Monday, July 4, 2011

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It's a Nice Day for a White Whiskey

Some months back. Lew Bryson of Malt Advocate asked me about increasingly common options for so-called "white" whiskeys from American distilleries. Lew was probably just looking for a quip. What he got was me in a chatty mood and (edited for length and clarity) this:

Whether drinkers find white whiskeys most useful for sipping, mixing, or shocking depends in part on their existing impressions about moonshine. Shock for today’s waves of crystal grain comes in two distinct flavors: disdain and fun.

Some whiskey aficionados look on the entire class as not just suspect, but an insult to whiskey. Some won’t even deign to call it whiskey at all (and, under US law, grain spirits untouched by barrels are not whiskey, but that’s just using the law to enforce one’s prejudices). White dog, they’ll tell you, is useful only as a teaching tool. It is a proto-whiskey, a foil that elucidates the power of barrels and age. Those who would drink it as their drink of choice are defined by what they’re not: they are uncouth, uneducated, unsophisticated, and practically uncivilized. That some would actually want to drink the stuff is indicative only of their woeful state.

The other drinkers — those who realize the inherent fun in a jar of white lightning —revel in the breakin’-the-law history of illegal hooch. They expect it to be bad, and so play up their reactions to it. We have hundreds of years of stories about the horrible things that happen to people who drink moonshine and, not surprisingly, an entire class of YouTube videos has evolved that feature young drinkers trying their best to down Heaven Hill's contribution to the genre, Georgia Moon. Drinking it, still, is a test of machismo. For the shock value, one might as well be drinking a bucket of spit.

Distillers who deliberately tap moonshine history as part of their brand must understand that the sketchy nature of the spirit runs deep in America’s psyche. Other than absinthe, few spirits are actually feared. Moonshine is. If drinkers mock and heap disdain on white spirits that come in jugs and jars, it should come as a surprise to no one.

The surprise comes, though, when spirits lovers actually sample these new spirits. While most of us would agree that Georgia Moon is no sophisticated sipping whiskey, some of the white spirits on offer now are. Tuthilltown’s Hudson corn whiskey is a great example of America’s primal spirit. They don’t call it moonshine, but it’s a better execution on the theme than much of the so-called commercial moonshine I’ve had.

I recently tried the range of Koval’s white spirits out of Chicago — American Oat, Levant Spelt, Midwest Wheat, Raksi Millet, and Rye Chicago — each of them a lovely spirit made entirely of a single type of grain. The clearly distinguishable taste of base grains is one of the reasons that we’ll see white whiskeys around for some time.

Drinkers who delight in cocktails are going to adore home-grown American whiskeys whether they’re aged in oak or not.

I’ve no doubt that in ten years, new brands and new distilleries that can't cut it will have folded, but for the foreseeable future, we’re going to have even more choices in white whiskey. Get it while you can — and possibly ensure that minimally aged grain spirits become a more enduring part of the American drinking repertoire.

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