A winter storm front had moved in overnight, and a cold wind was blowing a light dusting of snow over the rolling hills of Kentucky’s famous bourbon country.
But inside the tasting room at the Four Roses warehouse and bottling facility in Cox’s Creek, the atmosphere was warm and cozy, even a bit giddy, as the spirituous aromas of alcohol and charred oak filled the air, and a small group got down to the work of sipping and taking notes.
Four Roses master distiller Brent Elliot led the blind tasting, filling small wine glasses using a long copper tool called a whiskey thief. Elliot offered guidance and answered questions while the group sampled nine unique barrels of high proof aged bourbon that had been rolled into the room.
“We have two different mash bills, both high in rye, and we have five different yeast strains,” Elliot said, explaining the way Four Roses creates and mingles its 10 different bourbon recipes before barreling and aging them for up to 11 years.
“Each yeast creates different flavors,” he said. Some are floral, some are fruity, some are spicy, and that’s where all the difference comes in, and it continues to change as it ages in the barrel.”
The goal of the tasting is to pick out the best barrel, though what aromas and flavors are pleasing or distinctive or off-putting can be a matter of personal taste.
Ultimately, that judgment was left to the visitors from the Intercontinental Buckhead Atlanta — Michael Magnole, the bar manager at the hotel’s Southern Art & Bourbon Bar, and Maxime de La Grange Sury, the hotel’s director of food and beverage.
Magnole and de La Grange Sury had flown to Louisville the night before and driven to the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg early the next morning to take part in a ritual that has become increasingly more common among retailers, restaurateurs and bar owners.
They toured the distilling, barreling and bottling operations, learned of Four Roses history from brand ambassador Al Young, and tuned up their palates by tasting various bourbons — several times.
Then Magnole and de La Grange Sury had the opportunity to choose a private barrel selection, which would be packaged in a limited quantity of 150-200 bottles with personalized labels bearing the Bourbon Bar name, and delivered to the hotel in a couple of months.
It’s a marketing tool offered to customers by Four Roses and other distilleries. And it isn’t cheap, at up to $10,000 per barrel. But with the booming popularity of bourbon and other spirits, it’s a savvy way for bars to bring in connoisseurs who are willing to pay top dollar for rarities, which are increasingly in short supply.
It also can be a journey of discovery for anyone interested in gaining a greater knowledge of the sensory side of food and drink.
Elliot noted that the level of sophistication among those making the journey to buy a barrel at the distillery has been growing over the years. “We’ve had groups come in before and there’s a person that can blindly tell you what each recipe is,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing to be able do that at full strength.”
Magnole and de La Grange Sury labored over choosing their selection, swirling, sniffing, savoring, adding a bit of water, and sometimes pacing away from the table to gather their thoughts.
Seeming a bit anxious, de La Grange Sury, who is Parisian, wrote his notes in French. “I couldn’t find the right words in English,” he said, laughing.
Magnole wondered if it was “normal” to experience two wildly different sensations in a particular bourbon. “In this one I’m getting fruit and tobacco at the same time,” he said, shaking his head.
“Absolutely,” Elliot answered.”Sometimes you get more simplicity. Sometimes you get more complexity.”
Toward the end, it came down to just two barrels, which by some magic most of the group, including Elliot, picked as favorites, too.
Finally, Magnole and de La Grange Sury settled on barrel No. 8, which they felt was more versatile and would be suitable for either sipping or mixing in a high end cocktail. Elliot profiled it as beautifully herbal.
Ceremoniously, the barrel was resealed with a poplar bung, turned upright, and signed and dated by Magnole, de La Grange Sury and Elliot, with the promise that it would be bottled and delivered in early April.
Back in Atlanta, Magnole and de La Grange Sury reflected on the experience, anticipating all the things they would do once their bottles arrived, including the possibility of a multi-course private barrel bourbon dinner at the hotel’s Southern Art restaurant.
“The day was good,” de La Grange Sury said. “Doing the tastings and being at the distillery helped you to understand better. For me, it was super interesting to learn everything. It’s great storytelling.”
“I’ve already made the decision to go back to Kentucky and spend five or six days going to different distilleries,” Magnole said.
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