. They may be the only people keeping whisky enthusiasm alive.


In order to prevent untold disasters, I am splitting this into two tastings, "B" Tasting and "E" Tasting. I will nose and taste ~15mL of each whiskey from wee glencairns, and give the bourbons letter-based grade ranges. OBSK has always(?) been my favorite recipe, but I can't remember the last time I tried an OBSK (or any single recipe), so I don't know why I preferred it. Thus I'm going into this kinda fresh. Here I go...

The "B" Mashbill (35% rye) Tasting

OBSF Recipe
10 years 8 months, bottled in November 2021 for Bottle Republic, 57.7%abv

Nose - It leads with a wallop of barrel char, VOCs, and Heath Bar, with milder notes of black pepper and brine appearing later.

Palate - Doesn't begin great with ethyl, chlorine, and tannins, but it does pick up salty corn on the cob and gingerbread with time.

Finish - Perhaps its best aspect, with some dried berries and gingerbread.

Comments - This is not the quality I remember from Four Roses, as the bourbon reads both undercooked and too oaky at the same time, Craft-style. I do enjoy the gingerbread and Heath Bar notes though.
Rating Range: C/C+ (76-78)

OBSK Recipe
10 years 2 months old, bottled for Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, 52.8%abv

Nose - A complete change of pace from the OBSF. Peach nectar, apricot jam, milk chocolate, vanilla extract, and a slight prickle of rye whiskey.

Palate - More on almonds, than vanilla or caramel. Irish soda bread, fresh ginger, jalapeño oil, and medium sweetness.

Finish - Mirrors the palate well, with the ginger and jalapeños registering loudest, and vanilla and brown sugar quieter.

Comments - Ha! This is a happy reminder of why I used to enjoy this lively, delicious combination. SPOILER: It's my favorite of the Bs.
Rating Range: B+ (87-89)

OBSO Recipe
9 years 3 months, bottled in April 2021 for OHLQ(!), 55.6%abv

Nose - Sort of blank at first. Then, in order: pine, caramel, vanilla, black cherry ice cream, and a hint of halvah materialize.

Palate - Whew, hot and peppery. Sour. I taste tannins for miles and miles. A little bit of shortbread in the background.

Finish - Hot, sour, and peppery, like the palate, but now with apples.

Comments - With easily my least favorite palate of the B group, this bourbon also slumps like Craft whiskey. I'm not sure what the Ohio pickers saw in this one, or if they even had a choice.
Rating Range: C (74-76)

OBSQ Recipe
11 years 7 months, bottled in October 2022 for ???, 54.1%abv

Nose - Very chocolatey, with subtle notes of earth, dried cherries, and rosemary. Vanilla and floral notes expand with time.

Palate - It's a big burly whiskey, not hot though. Lots of baked goods and roasted nuts. Hint o' figs.

Finish - Salt, grains, almonds, Fig Newtons, and a hint of smoke.

Comments - This one, the oldest of the ten, has caught me by surprise. It's unique and of a high quality, sort of a single malt lover's bourbon, and good pour for the winter.
Rating Range: B/B+ (85-87)

OBSV Recipe
9 years 10 months, bottled in November 2021 for ???, 53.6%abv

Nose - Like Q and K, it's dessert-y. Chocolate mousse pie and German chocolate cake. Roses and dried apricots.

Palate - Dried cherries, dried currants, dried cranberries, and maple syrup...but it's not too sweet. There's a good tartness and pepperiness going on in the background, and a nibble of Irish soda bread.

Finish - Soda bread, dried cherries, and toasted nuts.

Comments - With a palate more complex than its nose, this bourbon reminds me that I used to like the OBSV recipe too! It also seems like it could pair very well with desserts.
Rating Range: B/B+ (85-87)

CONCLUSION: There's a very clear split here: 3 "yes" bourbons (which I'd be happy to buy or drink any day), and 2 "pass" bourbons (which I wouldn't). I also appreciate the bottle strength of all 5, with all staying below 120 US proof. Not a lot of commonalities between these five, so the yeast strands and maturation locations (only F and Q have the same warehouse) are doing most of the work. The actual rye element stayed mostly quiet, speaking loudest in OBSK, the top scorer in the group. I wonder how the Es will differ...

