Jun 3, 2015: The White Whiskey Boom
When was the first time you heard of white whiskey? Unless you work in the industry, it was probably sometime in the last five years. White whiskey has recently emerged as a new player in the spirit world. A reintroduction of white whiskey has caused an explosion of sales, opening a myriad of questions. Why was it introduced? Why is it popular? Why do so many predict it will fade back out of the spotlight?
What is White Whiskey?
White whiskey is simply unaged whiskey, sometimes called “white dog”. It is made by the same process, usually with the same ingredients. The only difference is that instead of aging in barrels for several years before consumption it is aged for little to no time at all. This lack of aging results in a lighter color and flavor. Some may that there is no difference between white whiskey and grain alcohol. There is though, a difference in the degree of distillation. Neutral spirits and vodka are distilled to be a much purer form of alcohol. This results in less flavor from the fermentation and the sugar source. White whiskey, on the other hand, is distilled in the same fashion as regular whiskey ensuring that the drink contains a lot of flavor active chemicals from the fermentation such as ketones, esters, and aldehydes. Some white whiskey is completely unaged, going straight from the still to the bottle. Others are aged for a few days or weeks to help mellow flavors and make the whiskey less harsh. Others still, such as Jacob’s Ghost, Jim Beam’s white whiskey, are aged for up to a year before bottling.
The Flavor of White Whiskey
Aging in oak barrels is what gives whiskey many of its characteristic flavors. Subtle notes of vanilla, strong fruity and floral flavors, clove, smooth and rounded profiles, and many other flavors all come from extraction and esterification that can only take place inside of an oak barrel. Not aging whiskey allows for the original flavor of the spirit to be experienced. Drinkers of white whiskey can experience flavors ranging from pungent, harsh, and gamey to citrus, fruity, and vaguely floral. The drink often tastes strongly of the grain from which it is made. For example, unaged corn whiskey has been described as tasting heavily of sweet corn (Drew Long, D.C. Foodies). Most people prefer the flavor of aged whiskey to that of white dog, but each palate and each whiskey are different. By collecting data with the Gastrograph™ Review application, an objective flavor profile of an average white whiskey was developed (Figure 1). The sampling consisted of 264 reviews from 28 reviewers across four different kinds of white whiskey. The data collected was used to find the optimal strength of flavor attributes and how different flavors interact and depend on one another (Figure 2).
It was found that sugar, spice, and fruit flavors increased overall perceived qualities as they were increased. Adversely, bitter and woody flavor notes decreased perceived qualities of white whiskies. Through further analysis of the data it was found that fruity and sugary notes helped to balance woody flavors and make them more desirable. Rich and spicy flavors were found to be complementary. Bitterness was found to have a negative effect on the sour/acidic character of the drinks. Some reviewers enjoyed the fruity, spicy, and sugar notes present in white whiskey while others found the bitter, dry, and woody characteristics to be unpleasant.
Why Make White Whiskey?
There are a few reasons that distillers produce white whiskey. Many small distilleries produce white whiskey as a way to prevent revenue lag. When a distillery starts up it has no initial product. If they were to only sell aged liquors, they would not have a product to sell until a few years after they started producing spirits. A few years is a long time to wait to turn a profit, especially if the producer is paying for the space to store the aging spirit. By selling an unaged spirit, a distiller can start making money off his or her product the day it comes off the still, offsetting the cost of aging the whiskey.
Selling spirits without aging is also a great way to show off a distiller’s skills. If a producer can make a high quality white whiskey, then their aged product will also, presumably, be high quality. Aging, after all, will round out the spirit and help to remove any off-flavors. A third reason to make white whiskey is simply because others are making money doing it. After seeing the success of white whiskey, Jim Beam, Jack Daniel’s, and others have begun making their own white whiskey. One would think that unaged whiskey would be less expensive than its aged (presumably superior) counterpart. The problem is that retailers don’t sell a product for what it is worth. Products are sold at the highest price consumers will pay. This allows companies like Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s to charge more for white dog than they do for their flagship aged whiskeys.
White Whiskey’s Boom in Popularity
The huge rise in the sale of white whiskey is dependent on a few different things: novelty, curiosity, cocktail culture, and clever marketing. White whiskey is a fairly new product group and, as such, people want to try it for the experience. Vodka and gin drinkers may be more prone to trying it because it is a white liquor. These factors caused sales to jump initially. Curious enjoyers of aged whiskey may also purchase white dog. They might be curious as to what their favorite whiskey tastes like before it gets put in the barrel. These two reasons for the surge in white whiskey sales will likely not be sustained as the original novelty wanes and curiosities are satisfied.
Perhaps a more permanent reason for the increase in white whiskey sales is cocktail culture. The use of white whiskey may be perfect for some cocktails. It opens a new tool for mixologists to use in their recipes. After all, many cocktails were invented during prohibition when only unaged spirits were readily available.
Another big reason for the jump in white whiskey sales as of late is clever marketing. By selling the product as moonshine or by branding it as simple and rustic, producers have exposed a substantial market. Calling the product moonshine adds excitement to the purchase. It is a great selling point, especially in urban areas where moonshine is perceived to be exotic, rustic, and slightly dangerous.
The Future of White Whiskey
I predict that sales of white whiskey will fall, but the product class will remain. As the novelty wears off and whiskey drinkers’ curiosities are satisfied, sales will drop because these are not repeat customers; although, there are people who will genuinely enjoy the spirit, and those who want to use it to make cocktails. These people will keep the market alive. Unaged whiskey just lacks many characters that are so attractive in a well-aged bourbon or scotch. It does, though, provide a much needed avenue of income for new distilleries. Although large distilleries competing for the market take sales away from the craft distillers, they also lend legitimacy to the style by making a product with quality ingredients and consistency. In this way the large distillers have ensured that white whiskey will have a place on the liquor store shelf in times ahead.
- Risen, C. “American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit” Steriling Epicure, New York, 2013.