Putting White Dog Down

Putting White Dog Down

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Ransom's Whippersnapper Whiskey
Ransom's Whippersnapper Whiskey Celebrates Its Lack of Age

When we first launched Drink Spirits we were very enthusiastic about white dog (or unaged whiskey).  Our excitement in this space was further fueled by Max Watman and his book, Chasing The White Dog. In addition to inspiring us, the book has been massively influential, helping move white dog into the national press spotlight, including the New York Times piece, “Raw Whiskey Finds New Craftsmen and Enthusiasts“.

We also got spoiled at the start of our white dog adventure with Fingerlakes Distilling’s Glen Thunder Corn Whiskey and Charbay’s Double & Twisted light whiskey, two exceptional and unique spirits that represent some of the very best in this category. As we’ve continued our adventure we’ve found that our introduction into the space was atypical of the category, which is populated more by disappointing spirits than exceptional ones.

At it’s best, white dog can be a very raw and explosive spirit. It’s the pure expression of the distilled grain before the whiskey starts its tango with the wood. Presented at a high proof (like Wasmund’s Rye Spirit and Single Malt Spirit which are 124 proof), light whiskey can be a union of sweet and fire with deep apricot or banana notes zapped by fiery spice. But most light whiskeys are brought down to 80 proof where the fire subsides and the fruit notes turn candy-sweet (almost like a Jolly Rancher).  In the case of High West Silver Western Oat Whiskey, the spirit is so smoothed out it could easily be bottled as vodka.

In many ways, white dog is the caterpillar of whiskey: the barrel, the crysalys and the aged whiskey, the butterfly.  Unfortunately, the white dog movement has lead to a selection of spirits which are effectively ripping the caterpillar out of its crysalys well before it’s been able to become a butterfly.  What you end up with is a half-formed creature, a work in progress, that often represents the worst that whiskey has to offer.

Poorly distilled and lightly aged, a spirit like Rogue Dead Guy Whiskey is probably the best example of the downside to the light whiskey movement. Being in barrel for a few months dulls the fire of the raw distillate and infuses the wood sugars. Pulling it out before the barrel can deliver more to the spirit robs it of all the complexity and flavor you get with a good whiskey. Dead Guy Whiskey is not the only spirit in this space which is less than half-baked. Ransom Spirit’s Whippersnapper Whiskey is also a train wreck of a whiskey that openly celebrates its lack of aging. It’s sort of like a cheese advertising it’s casein free – the caseins are the very thing which makes a good cheese gooey, sticky and yummy.

The buzz over the white dog category makes a lot of sense. There’s a huge boom in micro-distilling in the US and an increasing market demand for whiskey. Light whiskey is easy to make, costs a fraction of aged whiskey, and doesn’t have to sit in barrels for years before it can be sold. White dog also has a terrific lore behind it – the badboy  image of moonshine and its antidisestablishmentarianist roots give the spirit that edge of excitement that is very compelling. And then there’s vodka, king of the white spirit since the 60’s, it’s long-time reign seems to finally be easing, making room for other white spirits to get their moment in the sun.  Combine this with a renaissance of the classic cocktail movement with mixologists who are seeking out more taste than vodka traditionally offers and you’ve got the search for the next big white spirit – white dog.

While white dog might look good on paper, it simply doesn’t deliver as a category. Without the complexity of an aged whiskey, white dog doesn’t hold up in many classic whiskey drinks.  While many mixologists have nobly tried to mix with white dog, the results pale in comparison to similar drinks with fully aged or alternative classic spirits. White dog is also a fairly poor substitute for vodka in drinks as it’s not very neutral and its fruit tones can easily turn candy-sweet when mixed. There are also very few light whiskeys we’d consider drinking straight and, when stacked next to solid and affordable aged whiskey and bourbon in our liquor cabinet, it’s a hard sell to pull out the white dog to drink.

At Whiskeyfest we spoke with Kevin Smith from Maker’s Mark who earlier this year strongly considered jumping on the white dog wagon with their own offering. Ultimately they decided not to and Smith explained, “Why would anyone want to drink white dog Maker’s when you can drink the real full expression of Maker’s Mark?”  The white dog / light whiskey trend is ultimately a crutch for American micro-distillers who really should be spending the time and money on producing fully aged whiskey. It’s difficult and expensive to sit and wait for your whiskey to age in barrels but the end result is far superior to the alternative.

We believe we are at the start of a true whiskey revolution in America, with small batch, artisan, hand-crafted whiskeys and bourbons that will raise the bar and create a ton of excitement for the entire category. But the revolution isn’t ready yet, and when it comes to white dog, that dog just can’t hunt. So as excited as we were about it, it’s probably best to put that dog down and wait for the right one to come around.

  • JasonK

    Great posting – I 2nd this. Good white dog is great, bad white dog horrible. Have you tried Buffalo Trace’s WD? Thoughts on this?

  • danno_up

    a good white whiskey is more comparable to a rum agricole (ie, made directly from sugar cane) than brown spirits. I’d like to see innovative bartending around this emerging category, similar to what we’re seeing with agricole (luckily I’m visiting the namesake bar here in SF this afternoon :)

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  • stevemg

    I just bought a bottle of the Whippersnapper. Definitely not what I expected, but I am wet behind the ears when it comes to WD. It definitely has a raw feel and fire to it. I’ll probably use it as mixer more than as a straight expression.

  • http://www.drinkspirits.com Geoff K

    @danno_up

    I’d take a good rum agricole over a white dog almost any day of the week. So much more complexity of flavor and balance!

