A while back I wrote about Angel’s Envy, the highest profile American whisky to be finished in a separate cask. In the comments, I was urged to check out the Big Bottom Port Cask. Well, I did – and I also have the recently released Hooker’s House pinot finished bourbon.
Both of these are sourced bourbons – essentially the American equivalent of Scottish independent bottlers. Hooker’s House is a Kentucky product with a high rye mashbill, so it’s hard to say where it’s from. Big Bottom is a product of Indiana, so you can make a pretty safe bet that it came out of LDI.
Normally I’d feel a slight compulsion to craft a link between this stuff and my life observations, but there’s nothing to be had this time around. These are two I’d been meaning to get to to round out the recent spate of finished bourbons (Parker’s Cognac still is in the queue – the four word review is “I really like it”) so I’m not going to pretend I had a deep philosophical insight while drinking these.
The origins are also discussed elsewhere. I’m not going to dig into these and give the backstory. We’re going to take these at face value and let them succeed or fail on their own merits. As American indies, the odds of failure are high. Hopefully we’ll come out of this with one good result.
Hooker’s House has the more provocative name. I’m sure there’s some Restoration-era origin of the name, but everyone is finding obscure early distillers to base their brand name on. Clearly, a scan of history was done and the almost-mildly-risque name “Hooker” was found in whisky history. “That’ll be great on a label!” shouted some marketing wag. And thus was born Hooker’s House – all that was needed was a three-color label with some woman’s legs, a few stars and some strange claims (“General’s Strength” and “Sonoma-Style American Bourbon”). Fine – everything’s got an angle. I generally will bite on new and interesting angles and the risque-for-eighth-graders angle isn’t doing it for me. This will live and die on what’s in the glass.
The nose – wow, unexpected depth. Black cherry sits against a distinctly fruity, slightly fumey red wine note. There’s some vanilla and oak, faint toffee and a faint hint of corn. Honestly, it’s darker and fruitier than I would expect, but it’s not bad at all. It’s a bit straightforward but this is very close to the bourbon nose I idealize.
The palate follows the nose very closely: massively fruity with cherries, grapes, plums and more. It’s initially a little dry and oaky with some black cherries become much more focused on the fruits, wearing its pinot noir influence on its sleeve. It’s surprisingly dry and light, but has a very grippy, chewy mouthfeel. At some points, this one almost goes tart with all the fruit on the palate.
The finish shows some heat and the massive fruit comes through again. There’s a little more bourbon present as well as some dry oak; the finish remains grippy and chewy; some oranges and cherries peek out as well as a flash of blueberry.
I was really surprised by this one. Despite the name and the finish, this is a specialty bourbon that is actually pretty good. I wouldn’t always be in the mood for this one but it definitely strikes a chord for me. I’d be interested to see less wine influence – maybe half as much or 3/4 as much aging, but that’s armchair quarterbacking.
So, one down and it’s a good one. On the flip side, there’s Big Bottom whiskey. The name here has the very obvious influence and origin. It’s a bit more cartoonishly middle-school-risque in its name, but I’m not afraid to admit I’m OK with that. I’ll cut it some slack, even though it’s driven by the same impulse as Hooker’s House. Once again, this is going to live and die by what’s in the glass. A clever name and a nice label are worthless if the whiskey sucks.
The nose… oh no, what happened? The nose is young (not surprising; it’s been aged 2 years). It’s got a rye prickle and a green pine aroma. At moments there’s a little corn, but mostly this is very woody. It’s also got a very plain jane, unadorned, unflavored alcohol kick. After a while this has some port sweetness with some faint grape and cherry aromas as well as a generally sugary note.
The palate is distressingly similar – moderate weight in the mouth but not much flair. It’s got an alcohol burn, a faint sweetness. After a minute the green woody notes and slight port sweetness come through, but in no coherent way. It’s just bitter with a slight sour kick.
The finish is bland. Heat, a little sweetness, a touch of sour new-make and wood. It’s disorganized, has no coherent statement and is all over the place.
This is one of those whiskies that’s a real disappointment and makes you wonder about the longer term success of American craft distillers. It’s enough to make me run back to the known brands and not grab new craft bottles without several people to split it with. (I’m sure I will).
