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New Single-Barrel Bourbon Selections at Big Star

By Roger Kamholz in Food on Dec 31, 2010 7:00PM

2010_12_31_fourrosesbigstar.jpg Will 2011 be Bourbon's year? We sure hope so. Big Star, for one, is doing its part to make that happen with exciting recent and upcoming additions to its single-barrel Bourbon program. Paul Kahan hinted at the arrival of freshly acquired barrels on Twitter last week, so we caught up with Michael Rubel, beverage director of Big Star (and neighboring Violet Hour), to find out what we should be sipping on our next visit. Rubel has been building Big Star's stockpile of exclusive Bourbons, bottled from barrels he hand-picked in Kentucky, for more than a year. Six barrels' worth are already available, and the contents of two more will hit the shelves this week and (probably) next.

Rubel, a native of southeastern Kentucky, makes trips to his home state to visit Bourbon distilleries and sample from barrels that have come of age. Samples are pulled - unfiltered and undiluted - straight from five separate barrels using a straw-like copper device known as a whiskey thief. Oftentimes, the Bourbon he tastes is all from the same production batch and mash bill (the grain "recipe"), yet the flavor, proof, color and mouth-feel the can vary rather widely depending on a number of factors, including which particular barrel it ends up aging within. "Each barrel is truly its own world," Rubel said.

The selection process can be thoroughly enjoyable, but also quite intense. Rubel is, after all, buying whole barrels at a time, which can contain upwards of 14 cases of spirit (depending on how much is lost to evaporation, aka the "angels' share" during aging) and cost thousands of bucks apiece. It's a big investment, but then again, he's only buying captivating stuff. "It couldn't be a more exciting experience for a whiskey drinker," Rubel said of the on-site selection process.

To give an example, by next week Big Star will be serving two selections Rubel made at Four Roses distillery. Both came from the same yeast strain and mash bill, yet one is much more delicately floral in character while the other is more exuberant and expressive, humming with the spicy notes typical of rye. But perhaps the greatest treat of all is Big Star's current offerings from Buffalo Trace. Not only has Rubel picked out three intriguing barrels of Trace to serve exclusively, Big Star is also stocking Trace's 128-proof un-aged "white dog" and its celebrated (read: hard-to-get) George T. Stagg, a special high-proof, unfiltered Bourbon. (Evidently, chill-filtering and dilution shamefully rob Bourbon of precious char notes and the various flavorful fatty acids that contribute to its mouth-feel - which is why tasting it from the barrel is such a pleasure.) With these examples available simultaneously, a Bourbon lover can really explore (read: relish) the intricacies of the production process. Looks like our 2011 is shaping up nicely.

Big Star is located at 1531 North Damen Avenue.