Big River Distilling

Big River Distilling

They’re bringing whiskey back


Photography by Ziggy Mack

Just like the Willie Nelson song says: “Whiskey river, don’t run dry. You’re all I got, take care of me.”

Left for dead on the spirits roadside, the whiskey market had all but dried up by the 1990s. Many famous properties and brands were left to gather dust. And of those lucky enough to keep their distilleries open for “medicinal” purposes, only a few have survived until now.

With the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment, which replaced taxes made from alcohol sales with the federal income tax, and the temperance movement after World War I, the enactment of Prohibition served as a death knell for many distilleries in the early 20th century.  A few key distilleries managed to persevere and continue production.

However, the veritable rivers of whiskey that have been unleashed on the U.S. market in the last five years are staggering.

In the last two years alone, the number of craft distilleries in the United States has increased by almost 26 percent.

While 95 percent of all bourbon whiskey comes from the state of Kentucky, regional distilleries have continued to open and thrive while producing unique expressions of their spirits, whether through carefully curated blends or actual distillation.

On a sunny, mid-winter day, I stopped by Big River Distilling in North Memphis. It had been a while since I had toured this part of the city; their facility is located just across the street from the Mississippi River. Their warehouse is part of an industrial outcrop of buildings that once supported auxiliary businesses for the Firestone tire factory. Their structure previously was home to manufactured adhesives.

Director of Operations Alexander Folk, President McCauley Williams and Sales Manager JB Blancett have been friends and traveled in the same circles since childhood. “We’re Memphis guys through and through,” Blancett said. “This truly is a premium Memphis product.”

Williams and Folk saw an opportunity to capitalize on the recent spike in bourbon sales akin to the local craft beer explosion. While not exactly newcomers to the spirits business, and even with the already-crowded whiskey marketplace, Big River Distilling set out to acquire, market and distribute a truly premium Memphis spirit worthy of the name.

I’ve been in quite a few rickhouses (buildings where whiskey is aged), and the sight of barrel after barrel of whiskey never ceases to impress.  Big River Distilling’s Blue Note Bourbon is blended in small batches from whiskey that is, on average, at least nine years old. After careful and precise blending, each bottle is filled and individually numbered, labeled and sealed by hand in their warehouse before heading to its final destination.

“The blending of whiskey from all the different barrels and their individual characteristics really is an art form,” Folk said. “The learning curve is steep, but rewarding when you achieve that perfect blend.”

Folk allowed me a taste of some of the bourbon from a specific barrel that was in the process of being moved to the bottling line. All of the barrels selected for blending and bottling were lined up neatly in two rows on my visit, a spectacular arrangement to see, especially for a whiskey lover. The bourbon itself, bottled at 93 proof and in small batches, had spicy notes with hints of soft caramel, cinnamon, honey and vanilla. The “burn” was perfect, and I imagined this to be an ideal candidate for a modern old-fashioned or Manhattan variant.

Visually, each barrel looks identical to the one next to it, but the places in which they are kept in the warehouse, along with the added exposure to the elements of the Mid-South, are what inherently give the whiskey its own signature profile.

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This aged and consummately blended bourbon was the perfect muddy brown color, just like the Mighty Mississippi.

After a successful first year, Big River Distilling has added a rye whiskey to its small but expanding portfolio. The Riverset Rye, also produced in small batches and bottled at 93 proof, is perfectly dry with a slightly charred oak presence and nutty overtones. I imagine it would make a very balanced Sazerac that would be difficult to resist.

 
 

Because of strong sales and surges in recent growth, Big River Distilling has expanded distribution into the Chattanooga area and plans to be available in the rest of Tennessee by the end of 2019. Both whiskeys are available in any Memphis-area fine spirits shop, as well as in most restaurants and cocktail bars. Big River Distilling is the house brand for Sweetgrass, and Local on the Square has its own private label.

With plans for more exclusive bottlings in the near future and for upcoming spring and summer tastings, Big River Distilling is ready for the flood.


 

Big River Old-Fashioned

- 2 ounces Blue Note Bourbon

- 0.5 ounce demerara syrup

- 4 dashes Angostura bitters

- Orange peel

- Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass and stir until thoroughly chilled. Strain into highball glass over a large round or square ice cube. Zest orange peel over the top of the drink for garnish.

 
 
 

Brad Pitts is an award-winning Memphis mixologist and beverage manager at the Germantown Performing Arts Center (GPAC).

Ziggy Mack is an internationally published photographer about town. When not immortalizing the movements of ballerinas, circus performers and mermaids, he spends his time finding candid moments involving delectable cuisines and the people that create them. @fomoloop

Brad Pitts is an award-winning Memphis mixologist and beverage manager at the Germantown Performing Arts Center (GPAC).