Travis Hill really wanted a bottle of Four Roses 2012 Limited Edition Small Batch. Unfortunately, only around 4,000 were released, and by 2014 they were selling for a good $900 on bourbon’s black market. Way too much for the Georgia man. But, he thought, maybe he could simply blend a version of the limited edition himself.
When it comes to most of the rare and highly coveted bourbons on the market, recreating the blend would be, at best, a guessing game, but more likely impossible without access to the brand’s barrel warehouse. This isn’t the case with Four Roses, though, as their wholly unique production methods make jerry-rigging your own limited editions somewhat possible.
Four Roses is one of the most transparent companies in the oddly secretive whiskey world, completely forthright about what their grain bills consist of and the ratios of their blends. Secondly, unlike many other distilleries who have a couple grain bills and one yeast strain, Four Roses has two grain bills and five yeast strains. That means—does the math on fingers—every barrel of Four Roses could be any one of ten different recipes, each with unique flavor profiles identified by a four-letter naming structure that appears on a small sticker panel to the left of the front label. An OESQ Barrel, for example, would be a high-rye bourbon (“E”) with floral yeast notes (“Q”). The “O” and “S” are immutable and stand for “Four Roses” and “straight whiskey,” respectively. The second and forth letters correspond to the grain bill and yeast type, and they change from bottling to bottling.
The final thing you need to know about Four Roses is that, while their standard single-barrel release in all retail stores is the OBSV recipe, the other nine recipes can be obtained with a little hustle courtesy of what are known as private-barrel picks. These are special single barrels sold by certain liquor stores like Binny’s and Julio’s (which are usually, but not always, released in the nine- to 11-year age range).
Thus, to make that 2012 Limited Edition Small Batch, Hill simply had to acquire a 17-year OBSV, an 11-year OBSV, a 13-year OBSK and a 12-year OESK.
“I could buy all those single-barrel [bottles] and mix them together at the right ratios and do that for about $300,” Hill explains. “I thought it’d be fun to make it. Plus, I’d have leftovers to drink.”
Four Roses is more than aware of this emerging phenomenon and doesn’t just not mind—they gladly encourage it. And why not? You’re still buying plenty of Four Roses in the process.
“I get emails every other week: ‘What are the recipes?’” Brent Elliott, Four Roses’ master distiller, tells me. He gladly answers all the emails—and any other questions you may have—with the accurate information. (“Brent is eager to chat with bourbon fans far and wide,” it is noted on the Four Roses online contact form.)
I met Elliott in his lab down in Lawrenceburg, KY, just outside of Lexington, where he’s currently in the midst of putting together 2018’s Limited Edition blend. I’m surprised to learn he’s actually tasted some of these ersatz blends.
“The first [amateur] sample I tried was out of the trunk of some guy’s car,” he tells me.
That “some guy” was indeed Hill, who had stopped Elliott in the parking lot of a St. Simons Island liquor store before a scheduled Four Roses event. (“How can I pass over this opportunity? I gotta have you try this!” Hill remembers thinking.) Elliott chuckles when he admits Hill’s blend wasn’t just good, it was close enough to the original release that it would be hard for many folks to tell them apart.
“I’ve since talked to a lot of these other guys who have done it,” Elliott notes. “And I just think it’s really cool.”
Blake Riber—who popularized the “Poor Man’s Pappy” blend—has also tried to simulate a few Four Roses blends, with his main focus being on recreating 2013’s terrific 125th Anniversary Small Batch Limited Edition (currently $450 or so on the secondary market). To make it, the Jacksonville man used a 55/33/12 blend of an OBSK single barrel he had actually picked himself (for his blog, Bourbonr), as well as an OESK and OBSV from two in-state retailers. His blend cost? Around $50.
In this case, however, the real 125th Anniversary uses an 18-year-old OBSV that is virtually impossible to find as a single-barrel bottling, and Riber was stuck with a mere 12-year-old OBSV. Riber played with his percentages for a month, adding more oak notes to truly nail the correct flavor profile. Even so, he found his blend just wasn’t tasting quite right. Then he got a great tip for how to improve it.
“I was talking to a Four Roses rep about it and told him I was having trouble getting close,” he tells me. “He said that’s because their mixer ‘spews’ the barrel when blending them,” he says, meaning it violently shoots the liquid around, aerating it. “I started throwing my blends into a Vitamix, and it’s greatly improved the results.”
Still, it’s easy to think something tastes close the original when you already know what it is—not to mention when you also know you just hacked it for a deep discount. But what about blind? Riber decided to do a tasting of five “real” Four Roses releases alongside three of his amateur blends, enlisting a few unsuspecting tasters (which just so happened to include Hill).
While some of the legitimate limited editions, like 2015’s Small Batch (around $300 on the black market), scored poorly among the blind tasters, the three amateur blends performed admirably. Riber’s “Poor Man’s 125th Anniversary” blend easily won it all. Riber joked during the live Google Hangout that maybe he should “put in a resumé for Four Roses master blender.”
Of course, what Four Roses fans like Riber and Hill have learned is that it’s easy to make a great “limited edition” when a master distiller like Elliott has already set the basic template for you. The real struggle is making the great blend in the first place.
“They don’t always work,” Elliott notes. “You try to make it too unique and it’ll go outside the realm of mellow and smooth. It’s all about balance.”