Rule No. 1 of bourbon journalism: Never turn down an invite to a private barrel selection.
When Ken Blackthorn, co-owner of Taj Louisville, asked me to come along recently on a barrel pick at Four Roses, I said yes immediately — even before checking with my boss. I had info ammunition, though, to plead my case. Barrel selections are a great way to learn more about the craft, rub shoulders with industry folks and have a great time tasting bourbon straight from the barrel.
I’ve had the opportunity to accompany several barrel selections in my more than 10 years of covering the industry, and not one of them was ever an afternoon wasted, especially if you’re secretly a bourbon nerd at heart. OK, I suppose it’s not really a secret.
I met Blackthorn and his cast of characters — Taj bartenders, a bartender from another bar, Taj’s landlord and inspiration, and three bourbon aficionados, two of whom run Sour Mash Tours — at Taj on a recent weekday morning. It was 11 a.m., and I could detect notes of bourbon and Jagermeister permeating the air.
The crew seemed anxious and excited — more latter than former — and they seemed genuine in their desire to learn more about the spirit and pick a single-barrel product they knew their customers would devour. We divided up into two cars and headed south on I-65, toward the Four Roses Warehouse & Bottling Facility in Cox’s Creek, near Bardstown.
Unfortunately, there was a rollover crash on the highway that morning, and traffic was diverted off at the Brooks Road exit. The detour added about an extra hour to our trip, but anticipation for the experience was so high, it didn’t really seem to matter.
Both cars made the most of it, taking in the back road views of Bullitt County and complaining about today’s Christmas music offerings.
Of course, bourbon seeped into most of the conversation, and the guys who were in my car talked about what’s on their shelves, what they would like to be on their shelves and how the bourbon craze has made it difficult to find some brands.
David Theilen, who bartends at Outlook Inn, talked about Outlook’s growing selection of bourbon and how they’ve went from one of the city’s oldest dive bars to one of the city’s oldest bourbon bars in the matter of a few years. They’ve quietly been putting their time and effort into their collection, and anyone who has visited recently can see that clearly.
Both cars finally made it to our destination, and we were led into an official “Private Selection” nondescript building situated between many rick houses. We were greeted by Byron Banks, Four Roses’ senior manager of southeast regional sales, who had picked out five 8-year-old barrels for us from the distillery’s B mash bill.
(Four Roses has two different mash bills — the E and the B — along with five proprietary yeast strands — V, K, O, Q, F — so it creates essentially 10 distinctive bourbon recipes. The B mash bill has slightly more rye and less corn than the E.)
The bourbon we would select is part of Four Roses’ 100-Proof Barrel Program, so before it’s bottled for Taj, it’ll be proofed down slightly to 100.
We took our spots along the tasting bar, where a mat was set out featuring five tasting glasses. One by one, we took them over to the barrels, where Banks used a whiskey thief to draw out bourbon directly from the barrel and fill our glasses.
And then, the scientific dissection began. We looked at it, smelled it, swished it around the glass and finally put it to our lips and tasted the sweet Kentucky nectar. I tried taking notes as best I could, and here’s what I scribbled down:
- Sample No. 1: Fruit
- Sample No. 2: Fire dragon
- Sample No. 3: Rough, thin, hot on the backside
- Sample No. 4: Smooth, thick, fruity, YUM!!!
- Sample No. 5: Thin, too spicy, gasoline
As you can see, we weren’t as professional with our descriptions as we could be, but the standouts appeared to be No. 1 and No. 4. We then left the room, and Banks and private selection manager Mandy Vance poured two more samples of 1 and 4 for a blind tasting.
After wrangling us back inside, we each tasted our two samples and voted for our favorite on a dry-erase board at the front of the room. No. 4 was the clear winner — a nice mix of sweet and spice, with a thick viscosity and hints of baking spices, caramel and pepper. It was Four Roses at its finest, and we selected a winner.
After our work was done, we were treated to a full tour of the site, which included a look at the new bottling line and a jaunt inside a rick house.
Blackthorn says he expects to have the private selected Four Roses in his bar later this winter.
Until then, here’s a look at more photos of the journey: