By Reid Mitenbuler Slate
Most serious whiskey fans seem content to let the white whiskey fad of recent years slip into oblivion alongside Crystal Pepsi and New York Seltzer.
The term white whiskey is basically a marketing name for what distillers call white dog, referring to grain-based spirits that haven’t been aged in wood to improve their flavor.
When sold illegally, it’s just called moonshine, but legal sales of white dog in recent years have helped upstart microdistilleries earn immediate revenue while their whiskies age. That’s because white dog can be bottled and sold immediately after being distilled without accruing any additional storage and aging expenses. The moonshine connection has been a useful marketing gimmick for hip urban bars, but there’s one considerable downside to white dog: It tastes horrible.
Regardless, distilling giants Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam are joining the bandwagon. Daniel’s recently released its Unaged Tennessee Rye, and Beam started selling a minimally aged spirit called Jacob’s Ghost last month. Some whiskey industry watchers fear the new products threaten the livelihood of young microdistilleries that survive off white whiskey sales. Others, such as Charles K. Cowdery, author of Bourbon, Straight and The Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste, are holding their judgment to see if the new products will help small producers by legitimizing a style many whiskey connoisseurs roll their eyes at. Whatever the outcome, the distilling giants’ new products epitomize the reasons many whiskey drinkers find white whiskey so annoying.
My bourbon-appreciating father once artfully compared drinking white whiskey to getting stabbed in the mouth with a screwdriver that’s been used to pry open a gas can. Of course, some will disagree with that colorful assessment. Taste is subjective, and sometimes it takes a lot of work to learn the subtle charms of challenging subjects. Many blogs and spirits columnists have flattered white dog, describing it as “bright” or “flamboyant.” But the moonshiners who’ve made it for years simply call it “hooch.”
In fairness, the unaged spirits on the market now taste far better than the illegal kind. True moonshine typically comes from whatever cheap ingredients are available, which oftentimes means fermented sugar or rotten fruit. Shows like the Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners” — think “Li’l Abner” meets “Breaking Bad” — are about an industry in which illegal spirits come in reused soda bottles and are sold from back alleys. Legal distilleries, on the other hand, use high-quality grains to distill raw spirits with the potential to become bourbon or rye once they spend a few years mellowing in barrels and absorbing flavor from the wood. Without that final step, however, white dog is to whiskey what coal is to diamonds.
Speaking of diamonds, many whiskey drinkers complain that white whiskies are too expensive — the clear spirits trade on their hillbilly heritage, but only the Beverly Hillbillies can afford them. Some 750-milliliter bottles cost more than $30, which doesn’t make much sense: It takes capital to age bourbon or rye in barrels that sit in a warehouse for years, but it takes very little money to funnel white dog into bottles.
Then again, distilleries obviously don’t charge what a product is worth; they charge what people will pay. Smaller economies of scale mean microdistilleries might have to charge more than giants like Beam or Daniel’s, but novelty and status also play big parts. Vodka is a perfect example of this: The difference between a $20 bottle and a $50 bottle is often just $30 and an advertising campaign featuring a celebrity. (Vodka is usually distilled at a much higher proof than white dog, so it has a more neutral flavor; vodka is also different from white dog in that it’s not always made from grains.) Pricing for gin, which is basically vodka flavored with aromatics such as juniper, can also be arbitrary. Vodka and gin go for chic, however, while white dog goes for folksy.
Beam and Daniel’s follow suit by charging more for less. A 750-milliliter bottle of Daniel’s unaged rye costs $50, which is more than its Single Barrel Whiskey costs. Jacob’s Ghost costs $22, which is $6 more than Beam’s famous white-label brand. Jacob’s Ghost is made exactly like white label but is aged for one year instead of four. Regardless of their relatively high prices, Unaged Tennessee Rye and Jacob’s Ghost still cost less than some of their microdistilled competitors. With their giant budgets, Beam and Daniel’s can afford to saturate the market and give those who are curious about white whiskey a chance to see how it tastes (and then probably never buy it again).