Ep. 46 - Big Nose Kate Western Whiskey's Melissa Heim

OLD WEST LEGEND // Hear the tale of one of the wild characters of the Old West.

Listen to the Episode

Show Notes

Today, we are headed to Portland, Oregon to have a chat with Big Nose Brand's master blender Melissa Heim, who has developed what could be called a personality blend of whiskey, based on a name you may or may not be familiar with. A complex and fascinating woman of the old west, Big Nose Kate. 

And if that name sounds familiar, you're likely a big fan of some pretty famous Hollywood movies like Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, or My Darling Clementine. And today we're going to dig a little bit more into her legend - and dig in a little deeper into the idea of creating a whiskey around someone's personality. And in fact, thanks to Melissa sending me a bottle, I'll get to sample that blend, that goes by the name Big Nose Kate Western Whiskey.

Here's what we discuss:

  • The many names of Big Nose Kate
  • Physician to the Emperor
  • Kate and the Earps
  • Saving Doc Holliday's tail
  • The many occupations of Kate
  • Where her nickname came from
  • Trying to translate someone into a whiskey
  • The art of blending (during a pandemic)
  • A unique blend of grains
  • The difference between blends and terroir
  • The bottle design and Easter eggs

Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore: The Interviews." The full transcript is available on the tab above.

For more information:


Drew (00:09):
Welcome to Whiskey Lore, the interviews. I'm your host, Drew Hannush, the Amazon bestselling author of Whiskey Lores Travel Guide to Experiencing Kentucky Bourbon. And today we're going to head to Portland, Oregon to have a conversation with Big Nose Brands Master Blender Melissa Heim and Melissa has developed what could best be called a personality blend of whiskey that is based off of a name that you may or may not be familiar with, A complex and fascinating woman of the old West named Big Nosed Kate. And if that name sounds familiar, then you're likely a big fan of some pretty famous Hollywood movies like Tombstone, Wyatt Herp, or My Darling Clementine. And today we're going to dig a little bit into Big Nose Kate's legend, as well as digging a little deeper into this idea of creating a whiskey around someone's personality. And thanks to Melissa sending me a bottle. Well, we're going to get a chance to hear my impressions of the taste in nosing of Big Nose Kate's Western whiskey. Hello, Melissa Heim, welcome to Whiskey Lore.

Melissa (01:20):
Hello. Thank you.

Drew (01:22):
I appreciate you joining me to talk a little bit about your whiskey and to talk some about Big Nose Kate, who I think some people may know that name. They may have heard it in a movie somewhere. They probably don't know a lot, and I have to admit myself, I didn't know a lot. How much did you know about her when you were making the choice of her as your namesake?

Melissa (01:46):
At first, I knew as much as you, I didn't know much beyond Hollywood's romanticized version of Kate but as I was introduced to her and we were thinking of producing a whiskey in her namesake I dove right into her history and biography and didn't leave any stone unturned.

Drew (02:08):
<laugh> a tough one as a lot of old West figures are in that there is sometimes a lot of speculation and then there's some firsthand accounts. But then sometimes you wonder whether those firsthand accounts are kind of blown up for the newspapers because the newspapers love telling those stories back in the day. But as I understand it, she actually kept a diary. Is that something that's available to be read?

Melissa (02:38):
It is not available. So the one somewhat firsthand account we have is unofficial biography that was written years after she passed. And it comes from differing interviews that were done. Some of her writings, writings from those who were around her, and this story was collected and pieced together summon her own words and some from others' accounts. So no, the lot is mystery and there is speculation. And we spoke with historians and traced her family, and I think we have a pretty good idea of who Kate was and some of it was extraordinary and some of it was absolutely ordinary. So a lot of duality in who she was.

Drew (03:24):
Well, when I went to Tombstone, and for people who really are completely oblivious to who she is her partner through some time was Doc Holiday, and so that's where she gets tossed into the movies. But I was in Tombstone. Tombstone is now very touristy and there's really not a whole lot of the Old Town left. There was a fire there in 1882. So that gutted a lot of the historic places and one of those places being the Grand Hotel, which I think will play a part in this story as we roll along, which is now the Big nose Kate Saloon. Yes. But you have to know when you go, that was not her saloon, but that's how I got to know her name or how her name really kind of stood out. So it's fun to see that even though a lot of the tourist destinations are getting it wrong, at least it may bring up some questions in our minds to make us explore a little bit deeper.

Melissa (04:26):
Exactly. At least it triggers something that you'd want to ask more about it. Yeah, exactly.

