Whither White Whiskey?

The announcements that two new white whiskies were on the way from the biggest companies in the American whiskey business caught a lot of us by surprise, but it shouldn’t have. Now the question is - what the hell have you done, bartenders?

Yes, the fact that two very big companies, both with the distribution and brand power to push caseloads out to the broader market, have released their own white doggies is at least partially down to bartenders - whether they are to be credited or blamed depends on your opinion about these unaged whiskies. But the fact that Jack Daniel's Unaged Tennessee Rye and Jim Beam Jacob’s Ghost White Whiskey are soon to be in wide distribution must be partially laid at the feet of those curious bartenders who have scoured the booze world in their drive to mix everything with everything else in as many ways possible, just to see what happens.

That thirst has mostly been achieving great results – along with insistent influencers like David Wondrich, it was the power of bartenders that brought back rye whiskey. They’ve helped reignite interest in the rainbow of Italian amari, provided a home for the wares of small distillers, and generally pushed the industry in the right direction.

But this is one of those enthusiasms I have failed to grasp. Ask most people in the whiskey business, and they’ll tell you that never before have American distillers produced bourbons and ryes of such quality and value, and they continue to innovate in ways that are smartly growing a product left for dead in the 1980s. The range of flavors – spicy and assertive at one end, mellow and luscious at the other, with a broadening palate coming from higher proofs, longer ages and single barrel expressions – is a constant pleasure. By themselves or in a cocktail, American whiskies really have never been better.

Yet most of the white whiskies I’ve tried leave me thinking that vodka on the rocks isn’t such a bad drink after all. And this is true whether the white dogs arrive from small distillers who need some cash flow while their product mellows and matures in oak, or from major suppliers where accountants break out into whatever sort of victory dance is taught at actuarial school when they find out that they won’t have leave a few thousand cases in some drafty old warehouse for years before gathering some income.

And as far as a cocktail ingredient, well, never underestimate the ingenuity and flavor skills of today’s bartenders, but white dog doesn’t do anything for me in cocktails, either. Aged American whiskey bursts with vanilla, caramel, coconut, pastry cream, bread dough, honey, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, orange peel, crème brulee and a thousand other aromatics and flavors – the last time I offered a group of spirit novices some white whiskey, they acted like they’d been poisoned. I heard the word “socks” muttered in one corner of the room.

So good luck to Daniel’s and Beam in their efforts to grow this unusual spirit niche; I haven’t tried either yet, though a bottle of one sits on my sideboard. But I’m doubtful, especially when it comes to quality cocktails. I’m willing to be proven wrong, so if you have found some winning ways with white whiskey, send your opinions and recipes my way, and I’ll give them a try.

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