There’s a new trend developing in whiskey; it’s a trend that might surprise some, and has many whiskey lovers just a little bit baffled: white dog.
White dog is the whiskey distiller’s term for freshly distilled whiskey that is still clear and unaged. It’s also known as “new-make whiskey.”
With the exception of ‘moonshine’ and the fairly recent category of corn whiskey, which allows aging in new un-charred barrels, whiskey has been universally perceived as an aged spirit—or what is called “brown spirit”— to denote those spirits aged in barrel that have taken on additional color and flavor in the process.
So why the sudden interest in clear, unaged whiskey?
First, there’s quite a bit of revolutionary experimentation going on with all the artisanal micro-distillers, so there’s bound to be an exploration of the category and a sense of “pushing the envelope” with every spirit.
Second, the cocktail/mixology scene is vibrant right now, and bartenders are looking for new and different products, with different taste profiles. And something called “white dog” is compelling, if only for the exotic and mysterious name.
Third, aged whiskey is a costly thing, because it requires you to produce a product and then put it away in very expensive barrels for several years to bring it to maturity—and each of those years simply adds to the cost and defers the profits (if any.) Thus, the idea of a whiskey which can be released immediately for sale is the darling of the bean counters.
So what’s the taste profile of white dog, and why should you care?
Since there’s no barrel influence the normal taste associations for whiskey simply aren’t there. No barrel aging means no vanilla, or cinnamon spice; no caramel or butterscotch; no chocolate or coffee. And it means no color either; hence, the name white dog.
What it means though, is much the same as vodka: the presence of natural esters and fusel oils from normal distillation that carry faint aromas and flavors. Since most whiskeys are distilled at significantly lower temperatures than vodka though, the aromas and flavors are more distinctive, more pronounced, more obvious. Without the barrel aging, the “mash bill” (the mixture of grains used), the fermentation process, and the distillation process itself are what form the taste profile of white dog.
That mainstay of Oregon pubs and hotels, McMenamin’s, now has a white dog available from their Edgefield Distillery on their sprawling property in Troutdale, at the opening to the Columbia Gorge. They also have it in their various and sundry bars around their empire—but you can get it only at McMenamins!
Edgefield White Dog Whiskey is fermented and distilled from four different types of malted barley; thus it has a distinctively fruity profile (even though it’s made from grain, it’s a sprouted grain and shows fruity aromas), with lemon and a touch of grapefruit, some apple nuances, and a very mild floral quality. Most noticeable though is the texture, totally unlike a vodka or a brandy; it’s more viscous, more oily, and would actually form the base for an interesting cocktail. The Edgefield White Dog would most definitely hold its own with other ingredients and maintain its identity with other flavors.
Will White Dog become a dominant category?
Many people think so. I’m not one of them, however; I believe White Dog will gain some popularity, but I seriously doubt it will be a significant contender in the long run. I think it is moderately interesting, and provides a different base for creative cocktails, but will run its course after the initial interest fades.
However, I’ve been wrong before. Often, as a matter of fact and record. So get thee to a McMenamins to taste the Edgefield White Dog…and tell us what you think.
For more information on the white dog trend, go to this article from the SF Chronicle or this article from the New York Times. Also, the folks at House Spirits Distillery in Portland make both an aged and white dog version of their whiskey; when the white dog is available you can taste it at their distillery—but it’s not always in stock, because they make it in small batches and it sells out quickly.