If you know me at all, even just as an occasional visitor to this space, then you are doubtless familiar with my loathing of winter. My disillusionment with this irksome season probably dates back to the moment my parents decided I was old enough to operate a shovel. In all likelihood, that was the first time I realized that a snowstorm meant more than just an impromptu day off from school, an occasion to be occupied with such leisurely pursuits as snow fort construction and sledding. Suddenly, there was work involved – forced manual labor in harsh conditions. At the time, I certainly didn’t appreciate the gravity of the moment, unaware that it was my indoctrination into a lifetime of arbitrary inconvenience between the months of November and April (give or take a few weeks). That realization came gradually, in the form of sore muscles, untimely falls, white-knuckled car rides, and the abandonment of long-scheduled plans. This year, it’s meant impossible commutes in and out of the city, subzero temperatures, and ice dams forcing water into my dining room.
I tell you this not because I think you need to hear another person complaining about the weather, but because this menace of a winter has become an encumbrance on my weekly posts. Of course I realize, fully, that my having to postpone a couple of bar visits doesn’t exactly qualify as a hardship. But in the face of parking bans and the utter catastrophe that is the MBTA, I’ve been hampered in my efforts to share a tale of barhopping on my preferred schedule of once a week.
It was in the midst of this frustrating, snow-induced torpor that, late one night, I decided to treat myself to a glass of bourbon; specifically, Berkshire Mountain Distillers bourbon, a bottle of which was given to me by my friend and fellow barhopper Kat. I had opened the bottle some time ago and used it in a cocktail or two, but had never tried it on its own.
And let me tell you – it was a revelation. The inviting aroma, the smooth texture, the notes of caramel in the finish; I felt revived.
Now my intention here is not to anoint Berkshire Bourbon as the king of whiskies. I’d call it a good, solid spirit, and a genuine pleasure to drink. But given the circumstances of that particular night, it felt like something more. I wanted no other bourbon than that which I’d just poured into my glass.
The episode also provided some much-needed inspiration. I considered writing a short piece about my experience with Berkshire, but then decided to expand it to include some of the other local spirits I’m fortunate to have in my collection. I’ve long been an advocate of drinking locally, but I think that takes on another layer of significance when the region is affected by something like this brutal stretch of winter weather. If you pour yourself a well-earned drink after a marathon shoveling session or a painful commute, there’s a certain kinship in knowing that the booze in your glass was made just a few miles away, by people who are enduring the same frustrations.
That said, here’s a tribute to three local distilleries that are cranking out top-notch products in and for a state that’s been driven to drink by the 100+ inches of snow we’ve racked up over the past month.
We begin with the inspiration for the post.
Berkshire Mountain Distillers – Bourbon
As the name would imply, Berkshire Mountain Distillers makes its home in Massachusetts’ mountainous Berkshire County. When BMD set up shop in 2007, it did so as the first legal distillery in the Berkshires since Prohibition. Their line of handcrafted spirits has grown to include rum, vodka, and several varieties each of gin and whiskey. A few of their offerings have won awards, and all of them have won praise among discerning drinkers.
Berkshire Bourbon is made with corn grown on a farm near the distillery and aged in American white oak barrels. It isn’t aged terribly long; like any young distillery, BMD is unable to speed up time to produce a 10- or 12-year-old spirit. But if it lacks some of the complexity of an older bourbon, its smoothness, aroma, and flavor more than compensate. It’s an approachable, easy-drinking bourbon with just enough bite and a hint of spice; prominent notes of caramel and vanilla give it an overall sweetness. I’ve found Berkshire Bourbon makes a mean Old Fashioned, but after my winter’s eve epiphany, I’m drinking it neat from now on.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Bully Boy Distillers – Hub Punch
While Berkshire Mountain Distillers was the first legal distillery to open its doors in the Berkshires since Prohibition, Bully Boy was the first to do so in Boston. And yet, Bully Boy’s roots date back to the days of that so-called Noble Experiment. Bully Boy’s owners, brothers Will and Dave Willis, trace their distilling roots at least as far back as the 1920s, when liquor was quietly available on their family’s farm in Sherborn, Massachusetts. Today their small-batch distilling is entirely legal, and yet there’s an obvious appreciation for history in their ever-expanding product line.
Hub Punch is a most intriguing elixir. Inspired by an 1800s-era recipe associated with a long-shuttered New York hotel, Hub Punch infuses Bully Boy’s barrel-aged rum with a blend of fruits and botanicals. The result is an unusual combination of fruity and bitter components, giving an unexpected herbal bite to a spirit normally known for its sweetness. Consumed neat, it’s drinkable but intense, with a fruit-forward character. It’s excellent in a cocktail, though, and Bully Boy offers a few recipes on their website.
The most traditional partners for Hub Punch are ginger ale and soda water, as with the eponymous “Hub Punch” cocktail. This mix of Hub Punch, ginger ale, soda water, and lemon is a crisp, fruity, refreshing drink with a hint of tartness.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
GrandTen Distilling – Fire Puncher Black
Last summer I visited GrandTen Distilling’s historic South Boston facility for an up-close look at small-batch spirit production. While there, I had the pleasure of sampling eight of their nine products. Why not all nine? Because they were out of Fire Puncher Black – a seasonal offering that combines GrandTen’s chipotle vodka with cocoa nibs from Somerville’s Taza Chocolate.
I finally got to try the spirit later that year when GrandTen hosted a bartender battle at its site. As part of the final round of the competition, two contestants were asked to create original cocktails using Fire Puncher Black. And you know, that’s no mean feat. With its complex blend of spicy pepper and dark chocolate, Fire Puncher Black is not exactly the most versatile of spirits.
It’s definitely fascinating to drink on its own. You get chocolate in the aroma, pepper in the first sip, and a finish that’s neither too hot nor too sweet. But if you’re looking to use it in a cocktail, GrandTen offers a few ideas on their website, the most exciting of which is called Joe vs. The Volcano.
Named for a 1990 film starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, this tiki-style drink features tropical flavors, a chocolate base, and a hint of fire. It combines Fire Puncher Black, GrandTen’s Medford Rum, lemon juice, lime juice, pineapple juice, and coconut milk. There’s a lot going on in this one, but it’s ultimately a smooth cocktail that packs a punch. The chocolate really comes through in the finish, even with all those vibrant flavors. And while there’s a bit of chipotle pepper in the final product, the effect isn’t so much about heat as it is warmth.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Warmth is something we could use right about now, whether it’s in the form of a spicy tiki drink, a fortifying rum cocktail, or a soul-warming tumbler of bourbon. Or, you know…the sun, melting the snow and ice.
On that note, it looks like we might be moving past the worst of the winter, and BBH will be back on a regular schedule soon enough. But I swear, one more snowstorm, and I’m rebranding myself as Florida BarHopper.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.