In May, four of us piled in a van and headed north to Coxs Creek, Kentucky. Clouds hung low as we pulled into the Four Roses storage compound, a rolling patch of treeless acres surrounded by forest and dashed with long squat gray buildings known as rickhouses. In the rickhouses, of course, is where the bourbon is born.
I think those of us who had never seen this facility balked when we first came upon it. I know I did.
"Looks like a concentration camp," Jenny said. Then she laughed and we all laughed because there was truth to her exaggeration.
It's a stark change from the distilling facility in Lawrenceburg, an hour east, which has a warm, welcoming, almost touristy kitsch to it. Nothing here but an armed barrier and two dozen concrete bunkers.
We parked, not sure how to proceed. A couple of us scuttled into the main building looking for relief. Around the back of the building—a kind of check-in place that primarily housed the restrooms and nominally sold a few scattered memorabilia—sat a sculpture of a motorcycle made entirely out of pieces of Four Roses barrels. Even that was shoved up into a corner of a little covered patio. It was neither on display nor hidden from view, but stuck somewhere in between, so that I couldn't tell if it was a source of pride or shame. Who set this here? Jim?
Alas, another ten minutes and we were directed on down past the barricade into the center of the compound, where between rows of rickhouses sits a tall shapely building known as the tasting room, words that immediately began to put us at ease.
Will had brought sandwiches from Dozen Bakery, and before we did anything we gathered around a table in the high-ceiling room and ate. Drank some water. Brushed our hands off. Tossed the trash.
That's when Jim Rutledge walked in. Jim Rutledge! One of the great names in whiskey. A legend. A master. Was that him? He ambled over and shook hands with each of us, briefly meeting our eyes. A quick nod. A disarming, nervous chuckle. We all looked around at each other.
"We weren't sure if you'd be here," Will said. And Jim said he hadn't been sure either, but that he liked to go through the barrels with the folks who made the trip. Especially since we'd been at it a while.
Then for a few minutes we prodded Jim with questions about the phenomenal shift in the popularity of bourbon over the past five years. He gave us the staggering numbers—certain programs had quintupled in size in a matter of two years—and he shook his head and laughed, as confounded as the rest of us. And yet this may have been the only disingenuous note he struck the whole day, because while the sudden rise may have caught some off guard, something tells me Jim knew this day would come.
We were a studious bunch, taking our places along either side of the bar, place mats set, pens open, notebooks already scrawled with ink. One by one Jim thiefed from the ten barrels set aside for our choosing (one barrel per recipe), filling each of our tasting glasses straight from the cask.
Tasting this way, we know which recipe we've got in the glass, but we have no idea the age or what the proof is or how much bourbon is in the barrel. They all start out at the same, but the warehouse conditions vary widely enough to create a unique disposition for every entry. There are general rules of thumb: the higher the tier, the hotter the air, the more water will evaporate, the higher the proof. Barrels on the first tier are cooler, and the alcohol often evaporates more quickly than the water, meaning the proof of the bourbon actually goes down from its initial 125°. There are certain microclimates. But they're hard to define. Jim brushes aside any attempt to pin down the qualities of this or that location.
So we went through the ten barrels all but blind, tasting each sample against the others, jotting down vague descriptors, starring what spoke to us and dismissing what did not. Then we compared notes, returned to the most interesting ones, and narrowed it down to two.
Meanwhile, Jim sat off to one side, inserting a comment here or there, telling stories from his decades-long career, but not evaluating anything out loud for fear of inflecting our decision. He's seasoned enough to know the power of his own opinion.
The facts are important. And we're a curious bunch. So we asked a lot of questions, tried to tap into the science behind Jim's genius. We wanted a better picture of the bourbons, how they developed and why. That gross looking barrel, for instance. What gives? How does a barrel come to look this way, warped and blackened and covered in funk? Do barrels like this taste better?
He shook his head and smirked, letting us know how often he gets this question.
"That's got more to do with the barrel above it or next to it," he said. "Nothing I've ever seen on the outside of barrel tells me anything predictable about what's inside." In other words, we had fallen into a common trap. This barrel has been distressed, therefore it must taste better, right? But time had told him this simply wasn't true.
Still, it looked really cool. All gnarled and molded over. The kind of barrel that revs the imagination. Just enough knowledge to be dangerous. After all, despite years of picking out barrels, tasting hundreds of samples, reading widely, meeting people at all levels of the trade—compared to everyone else on this compound the four of us were novice.
We all agreed to put the visual aesthetics of the barrels out of mind and focus on the taste. Another round of sniffing. Some quibbling over details. In the end, Will looked around to each of us. Everyone agreed.
When we announced our final choice, Barrel #6, OBSK, Jim reached in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled up napkin on which he'd scribbled two numbers. 6 and 8. Nothing more.
Tyler and I glanced at each other. Really? That's it? No notes? Amazing. The man's been living whiskey for so long he's come all the way through looking glass and back to the other side. Returned to the uncarved block. Found zen. It's simple. Yes or no.
We pressed him on the issue, wondering if he only ever wrote down what he liked or didn't. "Well," he said, "I have a star system for when I'm picking barrels for, say, a Limited Edition. But that's all."
So, that's all. We liked it. And at this point we've learned to trust our tastes. We felt a little validated that our choice matched up with Jim's, but in the end, that doesn't matter either. What matters is that split second decision every one of us is going to make. Do you like it? I hope so, but that's entirely up to you.
Woodland Wine Merchant - Four Roses - Private Selection Barrel
Age: 9 years, 7 months
Warehouse: E (north facing)
Bottling date: September 1, 2015
Yield: 168 bottles