White Whiskey: Not For Every Drinker, Nor For Every Distiller

From The Whiskey Reviewer on Feb 21, 2013

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By Jake Emen

Legs Diamond White Whiskey(Credit: Jake Emen)

Legs Diamond White Whiskey
(Credit: 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.

Death's Door White Whiskey

Death’s Door White Whiskey,
the one that started it all
(Credit: Death’s Door Spirits)

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.”

Catoctin Creek

Catoctin Creek displays its medals
(Credit: Jake Emen)

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.~

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