Five years ago I wrote about the mass introduction of so-called “White Whiskey.” At the time I said, “White Whiskey is becoming 2010’s pet rock but it seems more like this year’s Unicorn, a mythical creature.” I have not softened my view much since then but maybe I could better explain my position. I have no problem with any style of quality spirit. I certainly don’t have an issue with distillers selling “White Dog” (what unnamed spirit is and has been called) as it is a great instructive tool to better understanding Whiskey. I simply have an issue with calling a Spirit that is destined to be Whiskey carrying the Whiskey moniker. Recently while judging in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition I was presented a flight of White or Unaged Whiskey. A couple of the samples were interesting Spirits but I felt that all of the examples would be better after years in cask. Of course I am not calling for a ban of White Whiskey but I am shouting – Caveat Emptor!
Abe Lincoln once said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.” I place myself and most of the industry pros I know in the third group. You could further classify me irritated at the notion of White Whiskey as we have made far too much progress in the area of Spirits education for such a transparent deception to creep into the modern lexicon.
For the record, there is no such thing as White Whiskey in my view. Whiskey by definition is aged in wood. Many of the new White Whiskey producers know this too as they cheekily tell tales of resting their newbie Spirit in wood for 24 hours to comply with the standard and the regulation. I accept that this practice is left up to interpretation and one man’s “clever & cute” is another man’s farce.
Clearly, the idea of White Whiskey has raised the temperature of the Whiskey world. A Whiskey producer that wished to remain anonymous said, “Anyone in the world who tries to classify their moonshine that way (as Whiskey) is attempting to fool the public. For those who follow the rules, it’s difficult to deal with people or organizations who make up crap as they go along.”
Let’s confront a few simple facts. Whiskey is as much a product of the barrel and barrel aging as it is of the Spirit itself. For this reason the world’s most famous Whiskey types have established by law minimum aging requirements.
Straight Bourbon must be aged for no less than two years in charred, new oak containers. Irish Whiskey and Scotch Whisky must both be aged in oak containers for a minimum for three years. A vast majority of these spirits are aged well past their defined minimums. The pioneers of these iconic Whiskey types knew that wood aging was essential and that if minimum standards were not set that at some point charlatans would be tempted to enter the fray with immature or unaged versions.
Following the White Whiskey Money
Making and selling Whiskey is a laborious and cash intensive proposition. Consider that the Whiskey producer must purchase the necessary raw materials, equipment, barrels (which are not cheap), a place for storing barrels, and people to manage the Spirit while aging quietly. For this reason I have continually asked consumers and pros alike why in the world would a bottle of Vodka, potentially produced last week, sell for more than a Whisky made with expensive malted barley and aged in oak casks for more than a decade? As you can imagine, there is no clean and logical answer to that question.
Understanding that Whiskey producers are cash-strapped as they wait for two years or longer for the opportunity to gain a return on their investment I am sympathetic to the distiller who seeks a way to create cash flow. I get it. However, my empathy is not boundless and the border is truth and integrity. Selling an unaged Spirit under the moniker Whiskey is misleading at best.
Innovation and experimentation have been vital to the Spirits industry as has tradition and integrity. These are not mutually exclusive goals. A friend of mine reminded me of a favorite quote of hers that certainly applies here. “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”