Drew (04:31):
So she's a woman of many names. Yes. She had lots of nicknames or she had one big nickname, but then she had a lot of surnames that got attached to her, but none of those actually even relate to her real birth name. No. Do they <laugh>?

Melissa (04:52):
They don't.

Drew (04:54):
So give us a little background on where she came from and how she got to the Old West.

Melissa (05:01):
Right. She's a Hungarian immigrant. Her name is Maria Magna, Isabella Horny <laugh>, which is a far cry from Big Nose Kate. Yes. She came with her family when she was a teenager, and her parents unfortunately both passed away within months of arriving to the States from different illnesses. Her and her siblings went into a somewhat informal foster care of a gentleman, and she took his surname for a short while before she decided to just leave and go on her own. She was 16 at this point in time. She rode a riverboat down to Dodge City and took on the Captain's last name for a short while. His last name was Elder and she gave herself a more assimilated name of Katherine. So that's where we get the name Kate Elder, which is used in most of the Westerns movies that were made in Hollywood. So there is a story of how that came about.

It might not be the story told in the movies. And then over time, all those names just kind of rolled with the events that took place in her life. She did go by Kate Holiday for a brief time when it made sense to use that surname. And she was married later in life after doc's passing and took on his last name of Cummings. And her headstone does say Mary Cummings and you, I mean, from start to finish you say, who is this woman of many names? And she's a woman who made many different lives within one lifetime,

Drew (06:38):
Which it's interesting too because as I started digging in, you read the Wikipedia article, you can read some other articles on her, and there's a lot of conflicting information when you jump in. One thing I found really interesting in one article, which is a piece of North American history that I was not that familiar with, and a lot of Americans are probably not familiar with was that Mexico had a second empire and that empire was in at the end of well, right around the time of the Civil War and towards the end of the Civil War. And so one of the stories was talking about that the reason that her parents came over was that her father was a physician and that he was sent to become the physician for Maximilian, the first of Mexico, who was the emperor, who he was to take care of. And of course, things didn't end well for him, and apparently that's what sent them to Davenport, Iowa was to get away from all of that.

Melissa (07:41):
Yes. So we know this story also, I think the only piece of that that we can verify without a doubt, is that her father was a physician, whether or not he traveled to take on this mighty role, we are unsure. And we tried to get as much verified through the archives, and we do have the paperwork of the family coming over leaving, but everything beyond that, after they landed here, it looks like they went directly to Iowa. Oh,

Drew (08:16):

Melissa (08:17):

Drew (08:18):
Who knows

<laugh>. That wouldn't be the first family story that was completely muddled, but yes. Yeah. Well, the reason why I questioned it too is because as I was reading that particular article, the dates were all so screwed up, and it was the same thing with the Wikipedia article. It's just all the, it's like you can't match these times up with her birthdate is different on both of them, how old she was when she was orphaned. There's mention that her parents both died within a month or two of each other, and that's what sent them off to a foster home at that point.

Melissa (09:01):
Yes. Yeah. So <laugh> read that Wikipedia page so many times, and I'm like, what? Even Wikipedia is written by someone with a their own perspective. So it is hard to verify. The best we could do was go locate archives historical archives that could pinpoint some of the truths in that grand story. But yeah, what we know is that Kate landed in Iowa as a teenager and left shortly after.

Drew (09:31):
So there's also time in St. Louis from what I understand, and that she went to a convent school. Is that

Melissa (09:39):

Drew (09:40):
Briefly. Okay. Yes, yes. I was going to say she also got apparently a record there for working in a brothel, I forgot what they called it at the time that had a special name for it but that she worked for Blanche Tree Bowl in a brothel in St. Louis. So she was experiencing life in many different ways

Melissa (10:05):
And given the duality of wanting to go to a convent and then working in a brothel, she had a fierce drive for independence.

Drew (10:14):
And then she ended up in Dodge City. And this is a fun part about when you take all of these Western stories and there'll be tie-in later on with Las Vegas, Nevada. When I went there, I went there to research a story on Fort Union and Loma Paro, which are two legendary areas in the world of whiskey legends that a lot of people don't know about. But that was a pretty rowdy place where people went to drink. But then I was asking a friend of mine who had done a series on Billy the Kid, I said, you wonder whether he actually went there to this place because Las Vegas, Nevada was one of these places where a lot of these outlaws would gather. And so what paths he might have crossed during the time that he was there. And even Big Nose Kate spent some time in Las Vegas, and then we talk also about Dodge City and the fact of Doc Holiday was there, that Wyatt IP was there, his brothers were there. Is this true or not that she actually worked for the eldest brother's wife, James irp?

