Whisky Advocate

White whiskey: bottled before its time, or the equivalent of an unaged rum or tequila?

March 13th, 2012

Or is it neither?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. When craft distillers first started coming out with white (unaged) whiskeys, my first thought (being a guy who drinks most of his whiskey neat or with a little water)  was that they should age the stuff longer. If they need some cash influx to pay some bills, make some gin or vodka!

But it was soon posed to me that whiskey should be treated no differently than rum or tequila. Some rums and tequilas are aged for extended periods in oak barrels and are meant for sipping, but unaged (and lightly aged) stuff also has a purpose as a mixer. True enough, I always use silver (blanco) tequila when I am making margaritas. Anejo tequilas lose their agave vibrancy and get lost more easily in a mixed drink.

It didn’t take me too long to have a change of heart. I feel there’s room in the world for all ages of whiskeys, including white whiskey. And you know what? While they seldom are my first choice when I reach for a sipping whiskey, some of the white whiskeys are certainly enjoyable neat. And that there have been some very interesting cocktails made with white whiskeys.

So, my feeling is this when it comes to distillers (both large and small) putting out white whiskey: go for it!Make it for those wanting to buy it. Just don’t forget to set some of this lovely spirit aside in barrels for aging. I’m willing to wait…

How about you? What are your thoughts on the matter?

No Responses to “White whiskey: bottled before its time, or the equivalent of an unaged rum or tequila?”

  1. Chris says:

    I have a semi-related comment. I’ve never had an unaged whisky in its marketable form, but I’ve had two “new make” whiskies before while on distillery tours: Balvenie and Glenfiddich. In both cases, you could taste the flavor profiles that are typical of each brand, but both the strength and the rawness of each made them unpalatable for me. The Glenfiddich in particular had a very piney taste that I just couldn’t seem to get over. These products spend a lot of time in oak barrels for a reason. They need to settle down. I can appreciate an unaged spirit in the sense that it’s cool to realize just how much the flavor changes over the years.

    • Tadas A says:

      In my opinion, It should be just called moonshine or white dog. It is not whiskey by general (modern) understanding or by definition. By calling it whiskey craft distillers use a loophole and try to associate thier unaged grain white dog with quality that is usually associated with a good aged whiskey/whisky.
      It is for them more about marketing not about the product.

  2. Toby Cline says:

    I agree that it should be apart of the whisky family. I just have an issue with it when they call it crafted and charge an enormous amount of money for what they can make for pennies on the dollar. While everything craft is now the rage, I feel that this is just plain moonshine and should be sold as such.

  3. Lew Bryson says:

    BANG, Toby! Might I add that it really gravels me when craft distillers feel they have to run down established distillers and disrespect their products. Craft brewers did that, and they had a point: America’s big brewers made bland beers that were mostly all the same. America’s established distillers make whiskeys with plenty of flavor, with bold innovation — can anyone doubt that of Buffalo Trace or Heaven Hill or Woodford — and put it out there at a pretty reasonable price, too.

    So my hat’s off to craft distillers who simply stick to their own products, and put them out for a reasonable price — realizing that they do have to charge a somewhat higher price because of scale and debt service — without denigrating other distillers.

    • Paul says:

      Lew – I agree – one of my biggest problems as a small craft distiller is the quality of what the big boys make, and the economies of scale that let them sell for what they sell for – its tough. While I don’t think its fair to say that the big boys don’t make any dud whiskey, the duds are far between – the big boys make exceptional whiskey. We do our best to put our products on the market at a fair price, but, yes, it is higher than the big boys. Hopefully, those who taste, enjoy.

      I have to disagree with Toby on the “pennies on the dollar” comment though – production costs a fortune. There are many of us who bristle at calling our unaged whiskies “moonshine” – there is a lot of craft in making a solid unaged whiskey.

  4. JC Skinner says:

    Call it what it is, is my main complaint. If it’s poitin, call it that. If moonshine or white dog, call it that. It’s not ‘white’ or unaged whiskey anymore than barley is undistilled whiskey.

    • sam k says:

      Here in the U.S. by law, it is indeed whiskey, and has every right to be called what it is, even if what it is doesn’t fit your personal definition of the term.

      • Bill says:

        Here’s what I don’t get: It might have the right by US law to be called whiskey, but given that vodka can be distilled from pretty much anything… how does white whiskey differ from vodka? I get that it’s distilled from a mash involving corn, etc., but nevertheless you end up with flavorless alcohol to which you add water, just like vodka, right? That is, it’s “white whiskey” when it’s the spirit that’s about to be put into barrels for aging — but if you don’t do that and instead bottle it to sell, isn’t it just vodka?

