Let’s start this time at the end of the story: three experienced (but now humbled) bourbon drinkers set out to blind sample all ten recipes of Four Roses using various Four Roses Single Barrel, Barrel Strength Private Selection bottles. Could we correctly pick the recipes blind? Not even close.
About the Four Roses Recipes.
Before setting the stage for this sampling, a bit about the Four Roses recipes, which we have written much about. Four Roses has five 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 five yeast strains combine to produce ten 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. A rubric is provided on the label of each bottle.
Four Roses ages each of these bourbon in single-story rickhouses. Unlike multi-story rickhouses, where the temperature variations between higher floors and lower floors can dramatically affect 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.
However, what the one-story rick houses add to the consistency between barrels within a given recipe, time takes away (at least to some degree). Other variables too, like the source of the wood for example, impact the consistency from barrel to barrel. Yet, despite these stated profiles, age variations among barrels (for us, ranging from 8 to nearly 12 years) and other factors can cause some noticeable variations even within a recipe.
With all this, how do the individual Four Roses Private Selections hold up to the Four Roses identified profiles? Or how well can three experienced bourbon drinks identify each Four Roses Private Selection recipe based upon their individual tasting notes and the rubric provided by Four Roses? We wanted to find out for ourselves.
Our Blind Sampling Process
This past fall, Jamie Baalmann, Reinier Eijkhout (a local liquor store manager at Auburn Wine & Spirits East in Wichita, Kansas) and I put pencil to paper and recognized that among the three of us, we had Four Roses Private Selection offerings of no less than all ten recipes produced by Four Roses. We got together with our bottles and, using a double-blind pouring system, proceeded to fill three sets of ten sample bottles. Each of us would have the same samples, identified with the letters A through J. The decryption code to identify which bottle was from which recipe would be held until a final reveal.
Over the next few months, each of us would sample and re-sample each of the Four Roses Private Selection bottles. We would take our own individual tasting notes, and compare those to the rubric provided by Four Roses. Our efforts were not to identify which bottle or recipe we preferred (although that was a fun byproduct). Instead, our efforts were purely to determine if we could correctly identify each of the bottles based upon the individual tasting notes and the rubric provided by Four Roses.
The Reveal and Results
Finally, this past month, we go together for the results. Before I spoil any more, I invite you to watch our YouTube channel video as we learn of our embarrassing fate.
For those who don’t have time for the full video, of the thirty possible correct guesses among the three of us and ten recipes, we only correctly picked one. Yes, we went 1 for 30. 3.33% correct. Not just a fail, but an extreme embarrassment.
Or was it?
Truth be told, as confident as we (well, at least I) were that we had correctly identified the samples, we knew that are chances were pretty slim. Some of the samples we correctly identified the yeast strain, and other the mash bill. While that may have been pure luck, during the reveal we could see on many occasions how, for example, a particular higher rye mash bill might give the impression of a spicier yeast. Or how a floral yeast might be confused with a rye character. And then, of course, several of the yeast strains/mash bill combos are (at least on paper) nearly identical – OESK, OBSK, and even the O yeast and V yeast.
For those who want to compare notes on individual bottles, or hear my personal take following the reveal, continuing reading.
Four Roses Private Selection Sample A:
Nose: Caramel; stone fruit; chocolate; a bit of spice; plum; some deep herbal notes (probably rye spice).
Palate: Rye spice; caramel; vanilla; apricot; plum; dry oak; graham cracker.
Finish: Vanilla; fruit; chocolate; plum; lingering baking spice and rye spice.
Reveal: OBSK; 9 Year, 8 month; Colorado Distributor Pick.
Conclusion: This is a very enjoyable bottle. This is the higher rye mashbill (which we all three correctly guessed), and is otherwise full of spice. It is creamy. It was a tough call for us to discern between the V and the K yeast here, but for me this felt like the fruit didn’t pop as much as I would expect from the V yeast.
Four Roses Private Selection Sample B:
Nose: Vanilla cream; light oak; caramel.
Palate: Vanilla cream again; light citrus; red grapes; baking spice; scones; light herbal spice.
Finish: Lingering creamy vanilla and caramel; some light chocolate; citrus.
Reveal: OBSV; 9 Year, 5 months; Gomer’s Pick (Kansas City).
Conclusion: I correctly identified the yeast strain but not the mash bill – this was definitely creamy, although I don’t think I felt it has as much spice as the B mashbill might ordinarily impart. Some of us were swayed by the amount of herbal spice on this throughout (guessing an F yeast), which is likely a product of that high rye mash bill. It’s a solid pick, although not our favorite of our bunch.
Four Roses Private Selection Sample C:
Nose: Light; floral (rose) and a bit herbal (light mint); faint butterscotch; chardonnay wine.
Palate: Creamy; rose stems; vanilla; light browns sugar; light rye spice.
Finish: Floral; grassy; light brown sugar; baking spice.
Reveal: OESO; 8 Year, 6 Month; Colorado Distributor Pick.
Conclusion: Not even close here – but a very good bottle, and very complex. I was really swayed by the amount of floral character, which is not a hallmark of the O yeast or the E yeast strain. Both recipes describe themselves as “medium body.” I just didn’t get the red berry/fruit that is the common descriptor, although post-reveal I can see where my chardonnay notes might describe some of that fruitiness.
Four Roses Private Selection Sample D:
Nose: Herbal; grass; earth; light vanilla; root beer; sawdust; caramel chews; cherry; raspberry; plum; a fair amount of ethanol that dissipates with time the glass.
Palate: Rye spice; fresh grass; mint; basil; thyme; vanillla; caramel syrup.
