At the mention of Bourbon, our thoughts turn to Kentucky. Bourbon whiskey was declared to be a “distinctive product of the United States” in a joint Congressional resolution issued on May 4, 1964, and the lawmakers went on to identify it as “unlike any other type of alcoholic beverage, whether foreign or domestic.” It is widely regarded as the native American spirit, and is intimately connected to the history of the Bluegrass State.
Bourbon is made in many other places, of course: New York and Colorado, Indiana and Illinois, Virginia and Missouri. A Bourbon produced in Livermore, California—in the middle of wine country—would catch the attention of most people. We’d have many questions about it: who makes it, why did they decide to make Bourbon in California, who inspired them, how does it differ from the Kentucky version.
Big House Bourbon yields few answers. A little research tells you that it’s owned by a company called Underdog Wine and Spirits, but there’s no mention of the spirit on Underdog’s web site. The name echoes another Underdog product, Big House wines, a brand originally made famous by Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm before he decided to sell out. In fact, the site for Big House Bourbon is vaguely similar to the site for the wine of the same name, but less intricate in design. There’s a description of the fermentation process, and we’re told that the whiskey is aged for six years in new, charred American oak barrels. There are a lot of prison metaphors. There’s a section called Ink, which we might assume contains press reviews, but actually is a compilation of tattoos uploaded by fans of the brand (go figure).
Whether or not you’re from Kentucky, and regardless of whether you have a tattoo, Big House Bourbon is a very fine product. The nose is generous and spicy, perfumed with caramel, vanilla, pepper and spring flowers. It’s high-toned and spicy on the first sip, with the pepper notes dominating, giving way in the mid palate to caramel and butterscotch flavors. The finish is long, and the spirit overall is extremely well balanced; it comes in at 90 proof/45% ABV. The texture is light, the mouth feel is lively, and it is an undisputed bargain at $20. Cocktails range from the usual suspects (Manhattan and Old Fashioned) to more exotic proprietary creations (see below).
The nose of the Big House Tupelo Honey displays none of the forward sweetness you’d expect to find. It emerges on the palate, of course, where it resembles a candied Bourbon, and the honey lingers on the finish along vanilla with notes. It’s lighter than the regular Bourbon (70 proof/35% ABV), and while the sweetness isn’t integrated perfectly into the texture of the spirit, I’d take this in a heartbeat over Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey.
1.5 oz. Big House Bourbon
1.5 tsp. apricot brandy
1 tbsp. grapefruit juice
1.5 tsp. lemon juice
1 dash bitters
Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice; shake vigorously, and strain into glass over ice.
.75 oz. Big House Tupelo Honey
.75 oz. brandy
.75 oz. Benedictine
Juice of half an orange
Juice of half a lemon
Combine ingredients into shaker with ice; shake and strain into glass filled with crushed ice. Top with carbonated water and stir gently.
ABOUT THE BOOK: Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, by Mark Spivak, is published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot). Writing in an engaging and appealing style, Spivak chronicles the untold tales of twelve spirits that changed the world and forged the cocktail culture. While some are categories and others are specific brands, they are “the best kinds of stories—the type a writer could never make up.”
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Mark Spivak is an award-winning writer specializing in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He was the wine writer for the Palm Beach Post from 1994-1999, and since 2001 has been the Wine and Spirits Editor for the Palm Beach Media Group, as well as the restaurant critic for Palm Beach Illustrated. His work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Robb Report, Ritz-Carlton, Continental, Art & Antiques, Newsmax, Dream of Italy and Arizona Highways. From 1999-2011 he hosted Uncorked! Radio, a highly successful wine talk show on the Palm Beach affiliate of National Public Radio.
Mark began writing Iconic Spirits after becoming fascinated with the untold stories behind the world’s greatest liquors. As a writer, he’s always searching for the unknown details that make his subject compelling and unique.
You can learn more about Mark at http://www.iconicspirits.net/index.htm
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