REVIEW: Bully Boy Old Fashioned

The Old Fashioned
Bully Boy Distillers – 71.4 Proof

The Old Fashioned – 71.4 proof

Harry Truman was famous for enjoying a snort of whiskey, but my favorite story about imbibing in his White House is not about him but his wife, Bess. The straightforward First Lady, who according to the staff would “stand no fakers, shirkers, or flatterers,” knew her mind well and wasn’t shy about letting others know it, too. As befits our vision of the mid-century White House, she and Harry often enjoyed a cocktail in the residence sitting room before their evening meal. The first time Bess ordered an old fashioned, head butler Alonzo Fields fixed the drinks in classic style: an ounce of bourbon over orange slices, a teaspoon of sugar, and a dash of bitters. Too sweet, the First Lady pronounced, and the following night Fields tried a new recipe.

The next morning, Bess Truman found Fields’ boss and let fly with the kind of unflattering superlative usually associated with her “Give ‘Em Hell” husband. The drinks had been the worst to ever pass her lips, more like fruit punch than a quality cocktail. Alerted of her displeasure, Fields was ready that night when Bess again ordered an old fashioned. Pouring her a stiff double bourbon on ice, he stood by in case of disapproval. Taking a sip, Mrs. Truman smiled. “Now that’s the way we like our old fashioneds,” she said.

Bully Boy Distillers, owned and operated by two brothers in Boston, has its own historical tale, replete with a family farmhouse cellar stocked throughout Prohibition with illicit local spirits. Committed to following tradition but improving quality, Will and Dave Willis— who named their distillery after a favorite farm workhorse (are farm animal namesakes a rising trend in the liquor business?)—now produce rum, vodka, whiskey, and their bottled old fashioned. The latter, I’m afraid, would likely draw the ire of one Bess Truman, but drinkers who like to taste the difference between neat bourbon and a craft cocktail should give this a try.

Bottled cocktails are a tough sell, primarily because half the fun of having a cocktail is in the tradition and lore of the preparation. This could be doubly true of the old fashioned, which is, by Mr. Fields’ tried and true recipe above, one of the simplest to prepare, particularly when compared to a multi-step, multi-glass drink like the sazerac. There are no rinsed glasses, no one-part-this to three-and-a-half-parts that, no flavored syrup that needs to be prepared ahead of time. But that complexity is what mixologists—particularly the amateur ones—love about cocktails, which could also make the uncomplicated old fashioned the ideal pre-prepared potion. And, if I may, allow me to tout Bully Boy’s ingredients—whiskey, bitters, sugar—as equally uncomplicated in the face of infamous extracts and the “carrot coloring” dustup.

Bully Boy’s old fashioned is made with the distillery’s American Whiskey, an 84 proof spirit, but the cocktail is bottled at 71.4 proof, a significant drop that we can chalk up to simple syrup and flavorings. If you’re used to making old fashioneds with 100 proof rye, you will immediately miss the bite of the base spirit. The orange tones come through in the nose as they should, and are joined by the bitters on the palate and in the mild finish with hints of dried apricot. This is a really sweet and syrupy drink, and while Bully Boy suggests muddling an orange wheel and maraschino cherry in the glass, I found those flavors already prevalent and that an extra dose of bitters suited my taste more. They also recommend serving over an ice cube; I will admit that I enjoyed this without adding anything that melted, chilled but neat. The copper-red color itself is intoxicating.

bullyboy2While I’d like this with a bit more kick, allowing for the whiskey to shine without hiding its subtleties, I’m excited about what the brothers at Bully Boy are doing and what this portends for a quality prepackaged cocktail market. I can see keeping this on hand for when you want an old fashioned but don’t bring home an orange, and particularly serving it as an option at your next get together for guests who would rather drink and mingle than mix and muddle.

Value: High—A suggested retail of around $35 puts this craft in a lower price point than some of its big name competitors, and on par with buying a bottle of whiskey to fix old fashioneds yourself.

Drinkability: High—Sweet and straightforward, this will be attractive to many drinkers who would turn down a neat bourbon.

Overall Rating: 8.2


**Thanks to the folks at Bully Boy Distillers for providing a sample for review**

REVIEW: US#1 Small Batch Bourbon

US#1 Small Batch Bourbon
Michter’s – 91.4 Proof

Michter’s US#1 Small Batch Bourbon, 45.7% ABV

If you want to hear three different pronunciations of “Michter’s,” just ask three different Kentuckians how to say it out loud. You’ll probably get a mix of “Mick-ter’s,” “Might-er’s,” and “who the hell cares just pour me a drink.” I’ve read in more than one place that the name is a fusion of Michael and Peter, hence, it should be pronounced “Mike-ter’s.” Then again, I’ve heard company employees featured on well-known bourbon documentaries refer to the brand as “Mick-ter’s.” (Think Mick as in Rocky Balboa’s trainer.) However you choose to say it, the name isn’t the only thing currently debated concerning the various Michter’s labels; as my bottle of US#1 Small Batch Bourbon indicates—and will continue to indicate for the foreseeable future—its contents were bottled at the Michter’s Distillery in Louisville, but not actually produced there. *Cue the dramatic music*