    @JasonK

    Since writing this article I did get the chance to taste both Batch #1 and #2 of Buffalo Trace white dog. It’s actually not as bad as most of the white dogs out there, but nothing like Buffalo Trace Bourbon which I LOVE.

    @stevemg

    Whippersnapper is actually pretty muted compared to some of the other white dogs on the market and when you consider the price point of say Old Forester 86 proof (under $20 a bottle), I keep coming up against the fact that most white dogs just aren’t worth it.

  • http://www.tampascanner.info rec9140

    Its clear you misunderstand the whole point…the corn liquor product.

    Its NOT whisky/whiskey, bourbon, rye, scotch UNTIL ITS AGED! Period. Full Stop.

    “White dog” is RAW CORN LIQUOR akin to moonshine it has NOTHING to do with whisky/whiskey, bourbon, rye, scotch except this is the basis to form these from aging in barrels.

    ” white dog doesn’t hold up in many classic whiskey drinks”

    Well DUH! Is not whisky/whiskey!

    Its clear you missed the point of these products, and the distillers do it no justice by referring to it as whisky/whiskey… but alas for the uneducated US market if they don’t call it that and hedge to much towards the moonshine, that it is, label they will start to run up against some deep rooted problems.. Some people just can’t let some things go.

    Oh and you might want to re-check with Makers Mark about offering this, as it was VERY PROMINENTLY USED on Iron Chef America in their bourbon show… now they may have gotten special treatment as one of the judges was from Makers Mark and its regular bourbon was also in great supply…Which this product has many other uses for cooking and most certainly is not a whisky/whiskey, bourbon, scotch, or rye.

    The product has its place, but its not the “new vodka” nor is it a replacement for normal whiskey etc..

    Theres plenty of room for this product at the bar!

    • http://www.drinkspirits.com Geoff K

      Thanks for your comment. The term “White Whiskey” or “Light Whiskey” or “White Dog” is widely used amount small distillers to describe their product. The definition of what Bourbon or Scotch Whisk(e)y is absolute, you can call these products ‘Whiskey’ as long as you put the age (or lack of age) statement on the bottle. But rather spend too much time on the semantical side of this we’re just looking at this spirit in the market place.

      Unfortunately, we’ve seen “White Dog” used extensively in the place of aged whiskey or bourbon in classic cocktails (even by extremely experienced mixologists). I do think bartenders are beginning to understand that it is its own thing and we’ve seen some do some unique and creative things with it. Unfortunately, nothing we’ve seen done with the spirit has been very exceptional, as it’s a very difficult spirit to work with.

      I think the core of our acception to the category was the unbridled publicity the category was getting and the response among craft distillers, which was to rush “White Dog” product to the marketplace to try to capitalize on this buzz. To us this spirit category will mostly represent an ‘un finished’ product. An interesting raw ingredient which has been bottled and is now on shelves and some back bars. We did taste the Makers Mark White Dog , as well as had a long discussion with Kevin Smith, Makers Mark’s lead distiller about the topic. He feels very simular to us that while it’s interesting, it’s simply ‘not done’.

      Finally, there actually isn’t room for this product at the bar. Most bars I know have to lose something on their back bar to bring something new in. If there’s an open spot, we think it’s better filled by one of the amazing Mescals coming from Ron Cooper and Del Maguey or an exceptionally distilled vodka like “Ebb and Flow” from Sound Spirits in Seattle. There are a lot of amazing spirits which could snag that spot from that bottle of white dog.

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  • TXWhiskey

    If you don’t think White Dog has a place in the market, then you might want to read this. Rum and tequilla have aged and un-aged versions that are both accepted in America. Why not whiskey?

    http://www.heaven-hill.com/pr-recent.shtml?article=MTA5MzVzdXBlcjEwOTMyc2VjcmV0MTA5Mzk%3D

    • http://www.drinkspirits.com Drink Spirits

      Those were white spirits which became aged. Whiskey is an aged that is trying to be served unaged. I don’t think white whiskey is totally out of the question, but distillers need treat it like its own animal. I know at least one distiller looking at making a different mashbill for their white whiskey so it’s less like cookie dough (something not intended to be consumed in the form its in) and more like cookie dough ice cream (something that is)

      • M Lange

        This is totally inaccurate. For most of the history of Whiskey it was consumed as an un-aged, “white” product. This is true in terms of US history as well as in Ireland and Scotland. It evolved into an aged product as a result of consumer demand and, a large part, the effect of American prohibition. Unaged whiskey has a much longer history than the brown spirit we now call whiskey.

  • TXWhiskey

    Whiskey IS a white spirit which became aged. Whiskey has been around for a very long time. The first record of distilling in Scotland was the 15th century when an entry in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls listed “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aquavitae (water of life).” It was not until the 18th century that whiskey makers began to realize that oak barrels, along with providing a means to transport the whiskey, smoothed and refined the spirit.

    White whiskey is to aged whiskey, as silver rum is to dark rum, as blanco tequilla is to extra añejo tequilla. White dog will find its place, even if its more refined brother continues to dominate.

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  • http://abrahamingle.com abraham

    I tried Ransom’s WhipperSnapper last night at a party and was frankly disgusted. I couldn’t believe such a sickening sweet product was being sold as a premier option. I can’t imagine anyone who likes their whiskey less sweet than Jack Daniels enjoying this. I love Oregon distilleries, but this is a miss.