IN early April, Kris Comstock, a representative for the Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky, conducted a seminar on bourbon at Char No. 4, a bar in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, that offers 150 kinds of American whiskey.
Among the bourbons he poured were Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare and Blanton’s. But his students weren’t interested in those.
“The first thing that everyone wanted to taste was the white dog,” he said. “We make products that win amazing awards all around the world, and they want to taste the white dog.”
White dog, or white whiskey, is, basically, moonshine. It’s newborn whiskey, crystal-clear grain distillate, as yet unkissed by the barrel, the vessel that lends whiskey some or all of its color and much of its flavor. And white dog is currently having its day.
“Aging in wood has many beautiful effects on a spirit,” said Tad Carducci, half of the cocktail consulting duo known as the Tippling Brothers. “But it does tend to disguise whatever the base spirit is. When you strip that away, you’re getting a real sense of what wheat offers, or rye or corn.”
Unlike vodka, in which the source grain is often purposefully purified to a vanishing point, white dogs are pungently fragrant, with a chewy sweetness to them.
This spring, Buffalo Trace began a limited commercial release of its white dog, which until now was available only as a much-coveted souvenir from the distillery’s gift shop. The bottles took their place on store shelves next to a growing line of colorless whiskeys.
Most are the work of young micro-distilleries like Death’s Door, in Wisconsin; Finger Lakes Distilling, in upstate New York; Tuthilltown, in the Hudson Valley; the Copper Fox Distillery, in northern Virginia; and House Spirits, in Portland, Ore.
There are so many white dogs on the market now that Joe Carroll, owner of Fette Sau, a bar and restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, offers a white-whiskey flight. Passengers on that flight, he said, include everyone from informed whiskey aficionados to inquisitive novices who think whiskey is born brown. “They’re curious because they don’t know anything about it,” he said.
According to Max Watman, the author of the recently published “Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine” (Simon & Schuster), the trend is being fueled by two very differently motivated groups: practical-minded distillers and ravenously questing enthusiasts. “It’s obviously a boon to small distilleries,” Mr. Watman said. “If you’re making whiskey, you’ve got to keep the lights on and wait. It helps to be able to sell something right away. But that’s not the end of the story. I think anybody who’s ever toured a distillery and tasted this stuff coming right off the line is surprised at how delicious it is. Everybody says, ‘Wow, you should sell this!’ ”
The “you should sell this” moment for Death’s Door’s founder, Brian Ellison, came in early 2008 when he was preparing to age some red-winter-wheat-based distillate. A small Chicago distributor thought the raw liquor was so good he asked for 50 cases as is, and quickly found buyers.
“I always thought at some point people would get tired of it,” Mr. Ellison said. Instead, Death’s Door has sold more white whiskey in the first quarter of this year than it did in all of last year. Mr. Ellison is thinking of putting in some spring wheat to keep up with demand.
“The word ‘curiosity’ is very apropos,” Mr. Carducci said. “People who are spirit geeks are always looking for the next curiosity. But what happens is they become hooked and think it’s an actually respectable spirit.”
Gable Erenzo, a distiller at Tuthilltown, said that its Hudson New York Corn Whiskey — one of the earliest of the new white dogs to hit the market — has been steadily creeping up in sales, and he is not surprised. “We knew this was going to happen,” he said. “People, especially bartenders, were excited when they heard we were making a corn whiskey.”
Not just bartenders, either. Even though home distilling has long been illegal in America, interest in it is rising. The Web site homedistiller.org has 5,500 members, with handles like Kentucky Shiner, upinthehills and toofless.
One New York state moonshine hobbyist with more than 30 years’ experience behind various stills, who asked that his name not be used because of the legal issues, said the commercial distillers are “trying to replicate traditional methods, which is essentially what I do.”
He said he was not surprised by the advent of commercial white dogs. “I’ve been telling people for years that they have to taste corn whiskey, so that when they taste whiskey, they can find their way around the inside of their mouth.”
That said, he’s not overly impressed with what’s coming out. “The hobby distillers who are on the foodie bent are making better whiskey than you can buy. Period. No question about it. You just can’t do as good a job making 1,000 gallons at a time as you can making 10 gallons a time. There’s people making white dog that is mind-blowing.”
All this attention is focused on a kind of spirit that’s been around as long as there have been hills to hide stills. While moonshines of yore found a test of their mettle in whether they could keep the Xs on Pappy Yokum’s eyes, today’s legal lightnings are seen as finessed expressions of the spirit maker’s art.
“You’ve got less to hide behind,” Mr. Watman said. “You can mask a lot in a heavily charred barrel. You don’t get any pass with white whiskey. All you have is an expression of the distiller’s craft and the agriculture from which it came. It ups the stakes of the craft end of it.”