        • Alex says:

          I believe the white dog is distilled at a lower proof than vodka, therefore it’s not as neutral-flavored as vodka. Bourbon must be distilled no higher than 80% ABV to leave some flavor of the original ingredients in it, whereas vodka is distilled to approximately 95% ABV.

      • Alex says:

        I believe it’s only whiskey if it’s aged in wood–even if only for 1 minute. Corn whisky is the exception, I believe. So unless the white dog is 80+% corn or touches wood, it is not whiskey under U.S. law.

      • JC Skinner says:

        In Europe, by contrast, it cannot be called whiskey, or whisky, no matter where it’s made, unless it’s at least three years aged.

  5. Neil Fusillo says:

    I think there’s certainly room for their niche in the market. Some may not like it, in much the same way that some may not like beer or tequila or Jägermeister, but I think there’s a market for it, and we shouldn’t sneer at those who want to sell it. I, for one, enjoy it on occasion. Not often, but on occasion. I also like to age it myself to experiment (I have some 4-year aged new make that I will be finishing in other casks soon just to see how it comes along). I certainly wouldn’t want it to replace the aged and perfected whiskies I love so much, but I see nothing wrong with someone selling it to supplement income.

  6. Armin says:

    Kilchoman Distillery on Islay sold miniatures of their “New Spirit” (as that what it is, you can’t (and shouldn’t as far as I’m concerned) call it whisky until it’s aged for at least three years) for a while after starting up. Don’t think they do it any more now that they have aged whisky. I tasted one of them, from memory it tasted rather rough. Not something I would buy a full size bottle of.

  7. Toby Cline says:

    @Paul I would think that aging the whisky would enhance the cost for storage, maintenance cost and labor associated with that. You on the other hand as a smaller distiller, your cost will always be more than the big boys just because of production and automation. But if you do not have to store the whisky, how much less is that cost than the cost of storage?

    • sam k says:

      Evan Williams from Heaven Hill is four years or more of age, and sells for around $11. Elijah Craig 12 year old from the same distillery sells for about twice as much, approximately $22. The Elijah Craig 18 year old costs about $45.

      These quality, consumer considerate whiskeys dictate that aging costs roughly between $1.50 to $3 per year per bottle including tax and profit. Not a big deal, though don”t be surprised if your favorite distillery’s profit margin increases indiscriminately, as it undoubtedly will.

  8. lawschooldrunk says:

    John, if they’re going to treat it like unaged tequila or rum, they should charge the same price.

    If I can’t buy it, I can’t taste it. If I can’t taste it, I don’t care what the distillery does.

    • sam k says:

      Do you mean the $12 blanco tequila (Sauza) or the $275 blanco tequila (Gran Patron Platinum)? What should the “fair” price of any spirit be? Is Sauza better because it’s cheap? Is Patron less deserving because it’s expansive?

      The small distillers are far from the only ones charging more than you might like to pay, though they have a somewhat better case to justify those prices. And let’s not even start with vodka…

      There are examples of high-end spirits within any category. You (and I) can’t taste those either, so do you care any less about those categories…about aged whiskey? I’d bet not. If the category is of no interest to you, so be it, but don’t blame price when there are relatively affordable versions out there alongside the exorbitantly priced ones.

  9. Will says:

    I think there is a place for white whiskey. For 500 years or so unaged or barely aged whiskey was – barring some freak occurrence – the only whiskey. Whiskey was a huge mature global market before people intentionally started aging it. Somebody must have thought it was good for 80% of its existence….for only then did irreverent modernists tinker with the traditions of 30 generations. Thats something people should keep in mind when they disparage modern experiments and trends.

    I enjoy white whiskey on rare occasion – usually outdoors from a mason jar with fiddles playing. Theres something to be said for matching the drink to the occasion.

    On a separate note, many tequila drinkers prefer blanco tequilas for sipping because the flavors of the agave are better represented. The wood overwhelms delicate flavored tequila quickly. My favorite tequilas are lightly aged, but unfortunately it seems bad reposados outnumber good ones 10-1 and most anejos are overaged (and probably doctored)

    • John Hansell says:

      Will, I didn’t want to get on a tequila tangent, but I agree with you about there being too much wood in some of the Anejo offerings. I, too, like a good reposado. But, like you note, the key is finding the good ones…

  10. Ben says:

    I agre Toby and John! If it’s unaged, it’d better be cheap.

