Whisky Advocate

Whisky Advocate Award: Artisan Whiskey of the Year (North America)

February 1st, 2012

Low Gap Whiskey, 42.7%, $40

There are an increasing number of whiskeys coming from small distillers. At first, a small number of distillers bottled unaged distillate as a somewhat hokey packaging of moonshine-like white lightning; some were flavored, some were spiced, but almost all of them were meant for mixing (maybe a more accurate description would be ‘spiking’). But over the past eighteen months, a new interest in white whiskey has led to a batch of more carefully made, more flavorful bottlings — or maybe it was the other way around, it’s hard to tell which caused which. Even the big distillers like Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace got into the act, and some folks were buying white whiskey to custom age in small barrels. 2011 was the Year of White Whiskey.

That’s why a whiskey I gave an 80 rating is walking away with this award. Of all the white whiskeys that came across my tasting table in 2011, Low Gap was the solid winner, and this is recognition that there are some white whiskeys out there that are worth drinking on their own for more than the once-or-twice novelty of it.

Low Gap, distilled from malted Bavarian hard wheat, is a round, fruity spirit that smells like fresh flour and crisp crackers, but drinks like brandy — aromatic and vaporous — with a real grain-laced finish, not just an alcohol wick-up. That’s hardly a surprise coming from Craft Distillers, who make Germain-Robin brandy; they know their way around a still, particularly the 16 hectoliter cognac still they use to make Low Gap.

There were aged whiskeys from small distillers this year that I liked better, but this was exceptional in its niche…and I can’t wait to see what it’s like when it has had a chance to age. —Lew Bryson

Tomorrow, the recipient of Whisky Advocate’s American Whiskey of the Year Award will be announced.

No Responses to “Whisky Advocate Award: Artisan Whiskey of the Year (North America)”

  1. Andrew Colville says:

    its nice to see some favourable coverage of these new innovative whiskies. often people write them off as something a distillery does to help with cash flow, while awaiting aged whiskey to sell.

    i wish more distilleries in scotland would experiment like their american counterparts. not including bruichladdie, who are in my opinion the most progressive this side of the atlantic.

    • Lew Bryson says:

      Agreed, Andrew. Though I will say that a lot of the white whiskeys do taste pretty “samey.” That’s why this one stood out from the pack, as did Karacevic’s Doubled & Twisted. But I doubt you’ll see many distilleries in Scotland running with the white dogs while there’s such an expanding world market for aged Scotch whisky!

    • two-bit cowboy says:

      Hi Andrew. Your wish might be coming true. I recently had the privilege of tasting an Arran new make, distilled in September 2011, that had been peated at 50ppm and bottled at 63.5%. It was an oak fire. There was lots of liquorice and leather. It was malty. And in the end, salted butter. Wonderful.

      • Andrew Colville says:

        two bit, thats good to hear. i didnt expect to see many scottish distilleries producing white whisky, although i beleive they could experiment in more ways than just finishing the whisky in a different cask. unfortunately the SWA have pretty much prohibited experimenting with scotch whisky.

        where di you sample the arran malt? any idea if it will be on sale online?

        • two-bit cowboy says:

          Andrew: I was lucky enough to try it at the Victoria Whisky Festival’s Grand Isle of Arran Tasting. It wasn’t billed as something the distillery might offer for sale, and I didn’t ask the question.

          I seem to recall that Kilchoman offered new make at one point, but I don’t see it on their site now. The new Lewis distillery, http://www.abhainndearg.co.uk/, offers theirs.

  2. Vince says:

    Lew, have you tasted the Black Dog from MB Roland Distillery in Pembroke, KY? The put their corn on a tobacco warehouse and smoke the corn (along with the tobacco). The result is a very smoky new make whiskey. I always correlate it to what an Islay whisky would taste like if made in Kentucky. I think it is excellent! Just curious if you had run across this.

    • Lew Bryson says:

      I have not, Vince. Sounds interesting, and I’ll keep an eye out for it. Cheers, thanks!

    • Tim D says:

      I second the Roland juice – I’ve had many variations, and what he’s pulling of the still is among the best offered by American craft distillers. The “novelty” of his Dark-fire smoked corn is just the icing on the cake. He’s offering both un-aged, and lightly aged versions, and not one has let me down.

      I’d also like to give a shout out to Chip Tate at Balcones in Waco, TX – he’s also pushing out some amazing juice that’s quite drinkable with little/no barrel time.