Melissa (11:32):
We believe that to be true.

Drew (11:33):
And so that's really would've been the first tie into the Herp family. And the thing I couldn't figure out was why she, after that went to Fort Griffin, Texas, but apparently Wyatt was there.

Melissa (11:49):
So for someone who openly said, despised the herbs as a group of men she thought they were unbecoming and again, rowdy and rough and tumble. And she actually had a very proper upbringing prior to coming to the States. She's essentially an aristocrats daughter, spoke many languages, and this was a new culture for her. But yes, it does seem that she did travel to middle of nowhere, little Fort Griffin, Texas because one of the I brothers was there

Drew (12:24):
And that's where she met Doc Holiday. Correct. And so Doc was educated. Correct. She was educated. Probably a good reason why the two of them bonded. I would imagine.

Melissa (12:38):
I absolutely would make that assumption.

Drew (12:41):
He always spoke of respect for her and her knowledge and that she seemed very wise and could really stand up with him in a conversation.

Melissa (12:53):
Yes. Which was rare for him, at least in his experiences.

Drew (12:58):
Yes. So this is also the place where she kind of bails him out of a little problem. So this was where he basically killed Ed Bailey in a card playing incident and a mob was coming after Doc Holiday.

Melissa (13:18):
Right, I believe.

Drew (13:21):
And so Kate decided with this mob coming that she would go over and set a shed on the fire to draw everybody's interest away. And then she comes in with two guns and basically rescues doc holiday from the situation.

Melissa (13:41):
And then they left town quickly

Drew (13:44):
And went to Dodge City

Melissa (13:46):
And went to Dodge City. Yes.

Drew (13:48):
So they're back again

Melissa (13:50):
On St. They're back

Drew (13:51):
Again on stolen horses.

Melissa (13:53):
I mean, what you do for love is, yeah, no, I mean that's just one of the stories. I mean, that's crazy that the risks she started to take she really came into her own, and I believe that she Doc really was her one true love and vice versa. I mean, what an incomparable pair. She was willing to risk it all for him on multiple occasions. But that one, that was just the beginning of what they do together.

Drew (14:32):
And then they traveled a lot after that. It did. I Deadwood, Las Vegas, New Mexico Arizona territory. So when you were doing your reading on her, what was the feeling that you were getting from this? Were they always together, they kind of split apart and come back together kind of thing or?

Melissa (14:56):
Yes, they would often split up. He traveled a lot because of his health as well having been diagnosed with tuberculosis. So he would go up to Colorado. The Clean Air was often recommended for those suffering. And so she didn't always follow. She did work full-time many times in brothels or had her own cards, card games going. She was quite entrepreneurial, very comfortable being on her own and taking care of herself. So they weren't always together. And she did tend to not go when he was with the herbs. She didn't join him down in Tombstone for, they weren't there together for a couple of months but on and off I would say they were never off. They weren't together but they weren't off. If you ask me,

Drew (15:51):
It's interesting that at the beginning of their relationship, it's suggested that she had told him that she would give up working in brothels, and he told her that he would give up gambling and then neither of

Melissa (16:04):
Them did. How did that work out?

Drew (16:07):
So what other occupations did she because it seemed like she was pretty entrepreneurial in what she did.

Melissa (16:16):
Yes. She eventually did work at, and I believe co-own a dance hall in Santa Fe, New Mexico for a while. And this is when she was not with Doc and she would run her own card games. She saw that Doc was very successful at running his own card games and she set up her own for a while and did that making her own money once again. But sometimes parts of her life were again very ordinary. She was a maid. She was a cook. Most of this happened after doc's passing but she was a survivor, all in all. And when I was researching Kate, it wasn't just her story or this chronological list of events that she did. There was so much about her personality and psychologically that I wanted to understand. That is really what resonated with me more than her adventures with the guys. It was really about who is Kate, who is Maria, who is Mary Cummings, who is this person that's constantly in a state of evolution. That's what really drew me to make a whiskey in her honor.

Drew (17:23):
Yeah. Is there anybody that you can think of in history that would relate to her in terms of a personality?

Melissa (17:31):
So many people, there are things about Kate that you can totally idolize and resonate with. And there's some things that are absolutely repudiating <laugh> about her. And I love that because she's imperfect and I'd say all of us, she's an imperfect person with a great story that's worth sharing and keeping alive and on her own behest, not because of the company she kept.