  11. Micro producers make so-called ‘white whiskey’ (I don’t entirely accept the term), not because they want to, but because they can’t financially manage the expense of proper aging. Call it making a lemon into lemonade if you want, but I would rather drink lemonade than most white whiskey.

    To that end, John, please share with us the names of the white whiskeys you find “enjoyable neat.”

    I predict that there will be thousands of bottles of white whiskey in homes across America with perhaps two drinks missing from the bottle and they will remain that way for many years to come.

    Unaged spirit made from a whiskey mash, whatever you want to call it, has a place in creative cocktails, but it just is not something you’ll grab for when something aged ten years in wood is sitting nearby.

    • sam k says:

      I certainly can’t speak for John, but I have multiple bottles of various white whiskeys in my cabinet. Most of those will remain unnamed and will probably sit there as reference whiskeys, just as you predict, Chuck. Thus far, though, I have enjoyed High West’s Silver Oat and Delaware Phoenix’s Rye Dog.

      However three weeks ago a Pennsylvania-distilled rye debuted for the first time in many decades, and my first bottle has been drained and a second one ordered. Dad’s Hat White Rye is a flavorful and smooth 100 proof white whiskey that has been passed around with numerous friends to substantial acclaim. I would have assumed it was my PA patriotism at work if it hadn’t been for the corroboration from multiple sources.

      Will it replace aged whiskey in my cabinet? Of course not, though they will have an aged version available (from quarter barrels) in due time. It is, however, a nice diversion on the road to whiskey enlightenment, and at $29.99 a 750, will not break anyone’s bank. That,. plus I get to support an in-state distiller for the first time in more than 20 years, and my purchase will help fund the future of distilling in my home state.

      Nothing wrong with that!

    • Aaron says:

      Chuck, since you mention that you “don’t entirely accept the term” of white whiskey, I’m curious to know what a more acceptable label for these spirits. Since bourbon “whiskey,” for example, must be aged two years, would I understand why using “white whiskey” could be a problem.

      Is “new make spirit” more suitable? Certainly, this could cause problems for the marketers who want to promote these products as worthwhile as bottled, rather than suggesting that they are an unfinished version of an existing brand.

      Any ideas?

      • sam k says:

        Aaron, in that regard maybe we should rename one of the more notorious incidents in American history the “New Make Spirit Rebellion.” In the long distilling tradition of this country, white whiskey is whiskey, period.

      • Vince says:

        By the way, bourbon whiskey becomes bourbon as soon as it hits the white oak barrel. To be called “straight” bourbon whiskey it must be aged for 2 years

    • John Hansell says:

      Two that come to mind immediately are the High West Silver Oat and Low Gap.

    • Morgan Steele says:

      Chuck, you are so right. I bought a bottle of a reputable bourbon distiller’s “white whiskey” to share with a friend. We tried it neat. We tried it as a mixer. We had more than two drinks from the bottle but the rest will remain untouched for years to come.

      • sam k says:

        Another consideration here is that the big distillers’ white dog is formulated expressly to taste good only after many years in a barrel. I know of small producers who have gone out of their way to make something that they feel has more appeal directly off the still.

        I’m also aware of some who are using (or planning to use) two different recipes: one for white whiskey and one for aging, since the two don’t necessarily converge in a single, universal distillate.

        I guess what I’m saying, Morgan, is don’t condemn the entire category just because you didn’t like one of the bigs’ new make. There are differences between brands, just as with any other spirit.

        • John Hansell says:

          Very good point, Sam. I think this is why some of the craft distillers’ white dogs are better than the stuff from the big guys. Different objectives.

  12. Jason Beatty says:

    On topic: the white whiskey does serve a purpose for whiskey to be part of the cocktail scene. The problem is that SO MANY bar owners are reluctant to purchase it.

    Off topic: I am in need of someone from NY to get me a bottle of whiskey because they only ship in state. In return, I can send he or she a sample of John’s favorite whiskey, Parker’s Heritage Golden Anniversary. I can also get William Larue Weller here for anyone. beattyja(at)live(dot)com

  13. Jordan says:

    The only unaged barley spirit I’ve had so far has been House Spirtis’ white dog. It’s rather interesting stuff, but does have a lot more in common with tequila than aged whiskey. One of the employees described it as ‘barley eau de vie’ and that seems like a better way to think about it. You’re getting an extremely vegetal product that is within spitting distance of its agricultural roots. And it does sub into cocktails that call for blanco tequila rather well. With that said, their aged whiskey is definitely better and more interesting, but I can understand their desire to a) put out something different and b) get some cash flow.

