My love for bourbon began with my dad. I’ll never forget the first time I tasted Woodford Reserve, as he and I toasted my departure before a semester abroad in Italy, standing in the kitchen on a sunny Sunday afternoon. “Don’t shoot it, this is the good stuff,” he said as I knocked it back a little too fast. “You need to sip it to appreciate it.” It took some time for me to truly appreciate bourbon. The few years that followed that first sip were rife with my college go-tos of Midori Sours and Milwaukee’s Best before I decided to cultivate a more refined palate.
One of my favorite modern family rituals occurs after my parents pick me up from the airport around the holidays. My dad takes my suitcases upstairs and we all gather around the kitchen table for snacks, local Ohio pizza and chitchat. Of course, there are beverages, too. My mom pours some Pinot Grigio, my sister cracks a Great Lakes Christmas Ale and my dad pulls out his latest bottle of bourbon for me to try. He has his favorites, and I’ve gotten to know bottles like Woodford and Wild Turkey 101 (my current go-to) quite well over the years. But there’s always a wild card in there, a bottle that he refers to as his “everyday bourbon” that is inexpensive but smooth enough to sip neat. Most of these come and go with the seasons and whatever he’s into at the time. But two years ago, he pulled out a bottle that has sat upon the everyday bourbon throne ever since: Big House.
When he first poured me a dram, he chuckled at the prison-related pun on the bottle, “aged for a 6 year stretch.” The label itself also has a bit of an incarceration motif with its ball and chain, to go along with the whiskey’s name. Goofy marketing aside, Big House is a damn good bourbon. The mash bill consists of 60 percent corn, 35 percent rye and five percent malted barley, so it’s an especially good buy if you’re a fan of piquant, rye-forward bourbons. It’s aged in new, charred American oak barrels and bottled at 90 proof. The nose is spicy and a little dusty, and those hot notes are the first thing you’ll experience on the palate, along with oak and black pepper. Let it marinate, take a another sip, and you’ll discover rounder notes of dark chocolate, caramel, cherries and nutmeg. It has a long, spicy finish that will leave you salivating for more.
“Guess how much it costs,” he challenged as I reached out for a second glass. “Thirty bucks?” I asked as he shook his head. “Twenty-five?” Sure enough, the price was way lower than I expected at a whopping $19 a bottle. What’s more, Big House just won the award for Best Bourbon at this year’s International Wine & Spirits Competition, making it even more of a steal.
A year after first tasting Big House, my partner Max came home with me for the holidays and tried the bourbon around that same post-airport round table. When he realized it was only available in about five American markets, Northeast Ohio being one of them, we zipped to the local liquor store and immediately stocked up. It became a precious liquid back in New York. “You’re using the Big House for that cocktail?” he’d say with a pained look as the liquid got progressively lower in the bottle.
I keep a bottle under my desk that I’ll occasionally pour out for the Supercall team or for “research,” like I did while writing this piece. But considering its newly international award-winner status and limited availability, perhaps it’s time I start stashing a few bottles away in anticipation of the day Big House blows up into the next Pappy. Until then, though, I’ll gladly share it as an “everyday bourbon” with my dad a few times a year until he finds his new favorite.