Drew (17:55):
Yeah. Well, she had a falling out with Doc towards the end, and it sounds like there was a point where somebody knew her weak spot and got her drunk. And when.got in trouble for being accused of being involved in a stage coach Hold up. Yeah. She came out and said, oh yeah, yes, he was there. He did that. And then next morning when she sobered up, she said, oh no, he wasn't and got him out of jail. But apparently that just broke them apart for good.

Melissa (18:33):
Yes, she did throw him under the stage coach, if you'll

Drew (18:37):
<laugh> in that one. But there's talk of her. And from your reading, we don't know whether she was witness to the Okay Corral. Correct,

Melissa (18:46):
Yes. Did she see it from the shop?

Drew (18:49):
Yeah, but that would fit with her big Nose nickname because it's not about, I kept looking at the picture on the bottle. And for anybody watching the video, she does not have a big nose. No, she has a very regular face. So immediately you say, okay, it can't be because of the size of her appendage. It must be because she just couldn't keep it out of anybody's business.

Melissa (19:18):
Correct, yeah. And that nickname was given to her from one of the IP brothers who said she was always nosing around. She was always there up in their business, if you will. But that's how she learned, that's how she became the scrappy human that she was. She did put herself in everyone's business. She knew what she needed to know.

Drew (19:41):
Very interesting. So I mean, again, we get to a point in history where we hear all of these legends and stories and it's fun to be able to dig in even if we know we don't have the full story to be able to learn a little bit more because it brings these people alive. And so how do you bring that character into your whiskey?

Melissa (20:04):
Yeah, personifying a whiskey is really hard, actually. It's going into this. We just want to be fully transparent with who she was. She's not this big at sometimes she was larger than life. She's this big legend, she's this tour de force woman in the Wild West rubbing elbows with these guys who are making history. And then other times she's a maiden, she's a maid, she's wearing an apron, she's cleaning for people just to feed herself. And then she is also this Hungarian immigrant with a very lu illustrious family lineage. Again, with the multiple languages. And you take all these pieces and you go, how do you put this in a bottle? Do I even attempt to will? If you want to honor someone, would it be a dishonor? But really you take everything. I mean, you can't hide part of the story. Take the pieces you like.

We took all of it. And the whiskey, again, looking at it from 30,000 feet when I develop any product, it's a very holistic process noth, if I can't explain why something is done, I won't do it. So coming up with the blend and knowing this would be sourced and blend is really, because that's what Kate was. She was the source of all these blends of experiences. She came from all over. She traveled extensively. There was no single place that represented who she was or was a defining marker in her life, in my opinion. So me and my teammates, I said, this has to be a blend, guys. It makes sense. That's who she is. A blend of so many things. And they're like, wow, good call. And I was like, okay, thanks. So we'll start there. And then making the whiskey, it was really about taking pieces of her history.

And now we're in the American West at a certain point in time. And even the choice, the intentional choice to not use any bourbon in the blend, bourbon has its own rich history, and it never really crossed paths with her. Those stories didn't weave at all. He couldn't force 'em together. So yeah, we really wanted something complex. Kate was a complex person, but she was also approachable. She knew a lot of people. People spoke kindly of her at certain points. So you say, Hey, she impressed these folks. So yeah, making the whiskey was again a piece. It was history, it was philosophy it's an art form, it's all these things. And I think what we came up with in that liquid in the bottle. Now, not to be corny, but I think Kate would enjoy it. And if she could understand the story, if I could sit here and have the same conversation with her and say, Hey, I was trying to figure you out and I made this for you. God willing, she would say, thank you. This is great.

Drew (23:13):
Well, this is fun because one of my first interviews was with Richard Patterson, who was known as the Noses. He's 50 50 year master blender in Scotland, and he does personality blends. So people will come to him and say, I would like for you to create me a whiskey. And so he looks at their personality and he tries to match a whiskey to that personality. And I would say that you've achieved what you want to achieve. Because the first thing I noticed without hearing any of the stories, without really reading anything about the whiskey, I opened the bottle I put into my nose and I'm like, wow, there's a lot going on here. And then when I tasted it, I got that same thing, cer, certain whiskeys you drink, you can rattle off maybe 1, 2, 3 things that you're getting out of that whiskey. And when I find one where the more I nose it, the more I go, oh wow, look, that's there too.