      Be sure to try anything from these two guys before writing off artisans as having cruddy whiskey!

      It’s all just further proof that if you can drink it BEFORE it goes to wood, it’ll only be that much better. Distillate first, and wood to ADD to the the experience, not cover up the flaws.

  3. Andrew says:

    Will you post a the other top finalists?

  4. Luke says:

    Very interesting. BTW, has anyone here tried the Cooley Single Pot Still Triple-Distilled Póitin (65%ABV) released here [Ireland] before Christmas? Lovely stuff, indicitative of even better to come methinks.

  5. Bob Siddoway says:

    I agree, Low Gap is the best white whiskey I’ve ever tried. This isn’t surprising considering how amazing Germain-Robin’s brandy is, especially their single barrel releases.

    They also have a pure corn white whiskey that should be coming out soon, unless it already has and I just missed it.

  6. Louis says:

    It’s nice to see some out of the box thinking for this award. It would have been easy to just give the honor to the highest rated craft whiskey. If the ‘white whiskey’ segment has a future, it can’t just be for the novelty. Going forward, I wonder if craft distilleries are going to do things differently for spirit that will be sold right away, as opposed to the stuff they plan on aging.

    • Lew Bryson says:

      Thanks, Louis. We obviously agree that the award’s more than just the highest pointer; that would take all the fun out of it! Our awards are about more than that. We’ve got a couple more like this coming up; stay tuned!

    • Paul says:

      Louis – my distillery, Few Spirits, does indeed treat our White Whiskey differently than our whiskey that is aging in barrels. Different mash bill, different yeast, different distillation techniques. Entirely different product than our bourbon or rye.

  7. Bacchus says:

    This ghastly low brow whiskey trend deserves a swift demise.

  8. sku says:

    Interesting pick. How did you define “artisan” for purposes of this category?

    • Lew Bryson says:

      We’re using the DISCUS “affiliated member” production limit of 40,000 9-liter cases, and it’s for North American distilleries. The small distilleries elsewhere are covered by the New World Whisky category.

      • John Hansell says:

        Yes, that’s the production cut-off for the “Craft Distiller” definition by DISCUS. (That’s the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, for those of you who are not familiar with the name.)

  9. Eby says:

    Doesn’t look like this one has made it to michigan but will keep an eye out when out of state.

    I’ve had the Black Dog Vince speaks of and agree it is probably one of the most interesting ones out there. I also enjoyed Death’s Door and the flavor of the red winter wheat. Many of the others have seemed gimmicky though I didn’t mind the buffalo trace (which I played around with aging)

  10. I think the idea of releasing new make spirit with hints of other flavours like The Arran releasing a peated product and Roland producing a tobacco smoked corn shows vision and creativity. If small distilleries didn’t innovate, we wouldn’t be seeing the big distilleries we see today. Although I have not sampled either product, it makes my mouth water thinking about the potential flavours and aromas that these spirits may contain.

    I have had the opportunity to taste and nose new make spirits side-by-side and compare the subtlety of flavours and aromas in them. When done right, the whisky can be enjoyable on its own without aging. The differences and improving quality of white whiskies by Artisan distillers make this an emerging market that is starting to be recognized by larger distillers. This area is only going to continue to grow and improve as more small distilleries are built.

  11. Dominic says:

    I have not tried any of these new wave white whiskies yet, I guess they are not that popular in the UK. I would like to. There was a brief flirtation with white brandies from Armagnac (and to a lesser extent) a few years ago, marketed as being ideal for cocktails, but I haven’t seen any and I wonder if they have quietly disappeared from the market.

  12. Tadas says:

    Why are we calling white dog/moonshine as whiskey?

    • sam k says:

      Because in the U.S., by definition, we can.

      • Lew Bryson says:

        Sam’s right (of course he is, that’s why he’s our copy editor); and we have a continuing ‘moonshine tradition’ in the States as well. Also, as I brought up in a column, if rum and tequila can be appreciated as both white and aged spirit, why not whiskey?

        • sam k says:

          True about the moonshine tradition, Lew, and Cooley is picking up on the same idea in Ireland with a bottling of unaged poitin. White whiskey is transcending international boundaries!

  13. Tadas says:

    To be successful in the marketplace moonshines/white dog should go down in price… a lot. For comparison, I pay $8-$20 for very good white rums or tequilas per bottle. For $40 I can pickup an excellent Elijah Craig 18 Years Old bourbon.

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