Of all the recent trends in cocktails and spirits, this is the one I least understand. After all, it’s one thing for distillers to bottle half finished whiskey and try to sell it to the masses, but it’s quite another that the masses actually buy it. And buy it, they do.
Two ounces neat can cost you $10. A bottle can go for $45.
But why? White whiskey is but stage one in the lengthy whiskey making process and lacks all the qualities of good, old brown whiskey. The time spent in wooden barrels gives whiskey those quintessential warm flavors of caramel and vanilla, that faint earthy hint of white oak (or port, depending on the barrel’s previous tenant) and the amber hue that is the spirit’s signature color. The barrel aging process also tames the liquor’s harsh bite, which is why the older the whiskey, the smoother the taste. All of this, all of it, is due to the wood.
White whiskey, then, is simply corn liquor that either never made it in the barrel or spent so little time in it to not matter. Consequently, it’s clear as water, but hot with alcohol, harsh to drink and tastes heavily (and miserably) of sweet corn. All in all, it’s not a very good spirit. Yet, it can command the same price as a quality bottle of bourbon.
Matthew Halligan, a manager at the whiskey bar Bourbon in Glover Park, said white whiskey’s price is at least partially due to its limited availability and the fact that it’s new. Although it’s easier than ever to find unaged whiskey, it’s still not as prevalent as traditional bourbons and popular Irish whiskies.
That said, Halligan agreed that it is odd that a liquor that is relatively fast, cheap and easy to make can cost as much or more than a spirit that’s been aged for years. Given the choice between young and old, the whiskey bar manager would rather have a bourbon.
The problem with wood aging, though, is the time it takes. Not only do whiskey barrels take up space and require tending, but also the longer whiskey sits in a barrel, the more it bleeds into the wood and evaporates into the ether. Most bourbons spend a minimum of two years in a barrel. Single malt Scotches take no less than three years to mature, but are often left in the barrel for many more years. That’s a long time to wait before sending a product to market. And as with so many things, time equals money.
In Scotland, where temperatures are moderate throughout the year, whisky barrels are typically stored in a single location until they’re tapped. In Kentucky, however, distillers rotate the bourbon barrels in their warehouses throughout the year to compensate for the seasonal fluctuations in temperatures. But even in Scotland, that storage space costs money. And the longer a whiskey ages, the less there will be when it’s ready to bottle. That’s why a 21-year-old bottle of Macallan Scotch costs considerably more than a 10-year-old bottle -- there’s simply a lot less of it.
So taking a page from the vodka market, whiskey makers have decided to forego the wait and bottle a portion of their liquor as soon as it comes out of the still.
Kevin Kosar, author of Whiskey: A Global History, and founder of the Website, AlcoholReviews.com, said white whiskey, as a product, works for distillers because it gives them a new product without the need to invest in new materials.
Whether it comes from boutique and up-market distillers, like Tuthilltown and Buffalo Trace, or the Johnson Distilling Co., which sells its Georgia Moon Corn Whiskey in a mason jar, the white whiskey is hustled the same way –- a traditional American spirit made the old fashioned way. The similarity in marketing is no accident. Distilleries across the country may be producing white whiskey, but they’re all channeling Appalachia’s staple spirit, moonshine.
The thing is, though, white whiskey has more in common with vodka and Everclear than backwoods white lighting. Moonshine is illegal liquor. Because it’s illegal, there are no standards for making it, so moonshine can be made from anything. Whiskey, even white whiskey, must contain a certain percentage of corn or grain; it must be taxed and regulated; and it is very much legal. But legal is boring. Moonshine is exciting. And if you’re a distiller trying to sell the public a new product that doesn’t taste very good, you need exciting on your side.
Besides, with the rise of classic cocktail bars, craft breweries and the artesianal food movement, everything old is new again, including white whiskey.
“It’s all part of the heritage kick,” Kosar said.
That’s where things start getting muddled. Does moonshine equal heritage? Maybe. But is white whiskey made by a boutique distillery in upstate New York and sold for $45 a bottle heritage? If it is, who is it appealing to? Judging by the slick packaging and price tag, most white whiskies appear to speak more to East Coast foodies than north Georgia moonshiners.
And let’s not forget, white whiskey doesn’t taste very good. Of the few brands I’ve tried, Tuthilltown’s Hudson Valley Corn Whiskey is the most palatable. The sweet corn flavor is present in the spirit, but it’s toned down and the finish is relatively smooth. Relatively. It’s fine for what it is, but given a choice, I’d rather have bourbon.
Even the cocktail – once the refuge of problematic spirits – can’t save white whiskey. Derek Brown, co-owner of The Passenger and The Columbia Room, is no slouch behind the bar. He put together two cocktails for me using white whiskey: a martini and a whiskey sour. They were quite good, but the white whiskey’s particular flavors pushed passed the other ingredients and dominated the cocktails. Given a choice, I would’ve rather had gin and bourbon, respectively.
“Maybe that’s the dirty little secret,” Kosar said, tasting the Hudson Valley Corn Whiskey with me. “There’s not a whole lot of there, there.”
Halligan said white whiskey is a bit of a novelty and many people who order one at Bourbon are simply curious about the half dozen crystal clear whiskies the bar sells. Still, there are a number of knowledgeable whiskey drinkers who occasionally order the spirit and the bar is considering adding a white whiskey to its whiskey tasting menu.
In 2004, I was traveling through Britain with my wife and had a chance to try absinthe. The U.S. was still a few years from legalizing it, so it was exciting to try a forbidden spirit. Turns out, absinthe tastes like black licorice. I don’t like black licorice.
You know what else tastes like black licorice? Sambuca and ouzo, both of which have been legal for years. So when absinthe hit U.S. shelves in 2007, I had a feeling that the initial surge in interest would fade pretty quick. Sure enough, there are now a lot of fancy absinthe decanters gathering dust around town.
White whiskey, I believe, is headed for a similar fate. Because it’s relatively cheap to produce, it’s likely to stick around as long as stores and bars are willing to stock it. But its popularity will fade once enough people taste white whiskey and realize that a few years in white oak can turn this novelty spirit into something quite novel.