A New Omaha Whisky from Borgata

by Max Sparber in , , , ,

There’s a new, local whisky about, and I’ll discuss it in a moment, but first I want to say that it’s a bit surprising that Omaha hasn’t had its own whisky for such a long time. After all, this was a city that, to a large extent, was built by the Irish, who invented the stuff. This was, and is, a brewing town. This was a frontier town. This was a town with a sizable underworld. And Omaha is a place that likes to drink.

I haven’t had the time to really dive into whisky’s history in Omaha, as the history is long, and it is thirsty reading, and so I can’t do more than an hour or so without waking up with a headache. I know that Willow Spings was our first incorporated distiller, although there were home stills before then and probably continuing on to this very day. Willow Springs had a previous concern in Iowa and came to Omaha in 1866, and was first located on 4th and Pierce Streets south of downtown. It made a variety of alcoholic beverages, including beer, gin, bourbon, and rye. The company officially shuttered its liquor operations in 1919 when the country went dry, producing soft drinks. Unofficially – well, we know they made ingredients for homebrewed beer, but some bad malt and the Great Depression seems to have killed them off.

And, from then, nothing locally produced – or mostly nothing, at least. In 1964, Ed Phillips and Sons Liquor began distributing its own scotch, but it wasn’t made locally; instead, it was repackaged from another Phillips, the one from Minnesota that for years was famous for bottom shelf liquor. Just as an aside, the scion to the Ed Phillips and Sons eventually married a Minnesotan named Pauline Friedman, who was better-known to the world as advice columnist Dear Abby.

But now Borgata Brewery, in the Old Market on 11th and Jackson, has started producing its own whiskey. Borgata opened in the former location of Second Chance Antiques, a storefront that was once overstuffed with the detritus of Omaha’s past and generally smelled of cat urine. (Second Chance still exists, and its new location, while still cluttered, is better organized and blessedly free of the smell of urea.) This is an unexpectedly appropriate venue for Borgata, as they see themselves as a link to Omaha’s brewing past, and waxed eloquent about the subject in a recent issue of Omaha magazine.

They’ve had their own beer going for a while now, which I can’t drink due to a digestive system that responds to grain proteins as though they carried the Spanish flu. People seem to like the beer, though, and it is a pleasant place to drink – the storefront has been opened up to an uncluttered, stained oak-sort of place with amiable waitstaff and, perplexingly, a yoga class that sometimes meets in the back.

But never mind the beer, I was there for the whiskey. It’s brand new – the batch I had probably had been distilled within the week. It comes from a corn mash, and that means, at the moment, it’s basically moonshine. The stuff is so new that it doesn’t have a name or a proper bottle yet, but is instead sold from a nondescript glass bottle with the words “White Whisky – 80 Proof” written in silver marker on the front.

I’ve had moonshine a few times. There’s a novelty moonshine that tastes like popcorn had been dunked in neutral spirits until both had turned poisonous. I can’t recommend that stuff. There’s also Midnight Moon, which has started to show up in our grocery stores, which is part of the reason I like Omaha grocery stores. Perhaps because moonshine tastes so strongly of corn, and, at high proof, burning, this brand mixes in apples or blueberries or cherries, and the results are flavorful but somehow unsatisfying. I suppose I grew up with images of moonshiners drinking clear liquid out of an earthenware jug, and the addition of fruit just makes the experience a little too much like seeing a hillbilly drinking a smoothie.

As near as I can tell, the single-malt White Whiskey on sale just now at Borgata is as close to the real stuff as you’re likely to get. They’re aging it, but that stuff won’t hit the market for a few years, and by then it will taste different. Right now is when you can get the stuff straight from the still, when it is still clear and strong and its primary flavor is the corn mash it came from.

It’s not as fierce as you expect, or, maybe it is and I have just been ruined by years of drinking things like Slivovitz and Campari, liquors that get into a fight with your tongue and sometimes go at it with a blowtorch. But I found the heat on Borgata’s whiskey to be subtle, which may be a good thing, as few people want their experience with alcohol to involve their tongue turning black and their liver spontaneously failing. On the other hand, unaged whisky is a sort of legendary liquor challenge, the sort of thing inhaled by mountain men before they strip off their shirts and knife fight a cougar, so you do hope for a bit of a challenge.

Nonetheless, it’s been 80-some-odd years since Omaha has had its own whisky, and it’s about time. At the moment, drinking Borgata’s whisky is not about aesthetics – after all, they are not looking to make moonshine, and we won’t know for a few years what they are looking to make. No, at the moment, it’s about experience. It’s about being on hand for history.

And I may be misunderstanding Nebraska law, but I am pretty sure you can knife fight a cougar after the drink, if you want.

Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a historian, playwright, and critic. Follow him on Twitter or email him with your arts events at maxsparber@gmail.com.