And that's there too. I think you accomplished that on top of it, even though it's at 90 proof it's it's in any way in, and it's not overbearing either. It just has a nice mouth feel to it. And we'll do a tasting in a little bit on it but it's comfortable to drink. And so you can sense some of the spiciness in it, but nothing really is overbearing which was fun in terms of drinking that. So talk about your blending experience and your background. First of all, how did you get into this crazy world of whiskey making? And then how did you evolve into blending?

Melissa (25:03):
That's a good question. Not a very long history. I'd say in the history of craft whiskey it's a somewhat long history, but no, I really had, I wasn't that five year old who said I want to be a distiller when I grow up. I haven't met one of those yet, but it was definitely just circumstance. It was who I knew, not really what I knew at the time. And I grew up in Portland, Oregon, which is the mecca for craft craft wine, craft beer really high quality ingredients are around. So we get really high quality products. So I started in the beer industry, but I met a distiller who, speaking of noses, said, you have a really good nose for this.

And I was nosing around in the rum distillery and was kind of describing what I was smelling. And he is like, wow, it's really interesting. You can pull all these things out. But I think we all have decent pals most of the time it's just untrained. So he took me under his wing and said, I'm going to law school. Do you want to do this for a living? And I said, no, no, thank you so much. I studied liberal arts. I did not have the confidence that I would understand it. It was a lot of information, so much nuance. And again, having no formal training in the sciences or organic chemistry, I said, woo, that was <laugh>. You sure man?

Drew (26:31):
A bit much.

Melissa (26:32):
Yeah, yeah. Are you sure? Anyway, after some time I agreed and he trained me for a short time, and I fell in love with the whole process. I fell in love with it. Once I started to understand what was happening more on the art side, that's a side of my brain that really resonated and I understood flavor and profile and how to accomplish that and kind of worked it backwards. I said, oh man, in high school, had I known ethanol was vodka, I would've listened. So that was in 2008, and I ended up running that distillery for a couple of years. He did go to law school and took that about as far as I could. It was a small distillery working out of a brewery, and I personally needed a little break from it and went to do the next Portland thing. I worked at a food cart for a while, really using that English education and ended up joining a distillery called East Side and worked with East side distilling for over eight years and wore every single hat short of CEO in that company.

Started as a weekend labeler, even though I was trained and qualified to distill, it was just have to be back in the business. And ended up, when I left that company, I was the executive VP of operations and master distiller slash blender. We used that term loosely, pretty obnoxious actually. I was the company's master distiller and blender, so I was their head blender and it was all very natural, very serendipitous from the distilling. And then we built a new distillery and we didn't have a still that was operable. We started blending. And that was much harder than I ever could have imagined because you are not controlling the ingredients start to finish. You have a finished product, you need to, again, reverse engineer it based on sensory. And then from there you have your building blocks and you try to create something entirely new. I loved it. I found it challenging. I found it rewarding. It was incredibly educational.

It took so much trial and error, and it made you humble for what you thought you knew. It's very easy to take fantastic whiskeys and blend them and make a terrible whiskey. <laugh>, turns out not all winners. So again, taking this practice of blending we ended up launching a series of blended whiskeys, and I became much more comfortable with it and enjoying it a lot actually. And I haven't distilled in years now. <laugh> actually just been blending. So with this product also having a better foundation for blending. I knew the building blocks. I wanted to start with Kate, and then it was just a matter of getting the details correct. And I produced this whiskey in my kitchen during a pandemic <laugh>. Nice. Yeah. Nice. Yep.

Drew (29:49):
So was the business already in motion at that point, or was this prior to bringing your partner's together?

Melissa (29:58):
No, so this was ideation after knowing my partner. So I was actually somewhat recruited headhunted. They had an idea for a product. Well, first they had a word, which was big nose Kate. Okay. They had a name. They're like, this is awesome. We want to, this is a product. This is a story. There's so many arms of this that we could do. And my partners actually have a long history in the spirits business, so they aren't coming out of the woodwork saying, I want to own a brand. And they were looking for someone who could make it. And that was me. And I just happened to have become free in the summer of 2020, and it came across my desk, my dining room table from a colleague. And she said, I've been sitting on this. I couldn't think of anyone who would be right for this, but now that you are available, I definitely think you are the person for this.

And so it was just our small community people, knowing people. And I talked to them. I said, you guys are about 18 months ahead of me. If I were going to do something, this is entirely in line with what I would want to do as far as a product, a brand, a story, authenticity, really creating something wholly unique and out of the box a bit. And they gave me free reign. That's why we're really good partners. We all have our expertise, and mine is whiskey. And so we got to work this whole thing, start to finish us meeting each other, formed an LLC in late of 2020 and had product being sold in September of 2021.

