Big Bottom Whiskey, Perfecting the Barrel Finish
Big Bottom Whiskey is a family and veteran owned and operated independent bottler in Hillsboro, Oregon with a reputation that is spreading faster than their distribution. Ted Pappas, a veteran of the Air Force started Big Bottom just three short years ago with his wife Taylor. In that time they have grown a cult like following in the Pacific northwest that is quickly spreading across the country. Big Bottom Whiskey (BBW) offers two standard bourbons at 91 and 111 proof as well as a newly released Devil’s Hole Cinnamon Whiskey, but without a doubt BBW is best known for their Port and Zinfandel finished bourbons.
If you aren’t familiar with cask finished bourbon, BBW takes a 36% rye straight bourbon and dumps it in to a freshly emptied wine barrel for further aging, or “finishing”. Getting down to the brass tacks of barrel finishing requires some real X, Y, Z, linear equation stuff that is best left to people like John Campbell, Lincoln Henderson and Ted Pappas, but I can offer a brief explanation about the basic concepts of the barrel finishing process. You can fast forward by skipping the indented portion.
Simply put, the bourbon forces itself into the pores of the wine barrel’s staves, and by doing so forces the wine that is leftover in the staves out and into the bourbon. The wetter the wine barrel is when the bourbon goes in, the more wine is left to get “chased” out of the staves. The longer the bourbon sits in the wine barrel, the more wine gets “chased” out of the staves. BBW finishes their bourbon for about 6 months, or until Ted tastes the desired combination of bourbon and the finishing cask.
Unlike cask finishing a single malt, bourbon presents a completely separate set of variables to consider when picking the type of wine cask to use. With bourbon you also have to pick the type of bourbon. High rye bourbon versus low rye bourbon, four grain versus three grain, or possibly even a wheated bourbon all have certain wine types that are favorable to mix with, as well as unfavorable to mix with. For example, a high spice bourbon might go well with a rich, dry red wine cask while a soft wheated bourbon might go well with a sharper white wine cask. Big Bottom uses a bourbon that has a whopping 36% rye in it and that should allow plenty of the finishing cask influence into the profile without sacrificing too much spice from the bourbon profile.
Barrel finishing bourbon has become one of the fastest growing trends with both small “craft” distilleries and independent bottlers, as well as the big guys. Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, A. Smith Bowman and even the local Stranahan’s Distillery right here in Colorado have all used about 15 different types of casks between them for barrel finished whiskies. With the feared “bourbon shortage” of 2013, these large producers are unable to dedicate a steady stream of barrels for such a product so anything barrel finished from the big guys has almost always been a very limited special release.
This has created a healthy market for barrel finished whiskey that small craft distillers and independent bottlers like Big Bottom have been happy to fill. Over the last few years, Angel’s Envy is the big name in this space, but their use of Port casks is intended to merely soften the flavor profile of the bourbon. For those looking to dive a bit deeper down the barreled finished rabbit hole, Angel’s Envy is a good introduction, but far from a serious look at the full potential of the process. While Angle’s Envy aims to soften their bourbon profile, Big Bottom looks past the bourbon and searches for the best flavor profile possible that can be created by blending bourbon with their secondary casks.
I live in one of the 42 state without BBW distribution and twice now since starting this site I have received requests for BBW info and reviews. This is what I mean by their reputation spreading faster than their distribution. In a state that has never had a bottle of BBW on the shelf, there is already interest for the product.
Unfortunately, the limited distribution is not by design. BBW’s two main products, as well as their “Warehouse Series” are completely dependent on the wine industry. Winemakers that have the specific wine casks BBW uses need to dump their wine and transport the wet casks before BBW can even begin aging their products. Keep in mind the wine market fluctuates almost completely independent from the bourbon market, so while the availability of wine casks has remained relatively unchanged since BBW started in 2010, the demand for bourbon and BBW products has increased exponentially. This often leaves BBW with plenty of bourbon and no wine barrels to finish it in.
One solution to this problem for BBW is to finish their bourbon in a wider variety of wine casks. Later this year BBW will be releasing a Cabernet Sauvignon finished bourbon, which will expand their standard offerings to three different types of wine cask finished bourbons. If the Colorado folks can think back to the Cab finished Stranahan’s Snowflake, we should all be very excited as that was one of the highlights of the Snowflake series.
This review was done on samples provided by BBW
American Straight Bourbon Whiskey
This bourbon had a three year age statement not long ago, but has since gone with a “straight bourbon” title which guarantees a bourbon aged at least two years but the average barrel going into this product is between six to eight years. This is the base bourbon for the cask finished bourbons, but in its own right, the BBW Straight Bourbon has earned a bronze at the MicroLiquor Spirits Awards, and a score of 91 from Anthony Dias Blue, the founder of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Color: Apple juice.
Nose: Light sweetness by way of carmel and honeyed apples comes through a decent smoke and char. Plenty of cinnamon, allspice and clove come through the nose as well.
Sip: Medium texture on the tongue, but a lot more depth than what I was expecting from the color and nose. That high rye content really shows up after a brief spell of carmel, vanilla frosting and a slight toffee upfront. Red Hots cinnamon spice, fresh cut oak, pepper and a faint barley bite create a pretty unique profile.
Finish: Overall, the finish is the strongest attribute. A creamy vanilla, apple and freshly grated cinnamon sticks spice last for a decent length that is quite enjoyable for a younger bourbon.