The "E" Mashbill (20% rye) Tasting

OESF Recipe
9 years 10 months, bottled for Loch & K(e)y Society, 55.8%abv

Nose - Straightforward: vanilla, bubblegum, caramel sauce, and cinnamon.

Palate - Ethyl, salt, lemons, and honey arrive first, then tart cherries and cherry lollipops. Just a hint of vanilla in the background.

Finish - A decent balance of those tart cherries, cherry lollies, and honey.

Comments - It's very different than its OBSF cousin, with the hot hot palate being their only similarity. It's also better than the B version, with a better mix of oak and spirit, and some fun cherry notes.
Rating Range: B- (82-84)

OESK Recipe
10 years 6 months, bottled for Luekens Wine & Spirits, 56.6%abv

Nose - Some figurative fireworks here. Flowers, bubblegum, Dr. Brown's cherry soda, vanilla, and pickle juice!

Palate - Less hot than OESF, but similarly lemony. Charred serranos and cayenne pepper meet Big Red gum.

Finish - It's a mix of bubblegum, cayenne, and tart citrus, with the sweetness winning out.

Comments - The wild nose works, but the palate's excitement never catches up. Nothing technically wrong with it, but it's missing the B version's complexity.
Rating Range: B-/B (83-85)

OESO Recipe
9 years 5 months, bottled in August 2022 for Corners Fine Wine & Spirits, 57.5%abv

Nose - Ooh, a good one. Candy shop + oranges blossom + cinnamon roll.

Palate - Baking spice rule this one. Cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and brown sugar first. Orange candy and dried cherries, second.

Finish - Cinnamon, cardamom, and orange candy last the longest.

Comments - While not the deepest whiskey, this bourbon is very pleasant all around, and a very easy drinker (especially at its strength). It's significantly better than its B cousin, providing an example of a lower-rye bourbon coming together better than a high-rye.
Rating Range: B (84-86)

OESQ Recipe
10 years 8 months, bottled in August 2022 for ???, 54.4%abv

Nose - Starts off a bit rough, with nothing but barrel char, but then the cherries roll in, followed by roses, maple syrup, and cherry-flavored cough syrup.

Palate - Very woody here too. It's like licking furniture. Add in its artificial lemon flavor, and maybe I'm looking at Pledge spray. Curiously, even with some sawdust added on, it's not terrible. Maybe the hints of brown sugar and black pepper help?

Finish - Drying and tannic, with a hint of cherry.

Comments - Here's the "E" group's oak monster. The nose works; the palate. a little less so; the finish, not really. It bears no resemblance to its OBSQ cousin.
Rating Range: C+ (77-79)

OESV Recipe
10 years 1 month, bottled February 18, 2020 for Schneider's of Capitol Hill, 59.6%abv

Nose - Dessert time again! Hershey's chocolate, whipped cream, mocha, and vanilla extract. You can smell the calories!

Palate - Less sugary than expected. Instead ground cloves and ginger powder layer on top of each other, with cream soda underneath, and a decent bitterness in the back.

Finish - Ground cloves, ginger powder, and a dab of chile oil.

Comments - Of all five pairs, this one comes closest to its cousin, but even here it's only in the nose. Otherwise it has its own zingy, spritely style in the mouth. I prefer the "B" version, but this one remains very good.
Rating Range: B (84-86)

CONCLUSION: Unlike the "B"s, the "E"s show some similar notes, like flowers, bubblegum, citrus, and cherries, though ultimately they are five very different bourbons (from five different warehouses). This group was less raw on the palate, but also a little less exciting. None of these were a big "yes", though none were a clearly ugly "no". 


The "E" Recipes' scores have a tighter grouping than the "B"s', though the two groups average out similarly (high B- for both). The wider quality variety in the "B" recipe also delivered more excitement and complexity. I'd like to think the extra rye had something to do with it. There were small connections between some of the whiskies, but these were ultimately ten different bourbons, which made the two tastings more entertaining than expected.

For the sake of completeness, here's how these bottles rank:

1. OBSK - Yes
2. OBSV - Yes
3. OBSQ - Yes
8. OESQ - Pass
9. OBSF - Pass
10. OBSO - Pass

So OBSK, OBSV, and high-rye bourbon in general still do it for me, thirteen years later.