White Devil

In the past couple months, two of the whiskey world’s heaviest hitters — Jack Daniels and Jim Beam — have released “white whiskey” products in an attempt to (somewhat belatedly) jump on a perceived white whiskey trend. Most spirits writers have reacted to these releases with a resigned sigh and a rolling of the eyes. I’m hard pressed to come up with a more appropriate reaction. I don’t fault a company crass marketing ploys — Steampunk Cider is a pretty crass attempt to appeal to steampunk nerds like me, and I bought two bottles without having ever tasted it because, you know, <em>steampunk</em>. Luckily, it was fantastic, but the point is companies do marketing, and that’s A-OK with me. Sometimes though the marketing crosses a personally drawn line and really gets on my nerves (stop telling me you’re a distillery when you are just buying barrels from other distilleries and bottling them). Beam and Daniels have managed to poke a spot on me that was already sore as I am not the biggest fan of white whiskey, be it unaged white dog or simply filtered to be colorless. I also think this bandwagon onto which Jack and Jim are adding their weight is pretty rickety already, if it exists at all.

White whiskey can mean several things. Most of the time, it means the whiskey has not gone through the process of maturation — sitting in a barrel for a certain amount of time. Barrels add a tremendous amount to a whiskey, including both flavor and color. Straight off the still, whiskey is clear, like water or — if water offends you — gin. The color, be it light amber or dark brown, comes from the barrel. Well, most of the time. In Scotland and Canada, among other places, they can add caramel coloring to achieve a more consistent color from year to year, though some will also claim they darken a whiskey to fool rubes into thinking it is somehow older or stronger for being darker. Coloring whiskies has of late become a somewhat derided practice, but while certain companies make a point of mentioning they don’t add coloring, the practice is unlikely to change any time soon (or for as long as Johnnie Walker is still making a profit). But here in the United States, we have laws against such things, at least when it comes to bourbon. The color you see comes entirely from the time the spirit spends in a barrel.

A Clear History

So when whiskey comes off the still, it’s clear. In the world of moonshine, that’s good enough for moonshiners. They bottle it straight off the still and head off to to appear in reality shows that make moonshining seem like a really boring subject. And for a long time, this was how whiskey was sold — straight off the still with no aging. And this fact is something a lot of people these days selling unaged whiskey will use to sell their product as somehow purer or more honest than those whiskies that adore that Johnny-Come-Lately aging process. But you know, not every original process was actually <em>good</em>. Barrel aging of spirits happened almost by accident. As spirit was placed in casks to be transported to and fro, it started to age in those barrels and pick up certain characteristics and flavors. And it got good. Really good. Pretty soon, no one wanted to bother with unaged whiskey. They wanted it to mature. So when someone spins a yarn about “whiskey originally wasn’t aged” to sell you a white dog whiskey, remind them that the second maturation was introduced to the process, pretty much everyone swore off unaged whiskey — and I bet there was a reason having to do with taste. Kind of like how the Scots don’t store their scotch in old mackerel barrels anymore.

These days, for legal products to be called a whiskey in the United States it has to spend time in a barrel — a requirement that originally had more to do with unions and labor disputes than with a concern for taste. Granted the law, being originally designed to sell barrels rather than concerning itself with the quality of what went in and came out, doesn’t specify <em>how long</em> it has to spend in that barrel (unless it is a “bonded” whiskey, which has an age requirement). As long as someone bought the barrel, the government doesn’t much care about your product until it comes time to tax it. Still, most of the country’s whiskey makers recognize that making great tasting aged whiskey people wanted is more profitable, despite the maturation time, than making unaged whiskey that spends thirty seconds in a barrel then gets dumped into bottles no one wants to buy. So the whiskey industry by and large practices maturation, leaving the whiskey in a barrel for a period of at least three years (the adage being that you can age your whiskey for less than three years, but not if you want anyone to buy it more than once).

