White Whiskey: Measure of Skill or Sinister Plot to Raise Whiskey Prices?

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August 23, 2013 by Bourbon Empire

The relative lack of articles about white whiskey during most of 2013 had me thinking the trend was finally fading a bit. White whiskey, also called white dog or legal moonshine, is a clear spirit that distillers can sell quickly without racking up the expense of aging, and it occasionally gets battered around for not tasting as great as the hype surrounding it. I figured that most drinkers had tried a couple of them, then moved the bottles from their bar to the garage, next to the turpentine. Any unopened bottles were gifted to people they never expected to see again.

But the zombie has refused to die, even though my bar owner friends tell me they sell more Crystal Light than white whiskey. I’ve crabbed about white dog in the past and had let the topic go, but the past month has seen an uptick in press about the clear spirit that has asserted a couple of questionable points. It seems like the White Dog Booster Club has some new sheet music it’s reading from: that white dog is a way to determine a distiller’s ability and skill because it’s a blank slate that leaves no place to hide errors.

That’s a wobbly sort of claim. Yes, if the clear spirit makes you go blind or forget how to walk, then the distiller clearly isn’t doing something right. However, I’ve read things like “the barrel-aging process hides a lot of the natural spirit’s character” and that white dog, in all its purity, is the “unadulterated goods.”

That’s ridiculous piffle. Aging whiskey is hardly “adulterating” it. The term “adulterated” means something that’s corrupted or debased, and hardly an accurate way to describe the charred barrels that are a truly important ingredient in the world’s best whiskies. In fact, I’d argue the exact opposite: that the barrel-aging process enhances the natural spirit’s character. I’d also argue that the taste of white dog shouldn’t be the determining factor of how well a distiller knows his stuff. Most white dogs are made to be aged, and distillers aren’t focused on how it tastes new, they’re teaming it up with the barrel, knowing that the aging stage has a transformative effect.

That transformative effect is more than just a linear progression where more time simply equals better quality. Each whiskey has to find its aging “sweet spot” where everything becomes balanced. This involves all kinds of factors such as oxygenation, esterification, climate, and a host of other things someone making whiskey should better be aware of. Distillers should be judged by how well they coral all of these factors, not just how great their white dog tastes.

Take Woodford Reserve, which makes one of the funkier white dogs I’ve ever tried. Drinking it was like hosting a funeral in my mouth. This is partly because Woodford’s white dog is very low proof, which in my experience emphasizes the generally disagreeable flavor profile of raw whiskey. However, that low proof enhances and helps draw out positive characteristics in the aged product, even though it increases the overall cost for the distillery.

On that same note, Jim Beam’s white dog tastes absolutely joyless. Does Beam care? No, it’s not focused on its white dog, it’s focused on turning it into Jim Beam Black Label, Knob Creek, and many of its other labels, which all come from the same original juice. Buffalo Trace’s white dog has inspired my stomach to release cease-and-desist letters, and look at the illustrious line of products that place puts out.

The white dog from Maker’s Mark, on the other hand, is relatively good for a white dog. It goes down easier than the whites at the above distilleries, but I don’t necessarily find the finished product preferable. If I assumed the better distiller automatically made the better-tasting white dog, then I’d have to assume Maker’s Mark is the best distiller, and that’s not necessarily the case. All of the distilleries mentioned above know exactly what they are doing, and none is focused on how its white dog tastes, they’re all focused on how their bourbon tastes.

If any of the above distilleries simply wanted to make a white dog that tasted good, they’d probably just make an unaged rye and be done with it. Many drinkers claim that unaged rye spirits are more pleasant than unaged spirits distilled from other grains, and I usually agree with that. Unaged rye straight off the still generally tastes cleaner and has a more appealing flavor than white dogs with a lot of corn or barley. However, rye doesn’t necessarily age better simply because it starts off a little cleaner. That’s the error I see in the “white dog is a good way to gauge a distiller’s skill” argument: a better-tasting white dog doesn’t automatically lead to a better aged product. Good juice for aging doesn’t necessarily equate to good juice for drinking raw.

What’s the big deal, you might ask? If people actually like white dog, why not just let it be?

I get it. We’re not exactly talking about ending world hunger here, and white dog haters can be just as annoying as the white dog defenders. The message of most folks taking the high road on white dog (even if they hate it) is that there’s a place for everything and taste is subjective. Nevertheless, I have to wonder if there’s something larger at stake here, and if current white dogs are undermining our expectations about value. I’ve never heard anybody, including white dog defenders, ever argue that it’s a good deal. I have no problem with white dog that costs $10 per bottle, but the vast majority of it is far more expensive than whiskies that actually cost less to make. Will all this overpriced white dog unnecessarily raise the floor of drinkers’ price expectations? Supply and demand issues with the bourbon boom have already put whiskey prices on the rise, and overpriced raw whiskey certainly won’t help that. I suppose it would be fine if those expectations were driven by genuinely good flavor rather than marketing hype, but I don’t think that’s the case here. It’s like the Florida swampland of distilled spirits, and I’m not buying any of that either.

Let’s just call a spade a spade. It’s fine to like something, but let’s not pretend that it’s something that it’s not just because it has a jacked-up price. Yes, new distilleries need to find a way to survive, but the reality is that white dog is little more than a cheap way for distilleries to begin earning revenue quickly, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we began seeing it in stores once cash-strapped upstarts entered the scene. I get that it “has its place” and has found a niche, but there was a really good reason this stuff was absent from liquor store shelves for decades. Sure, you can acquire a taste for it, and yes, it goes fine in a few cocktails that help cover up white dog’s rough edges. But let’s be honest, are any of those white dog cocktails really taking the world by storm?

Much of the work of micro-distilleries responsible for unleashing the white dog spawn is exciting, and I’ve enjoyed many of their other offerings. These guys love whiskey and I love them for it. Their enthusiasm is infectious and I hope they take American whiskey to some great new places, but that’s also why I think it’s fair to call out the white dog shenanigans. Specious claims like “consistency isn’t important” undermined the emerging craft brewing market years ago, and now a lot of whiskey geeks like myself are tiring of the lingering chatter about how white dog is all of a sudden some great thing. Tasting the vast majority of it should put an end to that argument. If it’s really that great, why weren’t the big boys selling it decades ago? Who turns down quick and easy revenue? Not the majors. I suspect the answer is because they’ve always known the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Instead, He’s naked and drinking white dog.

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