Now, a note on the names which I threw a flag on earlier. I say we abandon the casual innuendoes, the allusion to whores and derrieres and just go ultra-lowbrow. I know from past experience there’s something fun about outrageously inappropriate, wildly self-deprecating (to an uncomfortable level) product claims and identity. It’s the sort of un-campaign and un-branding every marketer loves to do. With that said, two suggestions:
Schidface. Because the letter “T” is too hard to pronounce, and some people don’t like swear words sticking out on labels. But near misses are OK. So the rallying cry for this (presumably downmarket) spirit? “HEY EVERYBODY! LET’S GO GET SCHIDFACE!”
And, you know, then they do. 45% ABV.
Bad Decision. This is probably best as a vodka or a flavored whiskey (Hey Beam, if you want to rename Red Stag, feel free to use this). You could maybe use it for a really questionable wine too. You know, one of those table wines served at super cheap Italian restaurants out of repurposed machines that formerly stirred cold drinks to keep from freezing, which taste somewhere between gasoline, prison hooch and paint thinner. If it’s a flavored whisky, the name also should breeze through COLA because it’s a highly accurate naming. Plus, you’ve got the easy line for a commercial: “If you make only one decision tonight, make it a Bad Decision.”
ABV varies by category.
In all seriousness though, a quick recommendation on finished bourbons. The absolute best bet, in my opinion, is Parker’s Heritage Cognac finish. Great. Perfect dessert bourbon. Hooker’s House comes next for its bright fruitiness and interesting flavor. Unfortunately it’s probably not easy to find. Next up is Angel’s Envy, which I reviewed last year. It’s good but gets muddled. And as a novelty value only – Big Bottom Port Finish.
I received an email from Ted Pappas, founder of Big Bottom who pointed out that the second batch of Big Bottom (mentioned below in the comments by Jordan) was much better received, including at some spirits competitions. I will give the benefit of the doubt to that and may hunt down a taste at some point in the future. Two things that I will tack on here because I wasn’t aware at the time of writing which are of interest:
Big Bottom’s stated operating plan currently is to act as a scottish-style independent, with eventual plans to have their own distillate made to their specs (and eventually on site) while maintaining existing relationships. Interesting to see; perhaps some refinement to make that clearer could help them stake out some unclaimed turf (especially if they don’t have a faux-distillery label for every bourbon they source).
Also, the origins are depressingly not of Spinal Tap origin. Big Bottom is a federally protected wilderness which was granted that status thanks to some hard work on behalf of one of Ted’s friends. I think that’s as good as anything to name a whisky after.
So there you go: Ted’s side of the story, and a little more clarification. I’m not above undermining my own snark with some truth.
At a glance:
Hooker’s House Sonoma Style Bourbon 50% ABV
Nose: Black cherry sits against a slightly fumey, distinctly red wine note. There’s some vanilla and oak, a very faint shade of toffee. A faint hint of corn as well.
Palate: A bit dry and oaky initially; black cherry but a more straightforward fruity presence. This runs borderline tart for moments. Cherries, a little grape, a little plum, definite red wine tannins, again. Abundantly fruity. Light mouthfeel but dry and grippy. Chewy.
Finish: A little heat, that strong fruity presence with a little more bourbon on the palate. Some dry oak, very grippy & chewy mouthfeel even on the finish. Light hint of oranges; cherries in abundance. A hint of blueberry as well.
Comment: If this had a little more bourbon and a little less red wine fruit on the palate & finish, this would be dangerously great. As it is, it’s pretty enjoyable.
Big Bottom 2y Straight Bourbon – Port Finished 45.5% ABV
Nose: Youngish on the nose – rye prickle and a slightly green pine aroma. Corn here and there, but it’s just very woody. Low grade, plain jane alcohol kick too. Light port sweetness; faint grape and cherry aromas.
Palate: Moderate mouthfeel, not a lot of flavor to it. Alcohol burn, slight sweetness. After a minute the green woody notes and a slightly sweet port note come through. Overall bitter with a slight sour back.
Finish: Not much. Heat, a little sweetness, a touch of sour new-make note, and some wood. Very disorganized and all over the place.
Comment: American craft distillers have a long way to go.