So why was white dog so popular when it first arrived in bars a few years ago? Many whiskey drinkers were simply curious about how whiskey tastes before it enters the barrel. Joe Riley, fine spirits manager at Washington, D.C., spirits distributor Ace Beverage, said that white whiskey sold well when it first came out, but he has reduced his selection because it doesn’t get a lot of repeat buyers. “They don’t know what to do with it,” he said. Bill Thomas from Jack Rose Dining Saloon said he used to offer tasting flights of white dog for the curious, but demand quickly fell off.
The initial hype around white whiskey was also exacerbated by the resurrection of cocktail culture, which has created an intense demand for new products. Most of the people I spoke with thought white whiskey’s chances of survival depend on that cocktail revival. But while there’s nothing wrong with nostalgic craft cocktail bars taking their decorating tips from speakeasies, the truth is that many of those older cocktails were invented to mask the horrible taste of illegal moonshine.
This irony was noted by Derek Brown, co-owner of two bars in Washington, D.C., while he defended white whiskey’s place in today’s cocktail scene. Brown invited me to Columbia Room—which is to bars as the French Laundry is to restaurants—where he and the staff proved his point with white whiskey versions of a Manhattan and a sour. Each drink used citrus to complement and transform flavors that I normally find disagreeable. The experience felt a little like Thomas Keller making me the best meal I’d ever eaten out of frozen vegetables and Spam.
Still, Brown and his staff are masters—some might even call them alchemists. White whiskey’s survival seems bleak if it depends on the occasional curiosity of whiskey geeks or home mixologists matching the prowess of places like Columbia Room. Combined with the looming threat of Daniel’s and Beam devouring the market, young distillers relying on it for their livelihood could easily find themselves out of work.
That would be a shame. Those microdistilleries represent a big part of an American whiskey renaissance that promises to do for whiskey what small brewers did for beer 20 years ago. Many microdistilleries have shown a willingness to break from tradition and take risks their more established counterparts generally avoid, like experimenting with different ingredients or aging whiskey in different types of casks. In order to survive while building their brands, however, microdistilleries might want to take some lessons from the moonshiners and bootleggers that many of them base their advertising campaigns around.
During Prohibition, gin was popular because it was more tolerable-tasting than moonshine and didn’t require aging. Like white dog, gin is distilled from grains, but it passes through botanicals like juniper berries, coriander, and cardamom to absorb appealing flavors. Making gin has been the strategy of a few smart upstarts such as Washington, D.C.’s New Columbia Distillers, which names its Green Hat Gin after the felt hat worn by a bootlegger named George Cassiday who supplied Capitol Hill during Prohibition. John Uselton, who runs the distillery with his father-in-law, said he’s had brisk sales of Green Hat Gin while developing a rye whiskey he plans to age for five years. That’s an eternity for such a young distiller—but drinking their gin while waiting for it is the perfect way to get the taste of white whiskey out of your mouth.