White dog, moonshine, white whiskey, lightning – call this unaged spirit what you will, but its unlikely growth has continued after a first splash into the general spirit marketplace a few years ago and bartenders are part of the reason.
Not only small start-up distillers are selling it. Jack Daniel’s, not know for its experimental nature, recently released an unaged rye whiskey to join the growing list of big distillers who have put something un- or under-aged on the market. Buffalo Trace Distillery offers a White Dog label once only sold at the distillery; Heaven Hill has the Trybox series of three unaged spirits; and Beam recently launched the slightly aged white whiskey Jacob’s Ghost specifically hoping it would catch on with bartenders. Then there are the big little guys, like Tuthilltown Spirits in the Hudson River Valley and Death’s Door in Wisconsin, as well as many other regional players who hope one day to sell whiskey they are currently aging but meanwhile need a little cash flow to make things right.
Whatever one’s opinion about the quality of white whiskey, I’m not the only one who points out that if it weren’t for the expense of the lengthy process of whiskey-aging, few people would sell their new make spirit rather than put it away for a few years. Jeff Arnett, the master distiller of Jack Daniel’s, pointed this out to me recently: the Tennessee distillery didn’t make the rye to sell unaged; rather, they decided to release a little bit in anticipation of the eventual bottling of the finished rye they originally envisioned, a few years down the road.
Other bottlers are making old fashioned fruit flavored moonshine, harkening back to the way families softened fiery home-made spirit by adding fruit and sugar. South Carolina’s Firefly has a 100 proof White Lightning as well as milder peach, strawberry, cherry, apple pie and caramel; Philadelphia Distillery offers a salted caramel and a black tea and lemon variety along with their standard white, while Tennessee’s Ole Smoky, a top selling brand whose owner has been quoted saying he expects to sell 250,000 cases this year, sells two unflavored iterations as well as cherry, apple pie, peach and blackberry. Potencies vary from 20 percent alcohol by volume up to 50 in the flavors.
Of course, the flavored variants aren’t meant to appeal to bartenders, who are primarily employing white whiskey as a cocktail base. Generally what the unaged, mostly corn spirits have to offer are sweetness, a touch of funk and, of course, potency. They’re more fun to play with than vodka and more familiar to American drinkers than Genever; to me, white whiskey falls somewhere in between the two in flavor and texture. What they don’t offer, even though they are sometimes sold at a higher price than bourbon, is the skills and experience of the life-long whiskey makers who know exactly what each barrel on every floor in all those warehouses dotting the country side of Kentucky and Tennessee offer – maturity, elegance and the whole range of natural flavors oak aging supplies. But the white dogs may be bringing in younger legal drinking age palates toward an earlier exposure to what American whiskey can be, and there’s nothing wrong with that.