Whiskey Review: Hudson Bright Lights, Big Bourbon

We’ve reviewed the Tuthilltown distillery’s line of whiskey before, but something is different now. They changed their branding and changed up some of the recipes in their spirits, and the first one we’ve got our hands on to try is their new Bright Lights, Big Bourbon.

History

The facility itself dates to 1788, when the eponymous Mr. Tuthill founded a grist mill to supply flour and other grains to the local region. The area became known as Tuthilltown (although that won’t help if you put that in Google – try Gardiner, NY instead) and is the quintessential bucolic upstate New York location.

The distillery itself started when a former professional rock climber named Ralph Erenzo purchased the land in 2001, planning to build a bed and breakfast to share the beauty with other New Yorkers looking to escape the busy urban cities. After some difficulty obtaining permits, those plans never came to fruition, but by 2003 Ralph had enlisted the help of Brian Lee (an engineer by trade) and decided to turn his plot of land into a distillery. If they couldn’t bring people to the land, they could bring a taste of the land to the people.

Over the next few years, the two built the distillery from the ground up — essentially creating the blueprints of how to run a farm distillery in New York (blueprints which others would soon follow). Using locally sourced ingredients and recipes true to the history of the region, they built a strong following and in 2010 the distillery was purchased by William Grant & Sons. Since then, the day to day operation has remained in the hands of the local New Yorkers, but thanks to that investment they have been able to greatly improve their output and start distributing their spirit to a much larger audience.

Product

Normally, a modern bourbon is some mixture of corn and other ingredients. In this case, Tuthilltown Spirits makes their straight bourbon from 95% local New York grown corn and 5% malted barley.

Almost every part of the whiskey making process happens on-site. At least, the important bits do. The corn comes in pre-milled (the 1788 grist mill still exists, but it takes about four hours to make a single bag of flour– not economical) and is cooked and fermented on-site in large vats. Originally the distillery used an old pasta sauce cooker for the process, but the recent acquisition means bigger custom built equipment is used these days instead.

Once the grain is fermented, it is filled into new charred oak barrels and socked away in the distillery’s rickhouses. The famous Baby Bourbon that we have previously reviewed did not have an age statement and sometimes was matured for as little as a year, but this edition is a “straight” bourbon whiskey which requires a minimum of two years of maturation.

Once the whiskey is properly matured, it is shipped to a New Jersey facility for bottling and distribution. And, for good measure, the whiskey is kosher certified.

Packaging

This is a bit of a travesty, in my opinion.

The bottle is the same as it has been: a plump short, cylinder with a gently sloping shoulder. The bottle is capped off with a wood and cork stopper, which is a slight improvement from the last version, but the wax seal is now missing.

As for the label, I truly loved the old branding for their Hudson whiskey line. It was rustic but simple, a beautiful and elegant design that was equally at home in a modern bar or the 1960’s styled TWA Hotel. It was fantastic.

That, however, is completely out the window here. In their re-branding, they have gone instead for bold and simple — less Michelangelo and more Mondrian. It feels more urban, and claims to borrow the styling of the New York City subway system. Which works… kind of… if someone already told you that’s what its suppose to evoke and if you squint real hard. My wife and friends could barely see the resemblance even after I told them about the NYC subway reference.

The NYC subway style guide is available to purchase. They can look this stuff up. Lines are denoted in colored symbols, not colored stripes. Stripes on subway signs are at the top, not the bottom. They got the font right, but really that’s the only thing. I can understand them wanting to make some changes so as not to be sued by the city, but this makes it downright unrecognizable.

In short, they tore down Penn Station and put up Madison Square Garden in its place.

If the branding alone wasn’t bad enough, the name of this product sounds like someone tried to do a cute take on the 1988 smash hit Bright Lights, Big City starring Michael J. Fox and Kiefer Sutherland (which cost $25 mil to make and only earned $15 mil in return). But the name just isn’t catchy. I have the bottle sitting here in front of me and I can barely remember what this thing is called. Which does not bode well for name recognition in the liquor store, or for people asking for it at a bar.

Neat

As a fan of Tuthillltown, I hate to say it but I’m actually a little disappointed in the aroma. Their Baby Bourbon has some apple notes mixed in that add some uniqueness to the flavor, but in the case of Bright Lights, Big Burbon it just smells like a bone stock corn based bourbon. There’s the brown sugar and vanilla, but that’s about all you get. I will give it some style points for having a good saturation to the aromas that isn’t present in lower shelf whiskey, though.