  14. Tom K. says:

    Most of the small distillery white whiskies I’ve seen are priced along the same lines as their gins and vodkas. Not cheap, but at least he white whiskey drinkers aren’t being gouged any deeper than the gin and vodka drinkers.

    I agree that white whiskey seems to be more at home on the unaged spirits shelf than on the whiskey shelf, if you’re thinking of drinking it rather than starting a vertical tasting with it.

    I’m also intrigued by the thought of buying one of those little baby oak barrels they sell and setting up a solera-style stock of gently aged whiskey, topping off with white dog what gets spigotted out as tonight’s dram.

  15. Travis Kingdon says:

    As long as it becomes somewhat of an irregular experiment then great. Unfortunately there are too many spirits out there with no story, no history, no love, no craft and marketed to the masses. If the great distilleries of this world started jeopardising the amount of their standard product they are able to produce in order to provide a cocktail spirit then I have a problem. Somehow I don’t think this is gonna happen anyway – people just won’t buy much of it imo.

  16. ps says:

    I’m not a fan of white whiskey. I can’t stomach it neat, and for an unaged mixer I’d rather have higher-end vodka or mid-range Blanco, which in many cases are less expensive than white whiskies.

  17. The problem with the term “white whiskey” is that it conflicts with the definition of whiskey, which is a distilled spirit, made from grain, distilled below neutrality, and aged in wood. In fact, to call their product whiskey, white whiskey makers have to go through the ruse of allowing it to briefly touch wood, which is effective because the rules don’t state a minimum duration for aging. Although there is historical precedent for calling an un-aged grain spirit ‘whiskey’ that is not the modern practice. There continues to be so much confusion and misinformation about spirits and spirit types, I favor practices that advance clarity and disfavor those that add to the confusion. But I also understand that whiskey is cool right now so micro-producers want to call their product whiskey, and I don’t think anyone will get too excited about the term ‘spirit distilled from a whiskey mash.’ So I get it, I’m just not entirely comfortable with it, and definitive statements that ‘white whiskey is whiskey’ are simply hyperbole.

    • Aaron says:

      Thanks for clarifying, Chuck. I didn’t know that any amount of wood contact, however brief, could be used in these cases.

    • sam k says:

      I’m not sure how a statement claiming that legally producing any kind of whiskey and labeling it as such in accordance with federal law can be any sort of “extravagant exaggeration.”

      It is also the case that many of these products refrain from using the term “whiskey.” Dad’s Hat, for example, is simply labeled “white rye,” for which there is no technical nomenclature.

      • Ryan says:

        Other Specialities & Proprietaries is the TTB classification for that unaged Dad’s Hat product. No idea what final proof was, I’d bet it wasn’t 140 or less. The label says, “Using only natural, local ingredients and the most careful methods, Dad’s Hat is made in Pennsylvania — the birthplace of Rye Whiskey.” Did no one really distill from Rye prior to the Province of Pennsylvania being founded? But anyway, sort of underscores Chuck’s point regarding confusion.

  18. Scott says:

    My question on this whole topic is how many are selling new make of what they intend to age and how many are making an unaged whisky to sell. Which of the two seems more offensive to the term Whisk(e)y? If you do indeed find the white whiskies an affront to the whisky category. Hmmm

  19. thebitterfig says:

    What always has struck me about white rum and silver tequila is that it’s made to be unaged. The overwhelming majority of whisky is intended to be aged. There tend to be more creaks and squeaks in the spirit which, while awkward young, comes into its own once it has a few years in wood. That’s just the nature of distilled spirits, where depending on the nature of the new make, it will work best with certain levels of aging.

    To that end, is there a role for greatly flavorful grain spirits (as opposed to ostensibly low-flavor vodka)? Sure. But for it to be worthwhile in itself, it probably needs to be made with a lack of aging in mind, and sold at a reasonable price point.

  20. Tadas A says:

    Why so many people say that all white rum is not aged? Quite a lot of white rum is actually aged for couple years in oak barrels to make it palatable and then they remove oak color from it by filtering. Examples are Cruzan Aged Light Rum, Flor de Caña 4 Year Old White Rum, El Dorado 3 Year Old Cask Aged White Rum. These do not cost arm and a leg – around $10-$15 per 750 ml bottle.

  21. Nick Jones says:

    Santa Fe Spirits produces an unaged pure malt whiskey called Silver Coyote. The recipe and distillation technique are specifically designed for an unaged whiskey, and Silver Coyote is not put into barrels. It is excellent neat, on the rocks, or mixed in cocktails designed for white spirits (mojito, whiskeyrita, bloody marry, etc.) It is meant to be consumed unaged.

