Big Star is now pouring a new collaboration: bourbon-barrel-aged mezcal
The taco joint teamed up with mezcal producer Fidencio to age the smoky spirit in an old bourbon barrel.
Between daily $3 shot specials and a thoughtful house-selected single-barrel program, Big Star is one of Chicago's premier playgrounds for bourbon lovers. But the knowledgeable bar staff is also partial to tequila and its sister spirit, mezcal (it's a taco joint, after all)—and now they have the love child to prove it. One of the latest additions to the back bar is a bourbon-barrel-aged mezcal produced and bottled exclusively for Big Star. Ben Fasman, one of the bar's managers who worked on the project along with co-manager Gosia Koblanska, believes this collaboration with mezcal producer Fidencio marks the first time a U.S. bar or restaurant has served its own private-label mezcal.
It all started with a barrel. When the bar managers at Big Star purchase the contents of a bourbon barrel direct from a distillery to feature as a house-selected single-barrel offering, the barrel itself is emptied and, in most cases, given to Big Star and put on display around the bar. (Bourbon cannot be aged in used barrels, so the distilleries have no use for them.) Most humbly live out their tenure as improvised high boys, perfect for setting down a tray full of tacos between bites. Round-trip travel to Mexico is not typically part of a barrel's retirement.
"The range of mezcals that are out now have really expanded since we opened," Fasman says. Most varieties are either unaged or aged in barrels for only a short time. "There are a handful of reposado mezcals"—which have been aged between two and 11 months—"and we tasted through a lot of them." The flavor of many of those reposados, he felt, had suffered because their producers had diluted the product to 80 proof for bottling. A lot of the smoke and punch was lost.
Koblanska, who oversees Big Star's tequila and mezcal program, says she had been aging mezcal in-house using small barrels. "We would experiment and taste and make cocktails with it, just for fun," she says. Soon the idea formed to work with a mezcal distillery on an undiluted, barrel-strength reposado mezcal—and Big Star would provide the barrel. They singled out a cask obtained from Buffalo Trace, which was used to age one of Big Star's house selections of Weller Antique 107 bourbon, thinking the spirit's wheated character and soft mouthfeel would help tame mezcal's sharper edges. Koblanska approached Arik Torren, one of the partners at Fidencio, with the idea after being impressed by the distillery's quality and openness to experimentation. (Fidencio's innovative "sin humo" mezcal—made using a smokeless agave roasting method—was featured in a Big Star cocktail earlier this year.) "I pitched the idea to Arik," Koblaska recalls, "and he was like, 'Yeah, let's do it. Let's do it tomorrow.'" Interestingly, Fidencio had never aged one of its mezcals before, Fasman says. "If these guys are willing to take risks in terms of cooking methods and the different types of agaves they use, I figured [Torren] might be up for doing something weird like aging it in a barrel."
After selecting the barrel, Big Star left it to Torren and his distillers to monitor the aging process. "We trusted them completely with it," Fasman says. Fidencio filled the Weller barrel with its Clásico mezcal on November 2, 2012 and ultimately allowed it to mature for 70 days. It was then bottled at barrel strength, just shy of 100 proof.
"We wanted to hit that sweet spot between the flavors of the bourbon barrel, but still make it recognizable unmistakably as a mezcal," he adds. "The result is exactly what we wanted. It's still got a ton of smoke on it, slightly sweet." Fasman says he picks up vanilla notes from the barrel, as well as fruitier elements like orange and peach. Koblaska picks up stone-fruit flavors, as well, along with what she calls an earthy, almost dusty character. "You close your eyes [and] you can just imagine the dusty roads of Mexico, where the agave fields are," she adds.
Now that the bottles have arrived—only after Torren jumped through a few hoops laid by the Mexican government—Big Star has been serving the newly minted mezcal neat, in $9 two-ounce pours, as well as in dealer's choice drinks like variations on the Old Fashioned and Manhattan. "The high proof of it makes it ideal for cocktails," Fasman says.
Big Star isn't your only source for the stuff; the bars at each One Off Hospitality Group venue (Publican, avec and Blackbird) have been generously stocked with at least a bottle or two. And what of the barrel? It'll soon be heading back to Chicago, but only for a stopover en route to California's Firestone Walker brewery for yet another Big Star–style collaboration: a bourbon-and-mezcal-barrel-aged beer.