The attitude is understandable. Running a legal distillery requires licensing at the local, state and federal level, plus compliance with what can be a cumbersome level of federal taxes. “Distilling is a very, very challenging business because of the sheer amount of regulation as well as being a capital-intense business,” says Paul Hletko, who makes white whiskey, bourbon, gin and rye at the year-old FEW Spirits in Evanston, Ill., a town that was home to temperance-movement leader and FEW name inspiration Frances Elizabeth Willard. But despite the legal and financial hurdles, the number of craft distilleries in the U.S. has grown from 69 in 2003 to 240 last year, according to the American Distilling Institute. White whiskey, though still a small category of liquor, is helping propel that growth, in part because the product taps into the growing farm-to-table movement.
White Whiskey Manhattan
More like a martini than a Manhattan, but delicious. Also, a drink to give a real taste of the grains from which white whiskeys are distilled.
2 ounces High West Silver Whiskey Western Oat
1 ounce white, sweet vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters
Combine all ingredients in a shaker over ice. Stir until chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
“People want to buy local and [to] know how the products they consume are made, and we fit in there,” says Brian McKenzie, who runs Finger Lakes Distilling in Burdett, N.Y., and whose bourbons, brandys, whiskeys, gins, vodkas, liqueurs and Glen Thunder Corn Whiskey are all made from produce that is sourced from farms immediately surrounding the distillery.
“White whiskey seems pure and agricultural,” Watman adds. “There’s no mask to the agriculture. You can really taste the grain structure in a white whiskey.”
That’s why distillers like Scott Harris, a former IT contractor for the federal government, and his wife, Becky, a former chemical engineer, buy only organic grains for Mosby’s Spirit, the rye white whiskey they produce at 3-year-old Catoctin Creek Distilling Company in Loudoun County, Va. “We use 100 percent rye that hasn’t been treated with herbicides, and we don’t use any charcoal filtering or anything like that,” Harris says. “The result is like an Eastern European style of vodka where you have a distilled product that still has some of the grain flavors in it. That means the rye has to be good, because you can really taste it in our grain spirit.”
Ah, right. Grain spirit. Not white whiskey. This is where the aforementioned regulations get tricky. Whiskey, by law, has to spend time in a barrel. For most white-whiskey producers, that time is a day. Maybe less. If they don’t want to bother with the barrel, they can simply not put whiskey on the label — even if everyone will call it whiskey anyway.
White Whiskey Aviation
This complex drink is usually made with gin, so a white-whiskey substitute needs to be flavorful but smooth.
2 ounces FEW White Whiskey
¼ ounce maraschino liqueur
½ ounce lemon juice
¼ ounce crème de violette
Combine all ingredients in a shaker over ice. Shake. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.
Perkins likes to use High West’s two white whiskeys — actually, High West labels its OMG Pure Rye and Western Oat white whiskeys as “silver whiskey,” a nod to the “silver” category of unaged tequila — in what he calls a Silver Manhattan. Unlike the classic Manhattan preparation with aged whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters, the silver variation calls for white whiskey, white vermouth and bitters. The result is a lot more like a martini than a Manhattan, which makes sense; because it isn’t aged in wood, most white whiskey is closer in spirit, so to speak, to gin, tequila and rum than it is to rye, bourbon or Tennessee whiskey.
But despite the color match, it’s nowhere near as neutral as vodka. The grains used by different distillers have vastly varying flavors. “It really is quite different from brand to brand,” says Watman. And that means that in a cocktail, white whiskey — like its golden brethren — will add flavor as well as alcohol. “White whiskey boasts that it’s flavorful and even a little rough around the edges,” says bartender Brown. “That is part of the reason why bartenders are using it to mix with: As long as it’s not a bad spirit, a touch of roughness is naturally smoothed out by the water and sugar often added to cocktails.”
Then again, you could do like I did and just drink it neat. Go ahead. That spirit won’t hurt you.