The spirit is smooth and delicious with a medium weight, not too viscous and not too thin either. Right on the nose for a 46% ABV spirit. There’s a bit of alcohol burn on the finish that lingers for a while, but it’s not significant or unpleasant.

As for the flavor of the spirit itself, this definitely seems like a slightly more mature version of the Baby Bourbon. The black cherry flavor I like in the Baby Bourbon is present, but significantly reduced. Instead, what takes center stage is the deep, rich caramel and vanilla flavors combined with a bit of charred wood. Much deeper and richer than what you get in the Baby Bourbon It’s right on the edge — as a comparison, Still Austin’s straight bourbon (and other similar straight bourbons) has a distinct charred oak flavor, this only hints at that aspect.

This is to Baby Bourbon what Ben Affleck’s Batman is to Adam West’s Batman. The same basic character, just a little more crusty and charred.

One thing that is different, though, is that there’s a bit of a mellowness added to the mix through that malted barley content. It isn’t a lot, but I feel that it takes some of the sharper edges off the experience and makes it overall more well rounded.

On Ice

As with their Baby Bourbon, a little bit of ice doesn’t really change much, which is a good thing. Often, the addition of some ice either removes unpleasant flavors that made it into the bottle, or can have a disastrously bland effect on the flavors you actually do want to taste. But neither scenario happens here.

What you get here isn’t materially different, but there are some subtle changes. The charred aspects of the flavor profile, for example, are toned down to the point where they are barely noticeable. Otherwise, it really is just a chilled drink.

And that is good news. Big, bold flavors present with ice is an excellent indicator for a spirit that mixes well in cocktails and other drinks.

Cocktail (Old Fashioned)

To state the obvious: we’re in the middle of a pandemic. So going out places, and especially travelling to different places, is out of the question. Which is disappointing — I was booked for a night at the TWA Hotel in New York, and really looking forward to it. Not just because the hotel is amazing, but because their house whiskey is Hudson Baby Bourbon and they make a mean Old Fashioned.

Since I can’t go there, though, this makes for a decent Old Fashioned to tide me over until I can. The flavors that made the Baby Bourbon a hit in the old fashioned are still present here, but there’s an added complexity that I think actually improves things a bit. That added bit of charred oak in the flavor profile makes just enough of an appearance to add a little smoky character to the drink, something that works very well with the otherwise fruity concoction.

Fizz (Mule)

There are a couple of things that I look for in a mule, but most importantly that the flavors of the spirit bring something to the table and that there’s a uniqueness to the experience that you would not otherwise get with vodka.

In this case, I think the first part is absolutely true. The deep rich caramel and vanilla flavors do a great job balancing out the bright and cheerful ginger beer without overpowering them. And the addition of that little bit of a charred oak note adds some richness and depth that is very much appreciated.

As for the second part, I think that’s up to your personal taste. I myself like a bit of a rye content to add some black pepper spice to the mix, but that isn’t an option here. The finish is smooth and even with a lingering sweet ginger flavor, no surprises to be had.

Overall Rating

Let’s talk first about the contents of the bottle.

I love the flavors they have come up with here. I think there’s a bit of age, depth, and complexity that they are bringing to the table that wasn’t in their previous offerings, and I think it works for me. This is a good example of a straight bourbon that doesn’t try to take its flavor profile to the extreme and instead offers a nicely-refined-yet-distinctly-aged version of their existing product.

And I think the addition of a little malted barley was a smart move. It definitely rounds out the flavors a bit, adding some cushion to what could otherwise be a sharp and sometimes abrasive flavor profile in a straight bourbon. Sometimes too much char is a bad thing. The malted barley regulates that to just the right extent.

That said, the bottle design breaks my heart. It doesn’t just jump the shark, it straight up jumps the Springfield Gorge. Or tries, and then fails about as badly as Homer Simpson does. I used to display their bottles front and center on my home bar. This new design will guarantee I either hide the bottle or immediately house it all in a decanter instead.

Tuthilltown Spirits Hudson Bright Lights, Big Bourbon
Produced By: Tuthilltown Spirits
Owned By: William Grant and Sons
Production Location: New York, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 46% ABV
Price: $46 / 750 ml
Overall Rating:

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Overall Rating: 3.5/5
I like the contents. I absolutely hate the bottle.

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