Finish: Mint; caramel; vanilla. Creamy, like ice cream. I’d peg this for a 95/5 rye. Long.
Reveal: OESK; 8 Year, 9 Month; Cask Strength Society Pick.
Conclusion: One of my personal favorites, despite that I was wrong here on the yeast strain. Overall, I’m not sure if I can find commonality between my notes/guess and the correct recipe. As Jamie described, this has a very typical Four Roses taste – I suppose I’m overly influenced by the amount of herbal character in Four Roses generally.
Four Roses Private Selection Sample E:
Nose: Very soft; caramel; floral/perfume/potpourri; vanilla bean.
Palate: Caramel; vanilla; more potpourri; rich vanilla bean at the end.
Finish: Vanilla; caramel; oak; light fruit; a bit more perfume.
Reveal: OESV; 9 Year, 8 Month; Bourbon Scotch Beer Pick.
Conclusion: Correct on the mash bill, but not yeast, although looking back at my notes I did identify that this could in fact be the OESV. I was highly influenced here again by the potpourri character (as was Reinier). Again, this might be just the floral nature of Four Roses generally. A tasty bottle for sure.
Four Roses Private Selection Sample F:
Nose: Punchy rye/pepper spice; cherry fruit; grape soda; apple skins; butterscotch; old shoe. There is some age to this nose.
Palate: Sharp rye spice; apple; grape soda; plum; butterscotch; pepper.
Finish: Creamy vanilla and rye spice; herbal; apple cider; pepper; a bit drying/tannic. Christmas-y
Reveal: OESQ; 9 Year, 3 Months; Bourbon Scotch Beer Pick.
Conclusion: Another of my favorites, largely because I felt like this was more of a Wild Turkey profile, which I dig. Again correct on the mashbill, but not the yeast. I felt that this had a ton of fruitiness going on, but I didn’t get the floral character at first. I suppose “Christmas-y” might be a good indicator for floral character.
Four Roses Private Selection Sample G:
Nose: Caramel and brown sugar; vanilla; corn; cedar; light pepper; stewed apples; black grapes; there is certainly some herbal/floral notes, but not overpowering.
Palate: Sharp caramel; rich fruit; rye spice; butterscotch; vanilla; very rich and creamy and viscous; polished oak.
Finish: Rye spice; some herbal spice; vanilla; caramel; stewed apples; baking spice; a bit dry.
Reveal: OBSQ; 11 Year, 10 Month; Coaltrain Pick.
Conclusion: I feel like I have my Q and O yeasts confused, as this is two straight where I correctly identified the mashbills but switched the yeasts. However, we all felt that this had more fruit than a typical Q yeast profile (on paper) might indicate. Good, but not great, although on second blush I’m really enjoying the age on this one.
Four Roses Private Selection Sample H:
Nose: Stinky feet; vanilla; pear; apricot; plum.
Palate: Watered down vanilla; caramel; apricot.
Finish: Rye spice; vanilla bean; somewhat short; a hint of smoke or char at the tail end.
Reveal: OESF; 10 Year, 7 Months; Colorado Distributor Pick.
Conclusion: I was the odd man out on this one, as I didn’t enjoy this one nearly as much as Jamie and Reinier. However, none of us got this one right. I wasn’t close – really, none of us were. This did have that fruit commonality between the V and the F yeasts, but that is about it. I just didn’t feel that this had as much mint as I would expect from the F yeast.
Four Roses Private Selection Sample I:
Nose: Creamy peppermint; caramel/brown sugar; honeycomb; vanilla; orange zest; polished oak.
Palate: Full flavored; rich brown sugar; a sugar covered scone or cookie, with vanilla and orange zest; a sweet hot pepper.
Finish: Delicious. Baking spice; rye flavor; brown sugar. Lingering and creamy; creamy peppermint.
Reveal: OBSF; 11 Year, 3 Month; Colorado Distributor Pick.
Conclusion: I admittedly struggled with this one, although I was sure it was the K yeast. However, in hindsight, with that creamy peppermint on the nose and finish, maybe I should have guessed the F yeast. Part of the “problem” in our exercise is that we new we only had one of each recipe – if something else felt “more OBSF” than this, then we would have all guessed something different. Our reveal reactions all indicate that we were on to this one as OBSF, but none of us correctly guessed it.
Four Roses Private Selection Sample J:
Nose: Rye like; herbal; ginger; caramel; sweet (almost wheated bourbon like); vanilla wafer; light baking spice.
Palate: Spicy rye bite; ginger; caramel; vanilla; herbal mint notes, like a mojito.
Finish: A bit drying and shorter; chalky; chocolate. sharp rye that drops off.
Reveal: OBS0; 11 Years, 1 Month; Colorado Distributor Pick.
Conclusion: Correct on the mashbill, but wrong again on the yeast. I believe I was overly influenced by the mint over the other herbal character, but no where in here did I really pick up on much fruity character – unless my ginger is another man’s fruit. This was my least favorite of the bunch. The finish was really damning for this one.
While we were each able to sample all ten recipes from the same bottles, we also seven additional “bonus bottles. ” These were duplicate recipes for those in our original ten. We only created a single sample bottle (using the same double blind process) of each. Jamie took three; Reinier and I each took two. Fortunately, our percentage correct was much higher. Instead of only getting 1 of the 30 correct, Reinier correctly identified by recipe one of his bonus bottles. Given our overall lack of success identifying the ten, this result was a notable improvement.
Scott is a co-founder of Flight Club and a frequent writer and reviewer on the Club’s blog.