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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

One Sip: the Big O ginger liqueur

Posted By on 12.05.12 at 04:03 PM

Tagline: Nothing fake about it
Liqueurs aren't usually my thing—too sweet and syrupy for my taste. They're fine mixed with other stuff, but on their own they can be cloying. But I recently got a sample of the Big O, a small-batch liqueur made near Kansas City, and since I'm a big fan of ginger, I gave it a try. It's restrained in every way: not too sweet, not too alcoholic, not too spicy. There's plenty of ginger flavor, but it's very smooth, without much of the kick characteristic of ginger. There's a hint of citrus, maybe a little clove, but overall it's fairly straightforwardly ginger.

As a mixer, the liqueur could maybe do with a little more kick (though I haven't had a chance to experiment with it yet), but Kathy Kuper and Bill Foster, the couple who created it, wanted something they could drink straight. They began experimenting with the idea about ten years ago after finding out that the limoncello they were drinking at a restaurant was made by the waiter's grandparents. "That was the first time we discovered you can actually make booze," Kuper says. They went home and tried to make limoncello. "It was just awful," she says. They tried again. It was still awful.

Kuper likes ginger too, so they decided to try making a ginger liqueur instead, with a little more success: "It wasn’t so bad we had to throw it away," she says. They were hoping to give out the liqueur as Christmas presents, but according to Foster, it was a year and a half before they came up with a batch that they wanted to serve people.

In the process, Foster says, "We learned a lot about how liqueurs are made. Some are infusions, some are syrups with spirits added, some are distilled and then syrups are added. Just infusing the spirits with raw ginger made it way too hot. We played with how to prepare the ginger. We tried freezing and grating it, which makes it even hotter. Burns the heck out of your mouth."

They also experimented with the alcohol content, lowering it from 25 or 30 percent to 15 in order to tame the heat. Adding spices and citrus also helped some. The final modification, though, was an accident. Foster was making a batch one day when he ran out of vodka and added some brandy instead. "It pulled everything together, softened the spirits in the background, gave it more character," Foster says.

A friend who tasted it told them they should try to sell it—and then, since he was a patent attorney, followed up with specific advice on how to make that happen. It's been a long process with plenty of hurdles, not least of which was figuring out where to make the liqueur. "Nobody would talk to us, because they thought we were crazy," Foster says.

The couple was looking into buying their own equipment when they talked to the owner of High Plains Distillery in Atchison, Kansas, who told them that he could make it for them. Kuper and Foster agreed on the condition that they could be part of the process; once a month, they make the five-hour drive from Saint Louis (where they live) to Atchison to chop 22 pounds of ginger, mix spices (they won't say which ones), and oversee the production of two 50-gallon batches of the liqueur. It's made with a vodka the distillery sells and a brandy made from Missouri grapes that High Plains makes specifically for the Big O.

They got their federal distribution permit about two years ago and started selling their product to bars and restaurants in Saint Louis; they've been expanding ever since and launched in Chicago just a couple months ago.

"We'd still like to build a distillery," Kuper says. It just might take a while. Foster is currently working on a recipe for an 18th-century-style peach brandy, but the couple say it'll be years before they perfect it. In the meantime, they're aging some of the ginger liqueur in charred bourbon barrels, and it should be available next year.

Available at Binny's, the Noble Grape, the Purple Pig, Small Bar Division, Sheffield's, and other restaurants, bars, and stores; for a complete list click here.

Julia Thiel writes about booze every Wednesday.

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