By Susan Reigler
On a postcard-perfect Friday morning last September, seven members of the Bourbon Women Association—Kim Dodson, Claudia Jackson, Audrey Petty, Kerri Richardson, Holly Rudolph, Heather Wibbels, and I—traveled from Louisville through the wooded hillsides of Central Kentucky, 10 miles west of Bardstown, to the Four Roses Warehouse and Bottling Facility in Cox’s Creek. Our mission was to select a barrel of bourbon for a private bottling. It would feature a label with our logo and be available for our members and others to purchase through our retail partner, Westport Whiskey & Wine.
Just east of the visitors’ center and gift shop, we passed through gates and drove past Four Roses’ unique one-story warehouses to the bottling building and tasting room. Brand ambassador Al Young, who has been with the company for a remarkable 50 years, and regional sales manager Dan Gardner met us there, as did Westport Whiskey & Wine’s owner Chris Zaborowski and staffer J. J. Valentine. Lined along the wall opposite the tasting counter were six barrels of bourbon, each containing whiskey made from a different combination of mash bills (grain recipes) and yeast strains.
Four Roses is unique in the industry for having two different mash bills (one contains 75% corn and the other 60% corn) and five different yeast strains (which impart different aromatics, from fruity to floral to spicy). So our task of choosing our own barrel was even more complex than the process at other distilleries, where the same grains and yeast have gone into every barrel of a particular brand.
Why go to the trouble of picking a barrel? It has been said, “There are no good wines, only good bottles.” But bourbon is not the same. Unlike wine, whiskey doesn’t age after bottling. Bourbon does its aging in the barrel. And each barrel is unique due to the variation in the grain of the oak, the level of charring inside, and its location and length of stay in the warehouse. That’s the challenge for distillers who want to maintain consistent flavor profiles and why many, often a hundred or more, barrels are selected and batched for bottling at one time.
It’s reassuring to know that your favorite brand will always taste the same. But serious bourbon lovers are always searching for the new and the unique, too. You can’t get much more unique that to savor bourbon bottled from a single barrel. Only 200 or fewer bottles with its particular combination of vanilla/caramel notes and spicy, floral, and fruity layers will ever exist.
We took our places at the tasting counter, each spot having been laid with six glasses on numbered mats, a sheet for tasting notes, a bottle of water, and bowls of corn chips. Al picked up a copper whisky thief (in essence, a giant straw) and started to extract bourbon from Barrel Number 1 as we lined up with our glasses to receive samples.
Once all our glasses had bourbon, we started the process of nosing and tasting. It’s important to note that we were tasting, not drinking. Only small sips are needed, with sips of water and bites of chips in between. The samples straight out of the barrel have not been cut with water, so the alcohol volume is very high.
“This is hard!” declared Holly. The “problem” was the marked difference between the six samples and the fact that there were no bad sips. It could have been harder, of course. It is not uncommon for there to be 10 or more barrels to sample. Some recipes were unavailable for us because it was late in the year and other recipes’ supplies were needed for making Four Roses’ Small Batch expression.
After about an hour of tasting, note taking, and discussion, and then two rounds of voting, we settled on Barrel Number 5 made with the lower-corn/higher-rye recipe and yeast strain V, which Four Roses describes as having “delicate fruitiness.” It had been aged for nine years and two months. Our label would carry an age statement, as well as the proof information.
After we agreed on our selection, we all signed the barrelhead. And being ever hospitable, Dan treated several of us to lunch at a bourbon-themed restaurant back in Louisville.
Since 2007, Four Roses has welcomed retailers, representatives from restaurants and hotels, members of whiskey appreciation organizations like ours, and even private individuals from all over the United States to make barrel selections. Selection manager Mandy Vance told me that this unexpected popularity has meant the distillery has had to limit selections to 600 a year. She books 12 to 13 selections Mondays through Fridays, with two a day at least three days a week.
“We have had selectors from 39 states travel to Cox’s Creek to make their selections,” she noted. “And they have come from as far away as Hawaii.” (Barrels can only be sold to retailers within the U.S., so even with interest from overseas, Four Roses can only welcome U.S. visitors.) She added that samples for selections have been sent to every one of the 50 states—but this is nowhere near as fun as making the trip to the Kentucky tasting room!
Alicia Brady, the owner of Kamuela Liquor Store in Hawaii, who has trekked to Kentucky every year since 2013 for her selection, can’t say enough about her experience: “Once I became acquainted with Four Roses, I made [it] my annual destination.” She recounted that, on her first trip to the distillery, “The guys at Four Roses rescued me [from an awful motel room in Bardstown] and put me in the Brown Hotel.” (The Brown is an elegant, four-star, historic hotel in Louisville. The distillery picked up the tab.
Loren Simpson from Tennessee, who uses his selections to raise money for charities, agrees that it is a special experience, saying, “The level of knowledge was so incredible I could have stayed all day asking questions and they probably would have stayed right with me. . . . Not only was [it] informative and the bourbon tremendous but our entire group had fun. [It] is so much more than tasting out of a barrel.”