With that clarity in mind, the mixologists playing with this new toy are keeping things simple, building on standard cocktails that highlight the grain spirits’ natural flavors.
Mr. Carducci used Death’s Door as the base of his Albino Old-Fashioned at Bar Celona in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he did some consulting work.
Damon Boelte, bar manager at Prime Meats in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, uses the same brand for the Good Word, his white-dog take on the classic Last Word.
Ehren Ashkenazi, beverage director at the Modern, uses it for Devil in White, a spin on the Manhattan, and Jim Meehan, of PDT, pairs Finger Lake Distilling’s Glen Thunder corn whiskey with sake and Galliano L’Autentico in his Brewer’s Breakfast.
Mr. Carroll, of Fette Sau, wonders whether the current fascination with this baby spirit will last.
“It will be interesting to see if the distilleries continue selling white dog when all their other whiskeys mature,” he said.
For Mr. Watman, however, as long as there are whiskey drinkers in the world, there will be a place for white dog. “Part of it is an enthusiasm for a spirit we already love,” he said. “If you love whiskey, you’re going to love raw whiskey, too. It’s another way to taste the same thing.”
By ROBERT SIMONSON
[PRESS RELEASE] (Chicago) Shake it up... or stir it! Step out from behind the bar and into the national spotlight by entering the Star of the Bar competition on YouTubeTM - a nationwide search for the country's most creative mixologist at the National Restaurant Association's 2010 International Wine, Spirits & Beer Event (IWSB). Professional mixologists and amateur "bar chefs" are encouraged to submit a ninety-second video of themselves preparing their original signature cocktail - utilizing at least one Bacardi product - along with its written recipe by April 26, 2010.
The individual who creates the most original drink in the most entertaining way will not only have the opportunity to create incredible industry connections and gain bragging rights, but also take home a $5,000 cash prize, have their cocktail featured on the menu at Rockit Bar & Grill through May 2010, and have their recipe included in American Airlines American Way magazine. The Star of the Bar competition is sponsored by Bacardi.
"Culinary cocktails and signature drinks are hot trends on restaurant menus this year, highlighting that more mixologists are taking a chef's approach to beverages," said David Gilbert, chief operating officer of the National Restaurant Association. "We are excited to see the submissions for the 2010 Star of the Bar competition and look forward to learn how the contestants showcase their original drink recipes."
YouTube users will cast their votes to select six semi-finalists for the Star of the Bar title through April 26, 2010. Those six individuals will be flown to Chicago on American Airlines to mix, stir and shake their signature cocktail live at IWSB on Sunday, May 23. Event attendees will vote to select three finalists who will compete for the title.
The three finalists will then compete live that evening at the first-ever IWSB After Party at Rockit Bar & Grill, where an expert panel will select the ultimate Star of the Bar competition winner.
Interested mixologists should submit a ninety-second (or less) video demonstrating their cocktail and an original written recipe at www.winespiritsbeer.org by Monday, April 26, 2010. The cocktail recipe must include at least one Bacardi product.
No purchase is necessary. Limit one video submission per person. Contest open only to legal residents of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia, 21 years of age or older. Void where prohibited or restricted by law. See Official Contest Rules at the IWSB Web site.
Wide-ranging solutions for more successful and profitable bar programs will be available to restaurant operators during the National Restaurant Association's 2010 International Wine, Spirits & Beer Event at Chicago's McCormick Place, held May 23-24, 2010. In addition to exhibits by established and emerging wine, spirits and beer producers from around the world and exclusive food-alcohol pairing stations, IWSB attendees may attend expert-led education sessions that guide restaurateurs and bar managers to success. IWSB, held in conjunction with the Association's 2010 Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, is the restaurant and hospitality industry's only forum focused exclusively on restaurant and hospitality operator beverage alcohol-related needs.
Now in its third year, IWSB will be held in a separate exhibit area of McCormick Place during NRA Show 2010, and gather brewers, vintners and distillers, leading beverage experts, beverage alcohol buyers and more in one exclusive area.
The IWSB education sessions and exhibits will take place in Grand Ballroom (McCormick Place South, Level 1).
The annual National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show is the largest single gathering of restaurant, foodservice and lodging professionals. The NRA Show 2010 will be held May 22-25 at McCormick Place in Chicago. The event attracts tens of thousands of attendees and visitors from all 50 states and 100+ countries, and showcases more products, services, innovative ideas and other growth opportunities than any other industry event. For more information, visit the Show Web site at www.restaurant.org/show.
Founded in 1919, the National Restaurant Association is the leading business association for the restaurant industry, which comprises 945,000 restaurant and foodservice outlets and a workforce of nearly 13 million employees. Together with the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, the Association works to lead America's restaurant industry into a new era of prosperity, prominence, and participation, enhancing the quality of life for all we serve. For more information, visit our Web site at www.restaurant.org.
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