During Kentucky Bourbon Festival five years ago I first tried white whiskey. I was with Dave Pickerell, former master distiller of Maker’s Mark and a friend from LA in the sepia-toned, aromatic still room, which was far toastier than the spring weather outside, when he dipped a copper ladle into the crystalline luminescent fluid and urged me to try what seemed like a liquid compression of bakery fumes. It was hot, turbo-charged and jagged edged, but also mildly sweet and modestly delicious. This nascent spirit was about to be sent off on a long path to maturity, refinement. “That’s white dog,” Pickerell bellowed, noting it was 130 proof. I took another tiny sip, and thought: this is the real deal; this is how the colonists did it. After all, when George Washington was selling rye whiskey from his Mount Vernon distillery, it was clear as water. But could I drink this every day? No way.
Next thing I knew, white whiskey was showing up on the shelves of upscale shops and on the back bars of popular urban cocktail haunts. But as if to prepare them better for this big, bad outside world, these white dogs seem to have been muzzled and neutered. Some have even been formulated, like a mutt, so they go down better without wood’s mellowing effect.
The experience of drinking one of these high-proof beasts in a cocktail or in your living room from a bottle announced with a slick, TTB-approved label is no substitute for a generous pour of amber bourbon. The spike in white whiskey products poses a bit of a conundrum to the curious drinker. First, there’s the allure of the illicit, even if the claim is disingenuous. I’m referring to the term “moonshine,” an appellation that’s been adopted by a number of distillers who’ve released white whiskey. Let’s get one thing straight, moonshine, the currency of black market Prohibition-era hooch makers, exists only as an idea, an idea that marketers have appropriated as a gimmick. By definition,
“moonshine” is anything produced illegally.
"It was hot, turbo-charged and jagged edged, but also mildly sweer and modestly delicious"
It would be unfair to suggest that white dog should only be sampled fresh off the still, at the place of its birth. That’s a special opportunity. Nevertheless, the experience of taking a sip against the backdrop of a mighty copper still is akin to tasting from a heaping spatula full of cake batter at Paris’s legendary Le Notre bakery, the experience is infused with mystique.
Now that my sentimental, emotional side has spoken, I will yield the floor to my brain. The fact is, a number of new craft distilleries release white whiskey because they can distill it, bottle it, ship it and start generating revenue while the whiskey (or whatever else) matures. These distillers must be applauded for flouting the vodka Brobdingnagian. This strain of confident nonconformity bodes well for an entrepreneur. Also, consider how unaged whiskey is a tribute to heritage and authenticity. It evokes the good ole founding father turning out his spirit to famously “brisk” sales.
On more than one occasion, distillers have told me the idea to sell white whiskey was inspired by reactions similar to the one I had back in the Maker’s Mark still house. It tastes good, they say they’ve been told. It’s basic economics: if there’s demand, let’s make supply.
I’ve had many conversations with bartenders who see white whiskey as little more than a curiosity, a novelty item. Yes, it’s distilled at a lower proof than vodka, but when it comes to making cocktails, is it really that much different, they ask. There are countless blanco tequilas and rums, not to mention piscos.
As with any argument, it’s necessary, but tricky, to talk in generalisations. Take, for instance, High West’s 134 proof Pure Rye Whiskey, part of its Silver line. It smacks of Christmas spices. On ice, it’s a smooth sipper. “If you drink blanco tequila or rum, why not drink the blanco that we make here?” said David Perkins, proprietor of High West in Utah. “Like anything, some are excellent, some are nasty.”
Well, every dog has its day.