One of the side effects of modern capitalism is the incessant drive for growth. Every business has to get bigger every year or it’s a disaster. You see this echoed in the consumer markets—there always has to be a new product, a new category, a new way to encourage folks to spend their money. So it’s not a total surprise that even the spirits industry has put effort into reinventing the wheel. Do we need new varieties of whiskey? No, probably not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to invent some. Hence, white whiskey.
Technically, white whiskey isn’t so much a new kind of whiskey as it is a new kind of cynical marketing technique. Basically, the whiskey producers of the world—especially the smaller distilleries—had two problems. One, traditional whiskey like bourbon or rye takes a long time to mature, during which time it represents nothing but an expense on a distillery’s accounts. And two, vodka is the main competitor to whiskey in terms of sales. So the fact that you’ve been seeing a lot of white whiskey on the shelves isn’t too surprising. But what is it?
What is white whiskey?
Fundamentally, white whiskey is unaged (or barely aged) whiskey straight out of the distillation process. Traditional whiskey emerges from the distilling process clear and potent, then is aged in oak barrels of some sort, during which time it slowly acquires its brown color, along with flavors pulled from the wood. Technically, to be considered whiskey a liquor has to spend time in barrels aging, though the rule is pretty imprecise, and literally any time spent in a barrel—even ten seconds—counts.
Many distillers call raw whiskey “white dog.” You’ll often see that phrase used in branding and marketing of white whiskeys—but it’s misleading. White dog is technically whiskey that’s been distilled with the intention of aging it properly. When distillers decide to make an unaged white whiskey from the get-go, they usually alter the mash bill (the ingredients used in the fermentation and distillation process, like corn or rye or wheat) to create a different flavor profile from the raw whiskey intended for barrels, where the choice of wood and the amount of time spent maturing have a lot to say about what the final product tastes like.
You can see the economic drive behind white whiskey. If you’re a small distillery just starting out, the first thing you do is invest a ton of cash and time into distilling enormous amounts of white dog, then wait a few years before you can start selling a young whiskey to the world. If you need to make cash right away, you can leverage your one asset: All those gallons of white, barely-aged whiskey. In that sense, white whiskey is a smart, if slightly cynical, marketing trick. It’s sort of like slicing up raw potatoes and marketing them as Raw French Fries.
Harkening back to the days of moonshine
America has a long tradition of loving white whiskey. Moonshine—that illicit liquor brewed in bathtubs and sold in speakeasies during Prohibition—is a form of white whiskey: raw, unaged and with a high alcohol content that will kick you in the ass and perhaps make you temporarily blind. Modern white whiskey may be a marketing ploy, but it’s part of a historical lineage, and still deserves a place in your liquor cabinet.
The white whiskey you’ll find on shelves isn’t classic moonshine anyway. Moonshine isn’t a well-defined category because the stuff made a century ago was produced illegally, with no rules (or health inspections) covering its production. It was distilled from anything its tax-evading, law-breaking makers could get their hands on. In the modern day, what we officially call moonshine generally has a lot of corn in the mash bill, plus added sugar in order to approximate the classic stuff. It’s still incredibly potent—upwards of 190 proof. (That’s an evening you’ll never remember to forget.)
As noted above, modern white whiskey varieties are produced more thoughtfully, although you can call it moonshine if it makes you feel like an outlaw. Distillers usually adjust and massage their mash bills when they know the result is intended to be a white whiskey, aiming for a particular flavor profile. Unlike vodka, white whiskey will definitely have a flavor to it, so it’s worth checking out different varieties. There’s also a burgeoning white whiskey cocktail scene, though I’d argue this defeats the whole purpose of a white whiskey, which is to enjoy a raw, pristine liquor. In fact, white whiskey is popular enough that it’s no longer a guaranteed economic lifeline for smaller distilleries, because the big boys are muscling in on the action.