What's so special about the Four Roses Ten Recipe Tasting Experience? Why are bourbon nerds giddy about some 50 ml samples? Why would Four Roses even bother to create a kit like this? Well, they are trying to satiate the insane, ravenous demand for Four Roses Private Barrels (aka "Store Picks"). Why is there such a demand for Private Barrels?
To understand that, we need to learn a bit more about Four Roses, both its history and its present day production methods.
Four Roses was originally trademarked in 1880 by Paul Jones, Jr. The brand was initially headquartered at Jones's grocery store on Whiskey Row in Louisville, KY. Jones's nephew, Lawrence, took over the brand when Paul died, and in 1919 purchased the Old Prentice Distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY (current site of the Four Roses Distillery). In 1943, Four Roses was purchased by Canadian whiskey brand Seagram's.
Seagram's made big changes to Four Roses. Previously a 90 proof straight bourbon, Seagram's, a blended whiskey producer, changed Four Roses into a blended whiskey. In the late 1950s, Four Roses was pulled from the American market altogether and sold only in Europe and Asia. While Four Roses Bourbon was very popular overseas, particularly in Japan, it was not available in the USA at all (besides a distillery-only bottling of 80 proof bottling starting in 1994). In 2000, Seagram's went under. Four Roses was sold to Vivendi, which sold it to Diageo. Finally, in 2002, Four Roses was acquired by its current owner, Kirin, a Japanese brewing company. Kirin allowed Master Distiller Jim Rutledge to take full control of whiskey production at Four Roses.
Jim Rutledge set up the unique bourbon distilling and blending process that Four Roses now uses to create their whiskies. As you may know, Four Roses distills a total of ten different "recipes" of bourbon, which are then combined in different proportions to create their different bottlings. These recipes are distinguished by their mash bill and the yeast strain used in fermentation and given letter codes in the form of...
O __ S __
where the blanks are filled by a letter representing the mash bill and the yeast strain, respectively. For example, the standard single barrel distillery bottling is the OBSV recipe, while the small batch is a combination of four recipes, OBSO, OBSK, OESO, and OESK.
All Four Roses recipe codes start with "O" and feature an "S" in the third spot, a throwback to the time when Four Roses was owned by Seagram's, who owned other distilleries as well. The "O" refers to the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY (formerly called Old Prentice), and the "S" stands for Straight whiskey (the only kind Four Roses makes these days). In the second slot, a "B" indicates the higher rye mash bill (60% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley) while an "E" indicates the lower rye mash bill (70% corn, 20% rye, 5% malted barley). The final letter tells us which of five distinct yeast strains were used and can be F, K, O, Q, or V, each of which brings unique flavors to the whiskey (as described on fourrosesbourbon.com):
O = Rich Fruit
K = Slight Spice
Q = Floral Essence
F = Herbal Notes
V = Delicate Fruit
Bourbon drinkers who enjoyed the various Four Roses products were naturally curious about what the individual recipes tasted like unblended. However, outside of the standard Four Roses Single Barrel, which is always the OBSV recipe bottled at 100 proof, there was no way to try the different bourbons on their own. And that brings us back to Private Barrels. Besides being delicious, well-aged, barrel proof bourbon, Four Roses Private Barrels are the only way to taste the ten Four Roses recipes individually.
As you may imagine, demand for these Private Barrels is extremely high. Supply is also extremely low, with a mere 1,200 barrels per year available for the entire USA. Depending on where one lived, it could take years to complete a collection (if it could be done at all). Further complicating matters is the fact that barrel picks at Four Roses are done completely blind; tasters sample ten different barrels with no information about which barrel is which recipe. So your local store, which might only get one barrel a year, might also get the same recipe multiple times.
The scarcity, quality, and desirability of these Private Barrels, as well as the uniqueness of each recipe, caused Four Roses fans to embark on epic, painstaking, and expensive bourbon hunts to find Private Barrels of all ten recipes. People traveled the country looking for Private Barrel bottlings of less common recipes, online groups popped up directing enthusiasts to available bottles all over the country, and the cost of the bottlings on the secondary market soared.
So, Four Roses went from being a blended whiskey that was not even available in America to being one of the most delicious and sought after bourbons in the country. Finally, in response to out of control demand, the distillery decided to release the Ten Recipe Tasting Experience . Though not quite barrel strength (104 proof is pretty robust and you might still be able to stand up afterward), the kit allows whiskey fans to taste and compare all ten recipes side by side without spending several years and hundreds of dollars hunting bottles. It is a fantastic experience for any bourbon lover, and a must buy for Four Roses fans.