In the late 1960s, whiskey fell out of favor with consumers. It was regarded as the stuff old people drank. The stuff your <em>parents</em> drank, and no one in the 1960s wanted to be like their parents. There was a massive shift away from whiskey and toward clear spirits and resurgent — if terrible — cocktails. American whiskey makers started to panic, and rather than addressing the change as a marketing problem, they tried to figure out how to tap the clear spirits market. Some could just buy themselves a vodka brand and call it a day. Others got a little more — and tragically — creative. Among these was bourbon powerhouse Brown-Forman, best known for the Old Forester brand but a producer of more gallons of bourbon (much of it sold to independent bottlers who market it under a different name) than one could count. Old Forester’s response to the decline in whiskey’s fortunes wasn’t to try and get into the vodka game; it was to make a whiskey that <em>looked</em> like vodka. The result was Frost 8/80.

Frosty Reception

319764144_oFrost 8/80, released in 1968, was not an unaged whiskey. It was Brown-Forman whiskey (in this case, eight-year-old whiskey from the Brown-Forman owned Old Bridgewater and Manor distilleries in Pennsylvania) run through a filtration system that removed all the color, in much the same way as is done to white rum. In theory the result would be a clear spirit that would appeal to modern consumers but still be whiskey, meaning that the company could simply tack on one extra step to the process rather than having to switch wholesale to making a different spirit. I suppose the thinking was that people wanted the taste of whiskey, but they didn’t want to look like they wanted the taste of whiskey, not when all their well-heeled pals were wearing leisure suits and drinking vodka or Harvey Wallbangers. Or the thinking was that consumers were stupid and would just grab anything clear off the shelf on their way to their disco party.

The end result was an unmitigated disaster that, for decades, Brown-Forman swept under the rug and hoped everyone would forget. Several things went wrong. For starters, the bourbon industry doesn’t do innovation very well or very often (the recent glut of whiskey based honey liqueurs being a pretty big exception). The laws governing bourbon are strict, and the traditions perhaps even stricter. The major bourbon makers produced an exceptional product, but when it came to dreaming up some new twist…well, that just didn’t happen very often. And perhaps an example like Frost 8/80 is a good reason why. Clunky attempts at innovation aside, there was the more important problem of a lack of consideration for what the filtering process does to a spirit. Yes, it removes the color…but it also removes a lot of the flavor. The notion that they could run an eight-year-old whiskey through a color filtration process and have it come out the other end still tasting like that same eight-year-old whiskey, only clear, is folly. I got an opportunity to taste Frost 8/80 in early 2011 as part of Brown-Forman’s “A Taste of Classic Whiskies” flight at the Plaza Hotel. The program served up a different whiskey from each of the years Brown-Forman has been in production, starting with King Kentucky bourbon from the 1930s and ending with Early Times 354, released in 2010 and sadly (because I like it) still not available in New York. Frost 8/80 was the representative from the disreputable 1970s, and the program tried to sell it as a bold experiment ahead of its time. Which is true, I guess, but that doesn’t make it any good.

Going into the whiskey, psychologically I expected white dog despite knowing it wasn’t. But after dozens of white dogs tasted over the years (something about that sentence does not sound right), it was hard to get over the association of that colorless spirit with the taste of newmake — corn and rubbing alcohol, harsh and raw and, usually, not entirely pleasant. In retrospect that might have been the <em>better</em> experience. Upon first sip, Frost 8/80 dismisses any notion you might have of it being like unaged white whiskey and instead allies itself with an experience even more infamous: Crystal Pepsi. Crystal Pepsi was made for almost the same reason and in almost the same way as Frost 8/80, because I guess no one ever learns. The filtering process wreaks havoc with the flavor. On the nose, Frost 8/80 lacks any of the vanilla, caramel, or wood one commonly associates with bourbon. Instead there is only a cloying fruitiness. Bourbon often has a whiff of fruit about it, but in this case it’s almost the sole scent, and it lacks anything natural. The taste follows suit. It reminds me of cough syrup: thick on the palate and artificially fruity. Saccharine almost, but with a hint of wood and a distant, dying cry that might be the vanilla and wilting robustness one expects from bourbon. I have no idea how much of this was real and how much was just psychological, but whatever the case it was a thoroughly unpleasant experience. I’m not alone in my assessment. Whether because of the flavor or the fact that consumers noticed it was still whiskey, Frost 8/80 was a failure, and the product was discontinued in 1973.