So yes, full-disclosure: much like WhistlePig, the Michter’s whiskey currently sitting on store shelves was contract distilled. (Most people guess by Brown-Forman based on its flavor profile. It’s also worth mentioning that the company has established a functioning distillery in Louisville, joined the Association, and is in the process of producing their own distillate—it’s just going to take a while to be properly aged and available for sale.) As usual, I’m here to tell you that when it comes to really judging the whiskey itself, there’s more to high quality than just on-site distillation. So stressing over Michter’s NDP status is as pointless as being hung up on a name. But for the folks who can’t get over it (and they’re easy to find on bourbon message boards), there’s always response number three above…

The nose on US#1 Small Batch (hereafter US#1SB) is a mix of sweet caramel, corn, black pepper, and just a hint of vanilla. Despite the sweetness, US#1SB has a unique “dry” quality—almost like you’d expect from a bottle of fine Merlot. The texture is thick and velvety, but not granular. The first taste isn’t anywhere as sweet as one might expect based on the caramel-dominated nose. The tip of your tongue will be inundated with a burst of corn and vanilla (the caramel is largely absent now); following that initial shot of pretty standard bourbon flavors, a robust mix of dry fruit and black pepper begins developing on the middle of the tongue and strengthens all the way to the back. Think fruit candies topped with pepper and rye instead of sugar.

The finish on US#1SB is relatively short and very smooth. Virtually no heat, which may not please folks who’ve been surviving the winter on Booker’s, 107, or Boss Hog, but this is a perfect bourbon to sip neat or straight up. Rocks simply aren’t necessary and only dilute some of the fruit flavors. (Whiskey stones wouldn’t be an issue, though.) It’s also highly recommended as a mealtime bourbon. Because why should the wine drinkers get to have all the fun, right? The dry quality, the lack of vapor trail, and the pleasant aftertaste of fruit and hearty oak make this a solid pairing for red meat and other wild game.

As you can see, I went with the “horde for myself” option.

Value: Very High—In the $30-$40 range, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better all-around drink. This one works in the decanter for company—or for hording in your study/office.

Drinkability: High—As long as you’re not looking for a very sweet bourbon, or massive heat, this should be accessible to a wide range of drinkers. The short, painless finish is perfect for beginners while the dry, gradually-developing flavor profile is a welcomed change of pace from your average small batch.

Overall Rating: 8.5—If you haven’t tried this already, do yourself a favor: forget about the NDP-related nonsense or whether the linage actually goes back to Pennsylvania circa 1753 and buy a bottle (or two or three). The price on this is only likely to go up…

** Special thanks to Lillie O’Connell at Michter’s for providing review samples. **

REVIEW: Bowen’s Whiskey

REVIEW: Bowen’s Whiskey
“A Small Batch Handcrafted American Whiskey”
Bowen’s Spirits, Inc. (Bakersfield, CA) – 90 Proof

I came here looking for something
I couldn’t find anywhere else
Hey, I’m not trying to be nobody
I just want a chance to be myself
The Streets of Bakersfield

Bowen’s Whiskey (45% ABV)

Merle Haggard may be considered Bakersfield’s most famous son, but it was Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens who opined that “you don’t know me but you don’t like me” on its streets. Today those streets are running with more than country music and oil, and if you don’t know Bowen’s Whiskey, I’d counsel you—as Dwight and Buck did—not to sit and judge, but to get to know a whiskey that’s not trying to be something else, just itself. That famously independent and unique Bakersfield sound may just be giving way to an equally independent and unique Bakersfield taste.

Bowen’s brandishes these qualities proudly, advertising somewhat indefinably that it’s meant for “trailblazers that seek and value true guts, quick wit, and a smooth finish.” While these tastes aren’t the standard ones to land on a drinker’s palate, Bowen’s doesn’t seem to mind. Their entire brand is built on boldness: “It just is what it is,” they say, and “you either like it or you don’t.” Bold and uncompromising is a great way to build a brand, but it can also be alienating, and Bowen’s is careful not to push too many people away: “We’re known as the whiskey that both scotch and whiskey drinkers appreciate.”

There’s a reason they say “scotch and whiskey” rather than “scotch and bourbon.” Using techniques from a fifth generation moonshiner, Bowen’s starts with a 100% corn base and ages with “reclaimed, fire ravaged oak” from California’s own forests. The result, every bit as inimitable as Wade Bowen, founder, could hope for, is exactly what you would expect if a corn liquor moonshiner made scotch. It has the bite of a young corn spirit with the smoke and earth of the Old World.

But not, I have to say, immediately. The first glass you pour from the bottle is sweet, much more American than Scottish. Let it open up a little and it jogs memories, like the smoke that lingers in your flannel shirt after a night around the bonfire. Put a cube of ice in there and you’ll swear you’re still sitting on a stump swapping stories and cooking hotdogs. The more time this stuff has outside the bottle, the more like a scotch it becomes. The nose is unsurprisingly woody, like freshly split oak and bittersweet chocolate. And the first sip is smooth—very little spice up front, a bit more pine than oak, and truly earthy. The finish is coppery and smokey and dense, even at 90 proof. There’s more spice at the end than at the start, and all that smoke and spice lingers.

bowens2.jpgIf you came here looking for something you couldn’t find anywhere else, Bowen’s is trying real hard to be that something, and coming damned close.

Value: High—at $39, this is a really attractive craft offering at a mainstream price.

Drinkability: Medium-High—Scotch fans will find this subtle and familiar with its own character, but it will challenge those who favor bourbons and ryes.

Overall Rating: 8.3


**Special thanks to Jo Bowen at Bowen’s Spirits, Inc. for sharing a sample of their whiskey with us.**