    Also, Santa Fe Spirits produces a single malt whiskey. The single malt is malted, brewed, fermented, distilled, and aged using Scotch whisky making techniques, and is not bottled or sold as new make (except in the tasting room in combination with a small barrel for home aging). It is not meant to be consumed unaged.

    Personally, I wouldn’t barrel-age grappa any more than I’d drink new make cognac, but this doesn’t mean that one method of turning grapes into spirit is superior to the other, they’re just different.

  22. Jake Parrott says:

    I think some of the rawness issues with white whiskeys (I have no problem with the term because I tend to focus on distillation proof differences rather than wood aging differences) could be helped by allowing the spirit to rest for awhile (either in closed vats with oxygen bubbling and venting or in open vats) to allow some high aromatics to blow off. The analogue here is Martiniquan rhum agricole, the Blanc form of which (which is column-stilled to about 140 US proof, much like American unmalted whiskeys) is required to be rested for a few months before bottling. White agricoles are often drunk undiluted and just barely seasoned with a small sliver of lime and a few drops of cane syrup.

  23. Genaro says:

    There are several factors:if you are a small distiller you need to sell the product fast to recuperate your investment. If you are a big distiller, you look at the market response and give it a try. Who knows. Maybe white whiskeys are easy to mix and some do have a nice aroma. I think Evan Williams will release some pretty soon and will see the market response.

    One solution for white Whiskeys is as “JAKE PARROT” mention above is about “resting the product” for a few months or years like they do on some Piscos in Peru. Store the product on clay or concrete vats and let it age and settle.

  24. Andrew says:

    Wigle Whiskey out of Pittsburgh, PA is another with a white/clear rye product as well as a distilled wheat.

  25. The Bloggers on the Whisky Round Table (shameless plug, I’m part of the group) discussed this same subject earlier this month (though we were focused on whisky, not whiskey) – great minds, as they say!

    You can find the link to that here at the Edinburgh Whisky Blog (if you have interest):

  26. mongo says:

    what exactly is different about the production process that makes one kind of new make more appropriate for drinking unaged than regular new make? are the distillers who’re producing new make expressly to not be aged triple/quadruple distilling for smoothness or running their stills in some other way? are they using different mashbills?

    • Nick Jones says:

      Many distilleries simply sell the same new make that they put into barrels as a “white dog” or a white whiskey, but Santa Fe Spirits does not and here are the differences between Santa Fe Spirits’ unaged Silver Coyote and aged single malt whiskey:

      The unaged pure malt whiskey Silver Coyote is mashed using 100% brewer’s 2-row pale malt. The grains are separated from the wort and the wort is fermented using a Scotch whiskey yeast strain. The fermented “beer” is twice distilled: once in a pot still and once more through a column still with five plates, yielding a spirit of 180 proof – well above a traditional whiskey’s abv, but well below the abv of a vodka in order to retain the flavors of the yeast and the malt. Silver Coyote is thus a clean, bright whiskey, with complex estery flavors dominating the nose, and subtle malt and husk notes lingering in the aftertaste. It resembles other silver spirits (such as silver tequila or silver rum) more than it resembles an aged spirit.

      The (as of yet un-named) aged single malt whiskey is mashed using 60% brewer’s 2-row malt and 40% custom malted 6-row distiller’s malt, which is smoked using local ingredients (not much peat in New Mexico). The grains are separated from the wort, and it is fermented using a scotch yeast strain. It is pot-distilled twice to 140 proof – retaining tons of malt and smoke flavor that would be lost in a column still. It is aged in used bourbon barrels. The flavor is remnicent of a lightly smoked Highland whisky, though there’s no mistaking the distinctively complex smokiness of this Western single malt with it’s Scotch cousins. Alas, Santa Fe Spirits is being rather secretive about the fuel source for the smoke in their single malt until it is officially bottled and released…

      Other than the mash bill, the main difference is the use of a column still in the second distillation of the Silver Coyote in order to push the proof up to 180 so that it is an exceptionally clean and smooth malt whiskey. With barrel aging it is remnicient of a light Speyside, but its true complexities are best enjoyed fresh, as with any other white spirit.

      • mongo says:

        thanks for that. i wonder what the other distilleries that are apparently producing spirit that is not intended to be aged are doing that’s different.

  27. Ben says:

    A friend brought over a little bottle of Buffalo Trace “White Dog” the other night. I have to say that I just don’t see the fascination. It was bourbon with all of the alcohol (more, actually) and none of the charm.
    Admittedly, it was educational to see so vividly what aging accomplishes. But otherwise . . . The question now is, what do I do with the rest of the bottle?

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