If you look at it, smell it and taste it, whiskey would probably be one of your last guesses.
If you look at it, smell it and taste it, whiskey would probably be one of your last guesses. But white whiskey — which can also be called young or unaged whiskey — is most definitely whiskey. More or less.
The whiskey we are accustomed to, that delicious woody brown stuff, is distilled from grain, but takes on much of its look, aroma and taste from the barrel where it was aged. Death's Door White Whisky, produced in Madison, Wis., is distilled like a classic whiskey (from wheat and barley in this case), but aged 72 hours at most. The aging is a procedural step necessary to call the product whiskey. What results is a spirit clear as water with a nose somewhere between vodka and tequila that is showing up more frequently in bars and on liquor store shelves. "It's not whiskey, but it's not not whiskey," said Death's Door owner Brian Ellison, 37.
His white whiskey is a strange and fascinating spirit that makes a complex cocktail base. I've asked a dozen bartenders and liquor store employees how it should be used, and the answers have crossed the board. Some said to think of it as a whiskey, and try it in a manhattan with dry vermouth. Others preferred it as a gin stand-in, maybe in a Martinez (mixed with sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur and bitters). One said it reminded him of tequila.
Though Ellison has been particularly impressed with a white whiskey manhattan and a white whiskey margarita, he recused himself from the debate. "We make these products for people to explore further," Ellison said. "We do the canvas, the mixologist is the painter."
Chicago-based Koval distillery does something similar, distilling individual spirits from wheat, rye, millet, spelt and oat, but without the brief barrel aging. Each is clear, with a unique and luscious flavor profile. They stand alone brilliantly on ice or make wonderful cocktails.
Both Death's Door and Koval are working on traditional barrel-aged whiskies, but they are happy to shift attention toward clear grain spirits.
"We love being able to taste the grains," said Sonat Birnecker, who co-owns Koval with her husband, Robert. "It's a gap in the marketplace. There just aren't enough craft distilleries doing this kind of thing in America."