There’s a George Jones tune playing on our Waylon Jennings Pandora station (it’s been that kind of month) that goes like this:
I took a little sip and right away I knew
As my eyes bugged out and my face turned blue
Lightning started flashing and thunder started crashing
Shoooo: White Lightning
Annoying song. But, if you’ve never had a nip of moonshine, pretty educational. Fortunately, the illicit, high-octane juice of the back country—most associated with Prohibition, hot-rod runners, and going blind—is a different kettle of fish from the white dog whiskeys now appearing in fancy watering holes and lauded in publications like The New York Times. White dogs (distiller’s slang for un-aged American whiskeys) are legal, often cut to quaffable levels, and can be as nuanced as sake. And while they aren’t likely to supplant bourbon in our affections any time soon, Max Watman, author of Chasing the White Dog, reminds us that we don’t have to choose. “I don’t eschew blanco tequila because I like reposado,” he told us, via email. “They both have something to offer. White dog is simply different: It has no barrel flavors, obviously, but there’s cereal grain and maltiness. It’s very floral, much more than after it’s seen some oak.” We agree. And if buying one of these isn’t as thrilling as pulling from a mason jar in Appalachia, at least none of them will give you the jake walk.
Death’s Door White Whisky
Death’s Door Spirits has nurtured a unique collaboration between their distillery, in Madison, Wisconsin, and the farmers and sustainable agriculture initiatives on Washington Island, six miles off the mainland. Hard red-winter wheat exclusive to the island goes into their vodka, gin, and this soft, well-mannered white dog (along with local malted barley). Aged in new oak for less than 72 hours, it smells like fruit and fresh bread, and drinks exceptionally smooth, with a touch of sweet grain. Might disappear in a cocktail, but real hospitable all by itself. At 80-proof, it’s sort of the antithesis of white lightning.
Hudson New York Corn Whiskey
Our very own Tuthilltown Spirits made history a few years back when they produced New York’s first aged spirits (legal ones, anyway) since Prohibition, as well as the state’s first bourbon, the 100% corn Hudson Baby Bourbon. This appealing white dog is that bourbon’s genetic foundation. And for a pure corn spirit, it’s not so sweet as we were expecting (a good thing)—more raw corn, still in the husk, than cloying kernel. A pleasant 46% alcohol burn lingers on the tongue for minutes after each sip. A nice afternoon whistle-wetter, reminiscent of sleepy days in the Hudson Valley.
$28 (375ml) or $55(750ml), tuthilltown.com
Wasmund’s Rye Spirit (and Single Malt Spirit)
Copper Fox, in Sperryville, Virginia, is the only distillery in North America to hand malt their own barley—and the only one in the world to fire said barley with apple wood and cherry wood smoke (rather than, say, peat). Whiskey maker Rick Wasmund has put his name on two fine white dogs, a rye and a single malt (which is more commonly—and less evocatively—called a “new make spirit” by the Scots). He originally intended them to be purchased as part of a Copper Fox “Barrel Kit,” allowing consumers to age and proof their own; both have been swept into the white dog craze. The single malt shows the influence of the distillery’s fruit wood smoke most clearly. A malt-y, apple-y wholesomeness gives way to a smoky, brutish (124-proof) finish. The rye, also 124-proof, is less brooding (unlike malt, rye—66% of the mash here—isn’t fired), but the familiar rye dough character is dressed in that same fruit smoke (malt makes the other 33% of the mash). Try them neat if you’re curious, but water broadens and smoothes the flavors. Mr. Watman suggests a white dog Tom Collins, subbing the whiskey for gin. Either of these robust spirits would do well in that recipe.
$23.40 each, copperfox.biz
Buffalo Trace White Dog Mash #1
Much like a certain basketball team in Miami, Kentucky’s Buffalo Trace distillery fields an unfair number of all-stars (Pappy Van Winkle, Blanton’s, George T. Stagg, Weller, Thomas H. Handy, and so on). Their Mash #1, consisting of corn, rye, and malted barley, distilled at 62.5% alcohol, is the white dog behind Buffalo Trace Bourbon. And it’s one mean, street-fighting old boy. Don’t be fooled by the perfume of corn sweetness: this dog will strip the paint from your esophagus. We’re not afraid of barrel strength (Booker’s and the aforementioned George T. Stagg are both proofed higher, and delicious) but without the charms of charred oak, so much alcohol is tough to get past. We prescribe water (which reveals an unexpected black licorice note). Or perhaps a perfect Manhattan (equal parts sweet and dry vermouth, and a couple healthy dashes of Angostura). This sucker is as close as we’d care to get to George Jones’s ol’ white lightning.