Clear and Present Danger

Despite the knee-jerk panic, it turns out whiskey survived the 70s and 80s. In the 2000s, distilling starting to undergo a micro and craft revolution similar to what swept through the beer world the decade prior. Unlike microbrewing however, craft distilling wasn’t replacing an inferior product with something substantially better. The whiskey being made by the big distillers was generally thought of as good, and in many cases, phenomenal. There was no watered down Bud Light against which to rally. In fact, in my opinion, where as microbrews generally create a product far superior to the macrobrews like Budweiser and Miller, micro distilling creates a product that is often (but not always) <em>worse</em> than its big-industry counterpart. So it wasn’t the need for something better. Instead, craft distilling started to pop up for two reasons: one, whiskey was enjoying resurgent popularity and people wanted in on it financially; and two, distillation engenders in the fans of its product a powerful DIY drive, and some people just wanted to make whiskey. Often it was both.

New York’s Tuthilltown Spirits, nestled in the shadows of the Shawagunk Mountains, was one of the first players to make a splash on the micro-distilling scene, but they weren’t alone. There was an explosion in craft distilling. Most of them were selling unaged whiskey, ostensibly to offset the price of waiting around for future version to mature, though that wasn’t always the case. Within two years, the shelf space devoted to white dog at my local well-stocked whiskey shop had expanded from a couple slots to a shelf to an entire section. Prices ranged up and down the scale, as did quality. I was lucky to be in a position that enabled me to taste most of them without actually having to buy them — which was nice, because I wouldn’t have bought any of them. As a whiskey aficionado, I appreciate the chance to taste a white dog because it’s a glimpse not just of what’s to come or what might be; it’s a chance to dig into the fundamental, raw materials that go into whiskey. It also helps you understand how huge a role barrels play in making whiskey what it is (and what, to me, it should be). But as much as I enjoy the chance to taste, I never want more than just that one taste, even when I pronounce the white dog not too bad. Through all the white dogs I’ve had, and there have been many, I think there are maybe two or three I would actually want more than just a taste of.

And that’s fine. Most white dog whiskey released these days is only tangentially interested in home consumers, and it’s not really meant for sipping. The real win for a white dog is for a bartender to get interested in it and start using it as a base for cocktails. Personally, I still prefer whiskey that tastes like proper whiskey, but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone their chance to experiment or succeed. Yes, the glut of unaged whiskey on the shelves is a bit ridiculous, and the fact that so much of it costs so much is even more ridiculous. But I”ve found it very easy to ignore that shelf, crammed though it may be, and navigate with success to the shelves that contain my preferred spirits, all brown and amber and with a bit of age behind them. Many of the craft distillers who were relying on white dog to make them a bit of coin while they waited for the rest of their stuff to age in barrels are now bringing those aged products to market, with varying degrees of quality (as is the way with craft distilling). The more of them who start to sell the whiskey they’ve had sitting around for the past five years or so during the craft boom, the less I think we’ll see of unaged white dog.

