Earlier this week, I wrote about the standard off the shelf 50 proof Four Roses Single Barrel (OBSV). I said it was a great value for the price and one of the best bourbons in its class. It’s time to take this opportunity to see what happens to that recipe when you age it up a bit.
Four Roses’ big push is on their ten recipes, highlighting the role of mashbill and yeast which do definitely play a big role in determining the flavor of a bourbon. However, most whisky aficionados know, the time in oak changes the spirit dramatically. The vegetal notes of new spirit fade away in favor of the tannins and spicy body that wood imparts; the turbinado sugar flavors mixes with the wood influence and becomes more like maple syrup, toffee and caramel. Too little time in the wood and you might as well be riding shotgun with Popcorn Sutton. Too much time and you’d be better off brewing a tea with pencil shavings. Bad wood will take you in the direction of popsicle sticks and napkins. There’s a lot of room to go wrong.
Due to the climate in the midwestern US, which was far too extreme for me (hot summers and cold winters drove me from southern Illinois to southern California), bourbon is ready for prime time in anywhere from four to eight years. Twelve years can be pushing it but some bourbons wear the age well. For the most part, the old-age crown is worn most readily by the Pappy Van Winkle bourbons, effortlessly holding up to 15 and 20 years of age. Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig also manages 12 and
18 20 years (but at $150 I don’t expect to have a judgement on the 20 soon). What then of the other distilleries? There’s a lot that can go wrong in over a decade.
I was excited when I heard about the Four Roses Gift Shop exclusive, a 17 year old OBSV recipe. While I’m a big fan of OBSK, OBSV is a reliable favorite. Getting the chance to try an extra-aged version was a rare treat. Unfortunately, one problem: my wife wasn’t about to sign off on me jetting to Kentucky to pick up a bottle of bourbon.
Fortunately, a good friend offered to pick up a bottle for me and ship it back. I took him up on his offer, sending him a couple bottles of Southern Californian microbrew in exchange. Soon, the whiskey was in my hands. I could hardly wait to see what would happen with this one. Would it show too much oak? Would it be the greatest thing ever? Perhaps worst of all, might it be a very middle of the road and safe barrel pick?
The nose on this one is great – warm and woody, with dark fruits prominent up front. Plums and black cherries compete against very creamy vanilla; deep wood notes provide a bed for everything. Rye spiciness is evident and even slightly aggressive, but not to the extent that it’s disagreeable or too harsh.
The palate starts dry with plenty of wood. Cinnamon, black cherries and vanilla take over, moving the palate away from dry astringency. Toffee and maple syrup pick up, and then rye comes storming in again, providing a nice kick and a slightly floral quality. With a little more time the wood comes into focus but it’s not so dry, and it’s nicely balanced by light orange zest.
The finish, much like on the standard OBSV, is drier than the palate. Black pepper and oak lead; cinnamon and black cherries come side by side behind it. Finally, rye spice and a hint of nutmeg are the last flavors standing.
I was really surprised by the 17 year old version of this whisky. I certainly expected an uptick in dryness, black pepper, cinnamon, and wood, but the creaminess on the 17 is much more pronounced to me than it is on the younger standard version. There’s a strong wood influence to be sure, but it’s not in the least bit tired. It’s full of life and flavor, but with a weight and deliberation that you’d hope for in a bourbon of this age.
Quality-wise, I have to say that this particular barrel (78-30, Warehouse QS), honestly stands shoulder to shoulder with other highly regarded bourbons like those found in the Buffalo Trace Anniversary Collection; Pappy Van Winkle, or the Parker’s Heritage collection. Honestly, I think if Four Roses could find the right push for this one, they could release these in limited quantities to a broader market and have a serious contender for the Van Winkles of the world, which are becoming a chore to find anymore.
Four Roses Single Barrel (Private Selection – Four Roses Gift Shop) OBSV 17y 53.3% ABV
Nose: Warm and woody, with dark fruits – plums, black cherries – jostling for attention against creamy vanilla aroma while deep wood notes provide a bed. Rye spiciness is evident and slightly aggressive but not disagreeably so.
Palate: Dry on the palate initially with plenty of wood; giving way to cinnamon and black cherries with a light bit of vanilla, slight toffee and faint maple syrup. Rye picks up right behind this, giving a nice kick and slightly floral note. Light orange balances the wood which starts to come to the forefront again.
Finish: Finishes dry with black pepper and oak, a little cinnamon and black cherries; rye spiciness and a hint of nutmeg.
Comment: Interestingly, I think the creaminess is better developed in the 17y version of OBSV than the 10y. The barrel notes give a strong influence to this and it’s quite powerful, but not at all tired. Full of life and flavor, but moving deliberately according to its age. If Four Roses released this wide they might have a contender to the Pappy throne.