In the crowded bourbon market, it is difficult to stand out in a positive way. Four Roses, like most other major brands, offers a product line that essentially contains a bottom shelf bottle (the yellow label), a small batch bottle, a single barrel bottle, and limited releases. They also offer store-pick, single barrel barrel strength bottles. Which, also, is not unique.
But, what does makes Four Roses stand out, and why it has held my attention recently, is its yeast.
Now, hear me out. As any home brewer would tell you, yeast is a critical ingredient. After all, without yeast, there is no alcohol. For a quick science lesson in how yeast converts sugar into ethanol, read Chuck Cowdery’s concise explanation here.
Four Roses has 5 proprietary yeast strains, each of which yields a particular flavor profile. Four Roses also has two mash bill recipes, a low-rye (75% corn, 20% rye, 5% malted barley) and high-rye (60% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley). The two mash bills and 5 yeast strains combine to produce 10 varieties of bourbon. And Four Roses capitalizes on this by releasing a single barrel, barrel strength bottle featuring each possible mash bill/yeast combination.
Each single barrel, barrel strength bottle displays a 4-letter code to signify which combination it contains.
This graphic, from Four Roses’ website, explains how to decipher the code, the flavors for each yeast strain, and which bottles contain which recipe(s):
In fairness to Four Roses, the proprietary yeast strains are not the brand’s only unique attribute. As stated earlier, Four Roses utilizes two mash bills. Though they are denominated as high-rye and low-rye, relative to bourbon generally, both have a much higher rye content than most other bourbons. For example, Buffalo Trace also has a low-rye and high-rye mash bill. Though Buffalo Trace does not disclose the mash bill proportions, the general consensus is that the high-rye mash is only 12-15% rye – not even half of Four Roses’ high rye mash.
Additionally, Four Roses ages its bourbon in single-story rickhouses. Unlike multi-story rickhouses, where the temparature variations between higher floors and lower floors affects the aging process and ultimately the flavors in the respective barrels, a one-story rickhouse will yield a more consistent product between barrels. Thus, one should expect less variation between bottles of Four Roses single barrel.
In addition to my admiration for the brand, my current interest is to acquire all 10 single barrel, barrel strength bottles to compare side-by-side. Unfortunately, although the standard single barrel is available in Kansas, no Kansas stores carry the barrel strength. Until they do, I will have to venture outside the sunflower state.
So far, I have acquired 2 of the 10. One is an OBSV from Gomer’s in Kansas City, MO. The other is an OESO from Binny’s in Chicago. I decided to compare them with the standard single barrel before I let them hibernate while I continue my quest.
As the graphic explains, there is one recipe used for all of Four Roses’ single barrel bottles: OBSV. So, this signifies the “B” mash bill (high rye) and “V” yeast strain (light fruitiness, light vanilla, caramel and creamy). Unlike the single barrel, barrel strength bottles, the standard single barrel bottles do not list the recipe, do not vary in proof, and are not age-stated. All are bottled at 100 proof. Four Roses website states that each barrel is aged at least 5 years, but it remains unknown how long each standard single barrel is aged.
I do not know of any other bourbon that contains this much rye. At 35% rye and only 60% corn, it nearly disqualifies itself as bourbon.
This is a rye lover’s bourbon, but not at the cost of bourbon fans. The sweetness and rye spice combine for a bold nose and flavor profile. The rye is immediately present when nosing the glass, followed by cherry and some oak. Though 100-proof, the ethanol does not dominate either the nose or palate. In fact, this bottle is well utilized to demonstrate the difference between rye spice and proof when people struggle to describe whiskey as being hot or spicy.
The palate is again defined by the rye, but also the full-bodied texture. Sweet red fruit helps to bring balance to the rye.
The finish is medium-long. The fruit and spice lingering with a bit of oak.
Although I have yet to try each recipe, I understand why Four Roses chose the OBSV as their flagship single barrel recipe. For those like me who enjoy bold flavors, this bottle delivers.
Next, I tried the barrel strength OBSV.
This one is 108.4 proof and 9 years, 5 months old.
As would be expected from the shared recipe, it is quite similar to the standard single barrel. The additional age is noticeable on the nose. The extra oak also tamed the rye spice as compared to the single barrel. However, there was no distinct difference in proof. I expected at least a little more heat due to the extra 4.2% abv, but it did not come across.
The full-bodied texture was certainly enhanced. This is a rich bourbon. This also had a creaminess to it that was absent from the standard single barrel. The finish was longer with fruit roll-up flavors and rye spice lingering for quite some time. When people use words such as “bold” and “robust,” they are describing the type of experience felt with this bottle.
Finally, I finished with the OESO.
This one is 104.4 proof and 9 years, 3 months old.
The lower rye content was immediately apparent. The nose contained sweet vanilla and oak notes accompanied by the spice.
On the palate, the red fruit came forward with the vanilla. The contrasting lower rye resulted in an almost cool mouthfeel when following the barrel strength OBSV. The finish was medium and a bit drier than the other two, with some lingering vanilla ice cream notes.
If I had to choose a favorite between the two barrel strength bottles, I would choose the OBSV. I enjoy the bold, rich sweet and spicy flavor combinations. I’m anxious to sample the other 8 bottles to see what the other recipe combinations have to offer.
Stephen is a regular writer at FlightClubICT.com