By Jake Emen
Depending on who you ask, or what you try, being struck by “White Lightning” — a white, unaged whiskey — can either be a revelatory experience or one you’d sooner wish to forget. As a newcomer to white whiskeys, arguably I’m in a sound place to offer the insight I’ve gained from recently tasting two different white whiskeys: Mosby’s Spirit from Catoctin Creek in Purcellville, Virginia, and Legs Diamond from Nahmias et Fils in Yonkers, New York. Both are unaged rye whiskeys, bottled at 40% ABV.
What I’ve found is a simple truth: perhaps white whiskey is not for every whiskey drinker, and perhaps equally important, it’s not for every distiller.
I first tried Legs Diamond (named for the bootlegger and gangster), and after cracking the bottle, eager to dive into what was an as-of-yet unexplored branch of whiskeys for myself, I was taken aback by the aroma I got from the bottle. This didn’t smell like whiskey — it actually smelled like tequila. And I’m not talking about a high quality, sipping tequila, but the mid-shelf stuff you might find empty bottles of strewn across the floor of your typical frat house after a weekend fiesta. There was a sweetness there too, perhaps suggesting greater complexity, but at least for myself, the tequila qualities pushed it back and concealed it.
My impressions after tasting the spirit were largely unchanged — I just couldn’t get past the hot tequila burn and finish which I became all too familiar with in my younger years. Next in my adventure with white whiskey came Mosby’s Spirit, which I sampled on a recent visit to Catoctin Creek Distilling Company. This didn’t smell like your typical whiskey, either. Instead, there was a light, lemon citrus on the nose, with fresh floral aromas, backed up by a deep grainy profile.
Pure grain was the dominant force when tasting Mosby’s, producing something was, at least for myself, astonishingly easy to drink after my prior experience. Surprised by this, I asked Catoctin’s co-owner and distiller, Scott Harris, about what’s going on in the world of white whiskey these days.
“What I think some distillers get wrong is that they basically produce a spirit that they’re going to be putting away for a long time,” Harris said. “But you have to make money in the short term so you take some of that and you bottle it. So a spirit that should be aged for four years or something like that is oilier, and muskier, and not as pleasant. Some people like it, but not everybody likes it. Therefore, I think they make a mistake of putting something into a bottle which should be going into a barrel.”
So how does one make a better product? “When we started producing the Mosby’s, we aimed to produce a white whiskey that was truly drinkable on its own as a white spirit. It’s meant to be drank white,” Harris said.
After my positive experience with Mosby’s, I went back to try Legs Diamond once again, thinking maybe my horizons just needed to be expanded a bit before I was able to truly enjoy it. Given a second chance, I found Legs Diamond a bit more palatable, but I won’t exactly be reaching for the bottle when I’m searching for something I particularly enjoy. The “hot and oily” profile which Harris describes seems to fit Legs Diamond fairly accurately, and the word which still echoes throughout my head when I think of the spirit is “tequila”.
Maybe most white whiskeys just aren’t for me — and maybe they’re not for most spirits and distillers, either.
~For more on the subject of white whiskey, read “White Whiskey: Unfinished Business” by S.D. Peters.~