No More Clear Puns, Please

white-whiskey1Which brings us to the big boys. Sensing a buck to be made, the major distillers in America (Scotland still turns their nose up at white whiskey) started to roll out their own white whiskey in about the order you’d expect. Buffalo Trace, the most nimble and open to experimentation, was first up with their White Dog, sold in 375 ml bottles for relatively cheap compared to the other unaged whiskies flooding the market. The other big distillers were too busy making flavored whiskey (some of which, especially the honey ones, prove that not every attempt at innovation by the big distillers was a bad idea, at least from a sales point of view), but eventually Heaven Hill — who has probably the most diverse portfolio — gave it a go in a pretty blatant stab at fooling people into thinking their product was from some tiny little craft distiller. The Tri-Box series was an unaged bourbon and an unaged rye — Evan Williams for the former, and I believe Rittenhouse for the latter. I didn’t mind the fake crafty packaging — that’s standard bourbon business. What rankled my feathers was the price. These unaged versions sold for <em>roughly twice the price</em> as the matured versions. I guess the claim is you charge what you can get away with, but apparently Heaven Hill couldn’t get away with those prices, because Tri-Box was pretty roundly panned and disappeared quickly — and not because of sales — from the few shelves onto which it had found its way.

And so we arrive in the latter half of 2012. Fairly after the fact, all things considered, but there’s still plenty of white whiskey sitting on the shelves to keep Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s belated efforts company. Jack Daniels’ offering is a straight up unaged whiskey — or, well, not quite a whiskey. Initially, they were barred from calling it a whiskey and had to release it as a “neutral spirit” — basically, a Jack Daniels vodka. As of this writing, that ruling seems to be fluctuating somewhat, so we’ll see ultimately where Unaged Tennessee Rye. From what people have written so far, the Tennessee filtering process (which is what keeps something like Jack Daniels from being classified as a bourbon) helps take the edge off the new-make taste. This has resulted in mixed reviews — the best a white dog can hope for, as far as I’m concerned. But what people seem unanimous on is the price. Jack is cheap, and even the fancier Jack Single Barrel and Gentleman Jack don’t make much of a dent in the wallet. But the unaged — less work put into — rye? Forget Tri-Box’s doubling of price. Jack wants you to pay $50 or more for less effort on their part. Frankly, that’s unconscionable, but I guess we’ll let the market decide.

Jim Beam’s Jacob’s Ghost is a different animal, but not original. Having learned nothing from Frost 8/80, Jacob’s Ghost (it’s even 80 proof) is regular Beam bourbon, aged one year, that has been filtered to remove the color. Aging it three years less than regular Jim Beam White Label also somehow magically ups the price by $5-10 depending on where you shop. Jack may be gouging any would-be buyers, but at least their unaged product is also a new product. Jack Unaged Tennessee Rye has a different mashbill — the first one in something like a hundred years — than the other Jack Daniels products. Jim Beam’s Jacob’s Ghost is just regular old Jim Beam, but aged less and filtered.

Both products seem a bit late to the game, as I’ve said. Like most white whiskies, they’re targeting bartenders more than consumers, hoping to serve as the base for cocktails — stop me if this story sounds the same as Frost 8/80, with the difference being that the modern cocktail scene is much better than it was in the 1970s and that whiskey is currently trendy, and white whiskey even more so…or is it? True, there are a ton of white whiskies on the shelf. True, pretty much every craft distiller makes one, and plenty of people buy them (usually only once though, and as something to bring to a party). But are they buying them because white whiskey is popular? Or are they buying them because craft distilling is popular? Personally, I think it’s the latter (and ironically, craft distillers re finally starting to moved toward aged products), which is why I think both Jacob’s Ghost and Unaged Tennessee Rye will end up as novel footnotes and bad ideas made light of decades later.

And in the end, these white whiskies are not something to get overly upset about as long as they aren’t being made instead of actual, properly made whiskey. They have the right make them, I have the right not to buy them, and I don’t see how anyone loses there. Besides, I wouldn’t have guessed Red Stag would be as popular as it ended up being, or dreadful, dreadful Fireball cinnamon flavored whiskey. I’m no expert, obviously, and despite the overall negative (though in a jocular manner I hope) tone of this article, I don’t wish failure on any product or producer. Not even Red Stag. But maybe blueberry flavored whiskey.