Overall Grade: B
This bourbon is a great way to see where the cask finished BBW bourbons started. When found under $30, the straight bourbon from BBW is a pretty decent value for fans of high rye bourbon and those intending to mix it, but it most likely won’t satisfy most sippers with deep cabinets. Most of the flavors sit around a medium intensity, much like a younger brother of a Four Roses Single Barrel, but the quality far exceeds what you would expect from the proof, age and price.
I would be perfectly happy if I was stuck in a bar that only had this bourbon, but there are quite a few older bourbons out there in this price range that overshadow this sourced, non-cask finished bourbon from BBW. The 111 proof version is a different story. I had this during my most recent visit to California and the texture and depth increases quite a bit for the small jump in price. It is also aged around six to eight years, which is a great addition to the relatively young line.
Straight Bourbon Finished in Port Casks
This 91 proof port finished bourbon has received gold medals from both the MicroLiquor Awards and the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. One of my favorite reviewers, Chris Null over at DrinkHacker damn near peed his pants from excitement from this offering and while in a port and bourbon induced hysteria he named it his American Whiskey of the Year. The guy that names the real “American Whiskey of the Year” award, John Hansell over at Malt Advocate, thought there was slightly too much port but was very positive on the overall profile.
Color: Rust, copper, heavily steeped black tea. Easily the darkest of the three.
Nose: Great balance of cinnamon, dark honey, red wine and rum raisins. Not a hard edge anywhere on this nose, but a light campfire note dances in and out.
Sip: Much thicker than the standard bourbon above. There is a wonderful oily, silky viscosity reminiscent of a much older cask strength bourbon that encourages a few extra swishes. On first sip the Port finished BBW could easily pass for two, even three times its age.
A rich baking chocolate, chewy caramel candy and cherry syrup highlights the upfront sweetness before the rich, soft Port comes and really dominates rest. Dark plum jam, brandy and soft red wine take over in the mid palate and carry over into the back with a clove, peppercorn and cinnamon spice.
Finish: One of the softest, smoothest finishes of any bourbon I have ever experienced. Incredibly smooth and rich in red wine character that seems to age the bourbon ten years. The high rye bourbon struggles to do more than peek above the surface in the finish, but a nice slight cinnamon spice and carmel candy is present if you are looking for it.
Overall Grade: A
Peer Review: Malt Advocate: 84, DrinkHacker: A,
After tasting how spice heavy the base bourbon is, you really get a sense for how much work the Port is doing, but it never crosses over in to a grape heavy profile. It seems much more like a higher age bourbon with less port influence than a very young bourbon with lots of port influence, but that is the beauty of this pour. The texture and finish alone make this bottle well worth the $35, but the depth on the tongue is incredible as well.
The only thing keeping this low priced, high value bourbon from reaching an A+ is that the youth of the bourbon holds back the depth of the caramel, oak and char characteristics. A little more age on the bourbon and the Port finished BBW could be a knockout!
Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Zinfandel Casks
A lot less press on this one than the Port finished version. It is 91 proof, aged around four to six years and sat in Zinfandel casks for around six months. The Zin finished BBW recently won a gold medal from the Fifty Best website.
Color: Darker than the Straight Bourbon, lighter than the Port Finished Bourbon. The Zin Finish closely resembles a 12 year old bourbon in color as a medium honey or a light maple syrup.
Nose: Loads of baking spices and toasted oak with a nice balance of honey, some crisp apples, dark berries and a really specific red licorice note that the guys over at The 3 Drunken Celts nailed.
Sip: Again, there is an oily, full mouthfeel but slightly less enjoyable than the Port Finished version. Honey and cinnamon sugar in the front palate quickly fade to a deep mid and back palate. Apples, pear and apricot find a nice balance with the high rye bourbon. Cinnamon, clove and a sweeping spice box back palate blend with peppery oak and a soft char.
Finish: The finish is where the Zinfandel leaves its mark. The sweet fades quickly leaving an interesting combination between the fruits and spicy notes. Pear and cinnamon linger the longest.
Overall Grade: B+
The Zin finished BBW lacks a bit of the texture that the Port finished BBW has, as well as some of the qualities that make up for the youth of the bourbon and that is why it drops down below an A grade. The Zinfandel does seem to strike a slightly more cohesive balance with the bourbon itself, as the sharp, light fruits from the Zinfandel go perfectly with that high rye spice bourbon. I felt there was an absence of oak and char in the profile, but the Zinfandel does a pretty good job of adding fruits and texture to make up for whatever shortcoming the young age creates in the profile.
It seems anything is possible for Big Bottom in the future. Their Warehouse Series keeps locals on their toes, their standard line has nearly doubled in the last year, and the high praise keeps pilling up. The most encouraging sign is that their bourbon keeps getting older. Their original line was age stated at two and three years. Now, BBW uses barrels four to six years old for their barrel finished stuff and six to eight years for their standard bourbons. I would love to see another age jump make it to future barrel finished releases, but the old saying, “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” comes to mind.
If you are interested in following their brand, their Facebook page is linked HERE, but also there is a great website mentioned earlier called The 3 Drunken Celts. These guys are close with Big Bottom Whiskey and review all the products as they come out. When the Cabernet Sauvignon finish comes out, this would be the place to check for the low down.
If you are in Colorado and want to try their stuff, Beltramo’s Wine & Spirits is the cheapest online retailer that ships to Colorado. Other states can find west coast stores like K&L and Hi-Times with stock, but they don’t always have the lowest prices.
As a reminder, I do not receive any compensation from BBW, Beltramo’s or anyone else mentioned or linked in this article. I received the samples after pestering a very patient Taylor Pappas, whom was graceful enough not to dismiss my requests once she found out I was in the Army, not the Air Force.