Many drinkers are probably seeing it on shelves for the first time, but white whiskey has a long history in America. The un-aged mash liquor – whiskey gets it’s color from the barrels it matures in – was as popular as bathtub gin during the prohibition era. Today, the category is making a comeback thanks largely to bartenders who want to make less smoke-dominated cocktails and because of the whiskey shortage. That’s good news for anyone who likes instant gratification.
Despite the category’s growing popularity, some traditionalists maintain that white whiskey is just moonshine by a different name. The ingredients are largely the same and the products can be similar (corn notes over a grain nose) so differentiating the two is often a matter of reading the label. Because whiskeys are defined as cask-aged spirits, some producers even store white whiskeys for a day or two in barrels so they don’t have to lie. But, according to George Dickel National Brand Ambassador Doug Kragel, the distinction is actually a result of production.
Whereas moonshine is often the spontaneous product of an improvised recipe or a family specialty, Dickel No. 1 is charcoal mellowed in a Tullahoma, Tennessee factory by 25 specialists bent on creating a smooth sipping whiskey. It’s got a distinctive second taste that signals that it should be poured into a tumbler not a mason jar.
“The category has experienced steady growth in recent years thanks in part to a renewed interest in the larger whiskey category and whiskey cocktails spurred by a new breed of bartender,” says Kragel, who points out that white whiskeys are particularly popular with cocktail experts. ”They can layer unique flavors over it in cocktails, but still have that distinct whisky taste.”
Many large distilleries are dipping their toes into the white whiskey market as well. Jim Beam has its version called Jacob’s Ghost and Jack Daniel’s makes an un-aged Tennessee Rye. Other examples of white whiskies on the market include Death’s DoorWhite Whiskey, Slow Hand White Whiskey, Buffalo Trace White Dog, and Smooth Ambler White Whiskey. The tastes vary from refined and mellow to hair-raising so drinkers will have to determine what works for them. Just don’t ask for moonshine.
Photos by Christopher Stevenson / Corbis