Drew (31:47):
Wow. So what were you mixing when what you do when you're at your kitchen table? Are you just grabbing bottles out of the cabinet and going, I wonder what this tastes like with this?

Melissa (32:00):
It was chaos. I also had a newborn. So I mean, if you really want to turn things to level 11 for making it extreme, it was extreme whiskey blending. It was essentially should be an Olympic sport. So I have samples, my own catalog of samples but I was really able to lean on my friends and colleagues in the industry and said, Hey, I'm interested in this whiskey, in this style or this sample. Could you send it to me? And had friends with DSPs who were willing to accept those on my behalf. And they're also major players in my book for helping me get this exactly right. And so I had samples coming in. I had a catalog of samples. I would say the first 30 word no good <laugh>. It wasn't good. I didn't have temperature control. You're mixing, it's hot. All those little things that a lab is great for.

I, I was using my daughter's Tylenol droppers. These are my tools. And it was just silly. I mean, if the picture, I obviously archived it for personal reference because it was pretty funny. But once I started nailing down it where the flavor was going it happened really fast after that. I was like, oh, it's just minor adjustments here and there and you're spot on. I wanted something complex and approachable. These are words people throw out. We want to make a whiskey for everyone. I'm like, that is impossible, but I did want to have a big nose mean, come on. Yeah, you have to use that play. Right. So it was about layering flavors, starting with a great base that I knew could hold the product and then what we call the salt and pepper, what are the seasoning flavors that are going to really enhance it? And yeah, 90 proof is what I settled on because it didn't hide the esters. There's a lot of flavors going on. There's pop distilled whiskeys in this blend which are really concentrated, and I didn't want those to be masked or diluted. So again, finding the good base, getting the right seasoning that all happened again pretty quickly once I got the hang of it.

Drew (34:24):
So the first thing that I noticed when I put my nose to it and then I went back and read some other people's reviews on it, I'm like, none of them noticed. The first thing that just jumped right out at me is that there is a rye component to this. It is a very strong rye component, which I think if you're looking for complex rye is a wonderful grain for that because there are so many different expressions that can come out of rye. Did you choose just to a particular grain of rye, or did you try to find different varieties that could really make it even more complex?

Melissa (35:03):
So I knew the rye I wanted to use. I actually knew the rye whiskey specifically I wanted to use because of its complexity and just how it's treated. And it's actually out of Texas, and they're using local rye heritage rye. And then part of the backbone of this is a blend 51% rye, 49% malted barley. And when it comes to Kate, she does have a little bit of that spice side. And I know rye can be floral but this isn't a feminine whiskey. This isn't a gendered whiskey at all. It's about personality. It's a story. And we really just wanted, again, some complexity. And so this rye had 15 per, it's a hundred percent rye pot distilled in age, three years in hot Texas heat. But 15% of it is roasted. So we're getting notes of coffee and we're get, when I put myself in Kate's shoes and I'm thinking, okay, I'm opening my eyes and I'm in Prescott, Arizona, wherever I'm at, it's you need that mud water in the morning. That's just what you need to get your day and life started. So coffee was a note I knew I wanted without being obvious about it without saying there's coffee in this really just looking for that perfect tannic mix. And so this rye that I end up using as part of the seasoning had a really excellent undertone of bitter chocolate and some coffee. And it really took me to a place, and that's what I wanted each of the spirits to do.

Drew (36:45):
But it has that earthiness and that mm-hmm. Floral rye character. And I like to say that when you make rye, and it becomes a harsh rise usually when there's corn involved. And so when I was drinking this, I was going, I'm not getting that harshness, which says, no corn in this. So you really did a avoid bourbon all the way around. Yep. Yeah.

Melissa (37:09):
There's no corn in this. Yeah, I mean, people talk about, oh, it's a western whiskey. It's the whiskey they would drink in the west. I'm like, oh no. What they were drinking was not whiskey. That was corn fire. So there's no corn. Again, corn is a very American crop and it wasn't widely grown outside of native communities in the southwest and it really had no place in this whiskey not flavor wise, in my opinion and not really for the story. So sticking with malt, again, that's sort of leaning in her European heritage. And then we also obviously have American single malt whiskey, which is rising in popularity and becoming a real forceful category, which I love. And for me, that was a much better profile than trying to sprinkle corn in for the sake of sprinkling corn in.

Drew (38:06):
Yeah, it's somebody who passed me an article and I have yet to read it. I need to read it though. But it was pointing out that rye was used a lot in Germany, so it was actually, it's, I

Melissa (38:18):
Just read that article.

