Putting White Dog Down

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.

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+Geoff Kleinman, is the founder, and managing editor of DrinkSpirits.com. He is a nationally recognized spirits columnist and staff reviewer for Whisky Advocate Magazine. Geoff's work has appeared in dozens of major magazines including Playboy Magazine, Black Book, and Mixology Magazine. He is a current sitting judge for the Ultimate Spirits Challenge, the founder of the Society of Modern Journalists, holds BAR certification from the Beverage Alcohol Resource Group, is a Certified Cognac Educator, and a Kentucky Colonel