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Death’s Door White Whisky

This story was recently published (in German) in the latest issue of Mixology Magazine.

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Let’s say I placed two glasses in front of you. In one glass I poured some vodka, and into the other, some newly distilled whisky.

Could you, without tasting, tell me which was which?

Of course you couldn’t – as all newly distilled spirits are colourless – a fact that surprises some. There are those who do not realize that whiskies (unless artificially coloured) gain all of their colour from the oak casks in which they are aged.

And interestingly, while the oak maturation is the main factor in creating the flavours of aged whiskies, newly distilled whisky (called “New Make Spirit” and often referred to as “White Dog” by American whiskey distillers) have flavours which are distinctive to the ingredients with which and process by which they were distilled.

New make spirits are often floral, fruity, slightly sweet and show a distinct graininess. Many are pleasantly surprised to find that new make spirits (when properly constructed) can be quite enjoyable – while often bearing little resemblance to the whiskies they will become.

In the UK, where whisky must be aged a minimum of 3 years before it is eligible to be sold as whisky, start-up distilleries often turn to bottling and selling new make spirit as a short term solution to bridge the gap between start-up costs and profitability.

These new make spirits are something of an oddity – rarely achieving wide distribution – often only available at the distillery.

In the United States, Death’s Door Spirits, a small spirits producer based in Wisconsin has created a new niche category by widely distributing an un-aged new make whiskey called “White Whiskey”. I spoke with Brian Ellison, president of Death’s Door to learn more about White Whiskey.

Death’s Door White Whisky, is created with a mash of 80% locally grown Red Winter Wheat and 20% malted Barley. The spirit is then stored in a stainless steel vat for 3 weeks – Brian tells me that this allows appropriate oxidation of the spirit – and is crucial to the final flavour. Finally the spirit is transferred to an oak cask for 72 hours (in order to meet the US Government requirement to be called “whiskey”), and then bottled.

The bottling of a new make spirit was never part of the plan for Death’s Door (which also produces acclaimed and wheat-based Vodkas and Gins) – who were simply producing spirit to be aged for a traditionally aged American Wheat whiskey.

“We were always planning to do barrel aging.” Brian tells me, “Two years ago we started production and several people who tried it said ‘You should come out with it right now’. We did a special run of 50 cases for a distributor and went back to production.

Fast forward to today, where White Whiskey has become the most popular spirit in the Death’s Door catalogue – outselling their other products in Chicago, their number one market.

When asked ‘who is the target market’ Brian says “There are two types of people out there: whiskey drinkers and people who drink whiskey. We are aiming for whisky drinkers.”

But better known mixologists are adopting White Whiskey in droves – the unique flavour profile makes Whiste Whiskey a new toy for the more experimental. Neyah White of Nopa in San Francisco has adopted the traditional Manhattan to the distinct flavours of the unaged spirit, while Luke LeFiles of Hot Punch in Chicago has created a Wisconsin- centric Maple Whisky Milk Punch.

White whisky is cutting into aged production.” Says Brian. By this he means that they are selling so much of the White Whiskey, they barely save enough to lay down for proper aging.

When I ask if eventually they will phase out production of White Whiskey, Brian tells me they’ll continue to bottle it as long as people buy it.

Death’s Door White Whiskey should be available in the UK in early Spring.

Remember the Griffin

  • 2 oz Death’s Door White Whisky
  • ½ oz Cherry Herring
  • ½ oz Sweet Vermouth
  • 2 dashes Angostura

Stir and strain into an Absinthe rinsed glass.
Lemon peel garnish.

White Whisky Manhattan
Neyah White, Nopa, San Francisco, CA

  • 2 oz Death’s Door White Whisky
  • 1 oz Dolin Blanc Vermouth
  • 1/4 oz Benedictine
  • 3 dashes Fees Orange Bitters

Build drink in an ice filled bar glass.
Stir with vigor.
Strain into a chilled coupe glass.
Garnish with a flamed orange peel.

Maple Whisky Milk Punch
Luke LeFiles, Hot Chocolate, Chicago, IL

  • 2 oz Death’s Door White Whisky
  • ½ oz Rhum
  • ½ oz Grade B Wisconsin Maple Syrup
  • 6 oz Organic Valley 2% Milk
  • Fresh Nutmeg

Add all ingredients except nutmeg to an ice filled shaker.
Shake with vigor and strain contents into a tall thin vessel.
Grate fresh nutmeg atop the foam.

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Comments (5)

  1. Not sure if Brian went into more detail on how this came about, but this is what I remember from it.

    During the early days of the distillery, he was driving around Wisconsin pitching the vodka and gin, and talking up the plans to make an aged whiskey. He had a tiny cask full of the young whiskey in his car and he noticed how much it’d change at each stop. By the time it got to WhiskyFest in 2008, with barely a few months of sloshing around, it’d taken on enough of the oak to be a pale brown. Shortly after that they released a whiskey that was aged for forty days, which was then replaced by the current White Whisky bottling.

  2. This is one the first spirits I reviewed for my new website, http://www.americancraftspirits.com which is devoted exclusively to covering the craft spirits movement in the US.

    I think Death’s Door is making an amazing product. It will be fun to taste all the white whisky being produced right now against their aged counterparts in the next few years.

    Best,

    Matt

  3. Mike

    I’ve tried “white whiskey” and “white whisky”. The first was from some backwoods holler in North Carolina … yuck. The second was X4, from Bruichladdich; not bad but I prefer that my whisky properly age before I drink it.

  4. In my opinion, white dog is just a fad that will disappear as quickly as it reared its head. Just a novelty at best.

  5. Alan Croninhill

    I bought a bottle while on vacation and all I can say is YUK. No matter what you tried it with It was like drinking really bad Vodka.

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