Drew (38:19):
Did you? Okay. Oh, you don't have to tell me about <laugh>,

Melissa (38:23):
Like rye is not the American distillate we think it

Drew (38:25):
Is. Yeah. We just assume that it is. But that's interesting to note. I mean that we think of hops come from Germany and from European areas, but rye, we kind of say, oh, well that's Canadian, or that's going to be northern United States. But it really comes from a variety of area. Well, you're talking about a Texas rye and if they're using local grains, then we got Texas on top of that. Yes.

Melissa (38:52):
Yeah, I know. Yeah, you just have to go a little bit further. Yeah, whatever you think it came from somewhere else. Yes. The rye, I thought was an interesting component to bring in again, for some strength of flavor and a strong backbone to the whiskey. Who was it? Someone said they had never seen this blend mix before of essentially straight malt and rye. And I don't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Cause I'm all about taking risks, but I don't want to blow the whiskey world up.

Drew (39:32):
But I mean, malt is very expressive too. And I mean, when you think about scotch whiskey and how it has such a wide range of flavors to it that it can really bring something to the game as well, that it doesn't just have to be something that you're using for the enzymes to make the corn work,

Melissa (39:51):
Right? Yeah, yeah. It's not an additive. This is the key player in this whiskey. There's also different aging techniques used to make this, the single malt using out of Virginia was in an ex sherry cask. So there's different casks also being used. I mean, I really just went all out on that suit, the distillation style, the grain profile, and the aging profiles and the geography, all these things where people are trying to capture a ter. I was like, blow it up. I think there's so much that can be done in the world of blending that you can take sort of chaos and make something harmonious out of it. And that's what Kate is.

Drew (40:40):
Yeah. Well, it's, I think blending in whiskey, and I've brought this up on a couple of occasions here recently when I was talking to Alex Castle at Old Dominic, she's made a blended bourbon, which I think it's one of the best things they make. And sometimes when I am drinking, for instance, we think of blended scotch in the past, that was the most desirable thing. They were trying to match what they were doing in Ireland, and that was what you did was you blended because you showed the skill of the blender. But then there are, now we're to a point where it's like, oh, well, single malt, you know, want to taste what the area tastes like. But there really are two different worlds and both widely available for the whiskey drinker to be able to not only taste the terroir, but also taste a personality and be able to understand when someone is going to craft something, when they have the tools around different whiskeys that they're bringing in, they can express themselves and make this thing about what they want to bring to the world instead of what the world is going to bring to them.

Melissa (41:58):
Well said, <laugh>, yes there is a puritan mindset in whiskey where they're trying to get this singular source, this singular pure thing which great go for it. I just think there's so much more that can be done if we bring it together. And I've also produced blended bourbons and blended rise, and I would say you're getting much more bang for your buck if you will, when you're sourcing these things and making something out of, again, chaos.

Drew (42:40):
Yeah. So is it something that's brought to you already aged and you are just doing the blending, or are you doing any of the aging on your end?

Melissa (42:48):
No, currently we're not doing any of the aging. We've only produced one batch. The idea is to bring things down to a rick house and do some blending in the future when we start getting our supplies in order. But currently I am getting barrel samples sent to me. I'm picking barrels and those are being shipped, and then it's to exacting standards. So I am commuting to Santa Fe, New Mexico from Portland and doing the blends in person because even when you have a recipe, once they land, you have to get involved with that barrel. And so over time, maybe I'll be able to hand it off to my partner my co-packing partner, but not for a long time.

Drew (43:34):
It's tough when you have a particular pallet and you, yes, to be able to hand that off to somebody else, that's, that's what amazes me, how a master distiller can turn things over to another master distiller. And things don't just change because our pallets and our experiences are so different.

Melissa (43:50):
Yes I am really lucky that at least my co-packer and I she was chosen for a reason. She understands the product as much as I do, and that was really important to me is to have a partner who can really understand what we're trying to achieve. And it's not just mixing these whiskeys to this ratio and putting it in a bottle and getting it out. We were there, the process, the first blend took five days and it was, we're adding some of this. And I'm like, well, originally I thought it would be this percentage, but we knocked it down a quarter of a percent and explained why and we went through that process together. So while I have full confidence I also don't think I'm ready to just let go of the experience of blending the whiskey. So until further notice, we'll be doing it together.

