White whiskey. It just sounds a little weird, avant garde perhaps. It certainly doesn’t have the cache or appeal of our favourite single malts or small batch Bourbons. The idea of a whiskey being white shouldn’t really be surprising to anyone that understands that every spirit comes out of the still as clear as water. Sure, it’s not yet actually ‘whisky’ as we know it, but tell that to a growing number of distillers – whether they be giants like Heaven Hill or small artisans from Wisconsin – who are propagating this new spirit category. Their most curious consumer? Bartenders.
And while it’s not exactly new per se – indeed all whiskies were at one stage clear until the advent of barrel aging came along –tell that to the world’s top mixologists who are always looking for new and shiny toys to play with. Enter white whiskies, which are flooding into the American market and offering a flavour profile that is not only unique but surprisingly versatile. If you’re a skeptic (and trust me, there are many), one sip of the Gravesend Cocktail (see recipe below) from renowned New York bartender Richard Boccato, and even a devout aged whiskey drinker might not be converted but they will at least be satiated.
"We have a Re-Fashioned, a slight twist on the classic Old Fashioned but in lieu of a spicy rye as the base, we use the delicious Death’s Door white whiskey from Wisconsin"
The most obvious drink that bartenders are manipulating using white whiskies is the classic Manhattan. Sacred? Not anymore, it seems. The usual combination of rye or Bourbon and sweet, red vermouth, tickled with a few drops of bitters is being eschewed for a clear vermouth, perhaps a citrus-tinged bitters and of course a white whiskey. I’ve been guilty of experimenting with my own White Manhattan while others are barrel aging their own versions.
At Saxon + Parole – one of the hottest restaurant openings last year – we have a Re-Fashioned, a slight twist on the classic Old Fashioned but in lieu of a spicy rye as the base, we use the delicious Death’s Door white whiskey from Wisconsin (which does actually spend a little time in oak), spiked with a few drops of citrus bitters and sweetened – as is necessary in this iconic cocktail – with a bright and floral chamomile syrup.
At WD-50 New York’s temple to molecular gastronomy, Bar Manager Kevin Denton is making a similar drink called the Grandaddy’s Ghost but they put the Angostura bitters through a rotovap machine, redistilling it so the bitterness is removed but all the spice notes are accentuated. He stirs this with the Koval white rye and a little simple syrup. It’s WD-50 at its quirky best.
The list of brands continues to grow. There is the aforementioned Death’s Door, the unctuous Hudson Corn from the tiny Tuthilltown Distillery in upstate New York, Original Moonshine from Virginia and of course there’s several white dogs on the market, led by Buffalo Trace and now sharing space with the newly released Rittenhouse Trybox.
There are several more, most of which are in such tiny production that they’re rarely seen outside the big cities or near the small enclaves where they’re made. Many of these, however, couldn’t be considered a whiskey at all, as many use a grain neutral spirit base and not whole grains. Some people argue that they’re comparable to moonshine, although these are in fact legal operations using licenced stills. Whether they have an experienced distiller at the helm, making a good spirit, well that’s another matter entirely.
“White Whiskies or ‘New Make’ spirits are gaining in popularity simply because they taste good and they are quite interesting to play with”, says Brian Ellison, Founder of Death’s Door Spirit. “One of the things I present to consumers, salespeople, bartenders and anyone that cares to listen is that white whiskies shouldn’t be thought of as substitutes for aged whiskies. They should be thought of as a white spirit similar to a short or non-aged rum, tequila, cachaca, pisco or even grappa. Just as you wouldn’t substitute out Don Q Grand Anejo Rum with Don Q Cristal and expect the same results in a cocktail, a bartender can’t take a 12 Years Old Bourbon and try to compare to our 72 hour aged white whisky. They are different animals (the spirits, not the bartenders). Aging allows for vanilla, caramel and nuttiness to emerge in whiskies, but that same aging can kill or diminish the cereal maltiness, the delicate floweriness, and gentle sweetness that is present in well-made new make spirit right out of the still”.
Personally I don’t think these are sipping spirits. Which is not to say that they’re not made well or aren’t contemplative drams in their own peculiar way. But they do make a wonderful base in almost any drink that calls for a clear spirit, while adding a completely new and unique flavour profile that hasn’t really been explored before. They work wonderfully with all forms of citrus (a simple Collins is a great place to start), while they’ll make a fine partner to almost any other fruit you throw at them.
Some of these whiskies aren’t cheap and there is an argument –fairly justifiably one could say –that these are essentially unfinished whiskies that due to little or no oak treatment shouldn’t be garnering the high prices that they are. It’s hard to convince someone, especially an ardent whiskey drinker to fork out the kind of money that can usually buy them a decent dram of something dark and brooding. Renowned Portland-based bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler agrees, saying, “I just love whiskey so much that I don’t really understand why they’re selling us the unaged stuff at a premium price. It seems unfinished.”
“I think white whiskies are a great expression of the craft of distilling and quality of the ingredients”
There are other ways in which these clear whiskies can be used too. At Saxon + Parole, we make our own bitters (who isn’t these days?), flavoured, rather strangely, with leather. We use the Buffalo Trace white dog as the base, whose higher alcohol content helps to extract the flavours of the dried cherries, almonds and urfa biber peppers (Google it) that also go into the mix. This is actually our ‘house’ bitters that goes into our Manhattan, which comes directly out of one of the beer taps.
I also remember very fondly a drink I created for an event in Miami early last year. Original Moonshine, a new brand out of Virginia, is a 100% corn spirit that is distilled four times and then charcoal filtered. I like it. I riffed on a classic New Orleans Milk Punch where I actually infused the milk with fresh corn overnight and what came out was the best cereal milk you’ve ever tried. A swig of the liquor, a tiny bit of agave and you have the best adult’s milkshake money can buy.
“I think white whiskies are a great expression of the craft of distilling and quality of the ingredients”, says Gable Erenzo, Master Distillery at the Tuthilltown Distillery in Gardiner, New York. “The first thing I want to taste when I visit a distillery is their white dog and so do other distillers when they come to see us here at Tuthilltown. A lot of people frown upon the category because they argue that the distillery is releasing their whiskey before it’s ready. But ‘ready’ is a relative term. Personally, I like the idea of having a before and after taste to compare. These new spirits are a lot of fun and offer a great alternative in cocktails where you might usually use a blanco tequila, pisco, gin or even vodka.”
Jonathan Forester is the head distiller at Dutch’s Spirits in upstate New York, which is resurrecting several old spirits, including peach brandy and he is contemplating a white whiskey for his portfolio.
“I’m not sure if white whiskies are a short term trend but there is certainly a lot more of them and their quality is improving. I don’t so much like the ones I’ve tried from the big companies but some of the small artisanal brands seem like they’re taking a tighter cut of the distillate, meaning a cleaner, smoother spirit.
“Some of them work really well in cocktails but like anything, bartenders need to be careful what they pair them with.”
Re-fashionedBy Saxon + Parole, New York City
Shem – Top of the Standard, New York CityINGREDIENTS
- 60ml Death’s Door white whiskey
- 7ml chamomile syrup
- 2 dashes lemon bitters
- 2 dashes orange bitters
Stir and strain onto one large ice cube.GARNISH
A large twist of orange.
GravesendBy Richard Boccato – Weather Up, New York CityINGREDIENTS
- 60ml Death’s Door white whiskey
- 15ml dry vermouth
- 7ml Maraschino
- 7ml sambuca
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled coupe.GARNISH
Garnish with a star anise.