Drew (44:46):
So this has another thing that once it's in your mouth that's got this really nice lemony character that comes out to me just very full bodied kind of thing to go along with all those earthy tones that go in there. And then it's funny because as you sit with it, that's when all of a sudden to me, the chocolate and that little coffee note come out in it. And it's just fun to sit there with a whiskey and sort of watch it evolve while you're drinking it. So you, going forward, are you going to come up with other blends and expand the line, or is this kind of where you want to park yourself?

Melissa (45:27):
I think in the near future we really want to see this expression out in the world. And the coffee lemon combination, that was also purposeful. Who doesn't love an espresso with a little lemon express on it? So right now it's just big nose Kate. This isn't going to be a huge line of brands or expressions. I do have some ideations of how we could do LTOs down the road. Really interesting things. Again, true to the story, not so much for marketing but really things. I think this whiskey could again be amped up to another level with some moderation. I see. I'm not going to tell you, actually, I almost told you. I almost just said it. Yeah no. Given

Drew (46:16):
The secrets

Melissa (46:17):
Away, yeah, I do think it will be a very limited line of Kate, and it's always going to be whiskey. It's always going to be this blend. It will just have some modifications. But I'm really proud and pleased what we were able to put in this bottle.

Drew (46:35):
So where is it available right now?

Melissa (46:39):
Today? Yes, it is available in the state of Oregon where I live. And then it is available wholesale in New Mexico through our co-packing partner as well as online through our e-commerce partner speakeasy. So bottles can be purchased directly from our website.

Drew (46:56):
Okay. All right. Good. And plan is to spread it as far and wide as you can.

Melissa (47:02):
Most people would say that but we're more of not an inch deep and a mile wide type. We really want to earn our markets, if you will, and go where Kate's accepted. We will be opening Arizona and Colorado hopefully in q1, maybe Q2 of next year. But really just kind of stay in our home territory of the west and Southwest until consumers tell us they want it.

Drew (47:29):

Melissa (47:30):
We are a small group.

Drew (47:31):
So your bottle design, was there anything in particular that inspired that? Because it has the old west feel, we sort of say the more I research it, the more I realize that those so old saloons really just had bottles sitting that they just keep refilling rather than having a brand name on them. But where did your design idea come from?

Melissa (47:56):
So the label luckily one of my partners is a design guru and has a little boutique design firm in Chicago. So this was the label like rendering that I was shown when first brought onto the team. And all the little Easter eggs that you see on there now, were added as a collaboration between partners. So there's so many nuances to that bottle. I mean, even the scalloped edges reminds me of sort of a perfume bottle. It's a little feminine without being girly, if you will. This isn't whiskey with rhinestones or anything like that. It's the green strip denotes that there's rye in there. It's very subtle all the little phrases, those are either Kate's words or things that have to do with her culture.

Drew (48:48):
I can't pronounce this one at the bottom. Beck Beck po. What is that? <laugh>

Melissa (48:52):
Parra. I know. Pra it means may their ashes rest in peace. It is. It's customary on Hungarian tombstones. And so that was for Kate as she is no longer with us. Even the shape of the label looks like a headstone if, yeah, very

Drew (49:13):
Nice. <laugh>. Okay.

Melissa (49:14):
The arch. So this was one of the only pictures we could get verified from the Arizona Historical Society. That was Kate. So we used her image and she has no family left of, so that is somewhat of a public domain image. And then, yeah, your business is my business. I mean, there's so many great little things on here that Yeah.

Drew (49:43):
Was that a quote from her? Because it fits with the nose image.

Melissa (49:47):
Yeah. I do think it's a quote from her book according to Kate, the book that was written. And it just again, goes so well with her being nosy and curious. Yeah. And so yeah, again, team effort coming together with that full final product.

Drew (50:04):
Fantastic. Well, Melissa, I really appreciate you going through and talking a little history with me on Big Nose Kate and letting us know a little bit more about her and also about your journey and blending and making a personality whiskey, because I think it's a fun thing that more master blenders need to do and get credit for, I think. Oh, thanks Drew. Thank you. Appreciate it. And if you want to learn more about Big Nose Kate Western Whiskey, head to Big nose kate.co. And if you enjoyed this interview, make sure you subscribe to Whiskey Lord, the interviews, wherever you get your podcasts, and find show notes, transcripts, social media links, and more@whiskeylore.com. Join me next week when my guest will be Strand Ahan, head distiller Owen Miller as we dig into his education in Scotland and hear about what he's doing in the American single malt space. I'm your host, drew Hanish. And until next time, cheers. And slung JVA whiskey lords of production of travel fuel's life, L L C.


Listen To More Interviews