Glasses high for the rise of moonshine

Noble's head bartender, Christian Gaal, features the "Goldfinger," a "White Manhattan" made with Lillet and Shine XXX, a corn-based liquor.
Noble's head bartender, Christian Gaal, features the "Goldfinger," a "White Manhattan" made with Lillet and Shine XXX, a corn-based liquor. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)

The new white whiskeys prove a sprightly addition to cocktail culture.

Posted: August 14, 2011

True to the spirit of the latest trend in liquor, the distiller's new darling was there all along, but we just didn't see it: white whiskey, trickling clear and fresh off the still.

Beaming with high-octane heat and the edgy fruitiness of warm distilled grain, that booze, until recently, never saw the light of a legitimate store shelf until it emerged from a barrel, ambered with the caramel brown and sweetness of years in well-charred wood.

Once the sole province of undercover moonshiners pumping out cheap illegal hooch sold from the hills of Appalachia to the "nip joints" of North Philly, unaged whiskey has now gone hipster-legit in a big way.

With the recent debut of Shine XXX corn whiskey by the Philadelphia Distilling Co., expected to be widely available on Pennsylvania store shelves by Aug. 22, we now have an impressive local entry in the white whiskey craze, a national phenomenon driven by the high-end revival of the cocktail and the growing ranks of craft distillers who fuel it.

"Of the 155 people I know making whiskey, a full third of them are now making white whiskey from rye, corn, barley, or another grain," says Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute, an artisan spirit trade group.

Some large distillers have gotten into the act, such as Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill, but Owens insists it was the small distillers who led the way, in part due to economics.

"Why would you want to make bourbon anyway? It's already been done great," says Owens. "You can't be bothered to lay something down (for 12 to 20 years) like a Pappy Van Winkle - that's stupid! They've invested all their life savings into a distillery, and they can't wait six or seven years to turn a profit."

Max Watman, author of Chasing the White Dog (Simon & Schuster, 2010), a history and firsthand exploration of illicit moonshine, agrees.

"Those micro-distillers don't have [stylistic] rules to follow, they don't have to listen to their accountants first, they're light on their feet," he says. "They can do whatever they want."

As a result, the quick-return demands of small business (the same impulse that saw the first craft distillers earlier this decade begin with ready-to-sell vodkas and gins) has, in fact, created something wonderful - an entirely new and wide-ranging category of liquor.

Whiskey suddenly becomes, as a white spirit, a startlingly versatile player in cocktails, says Noble's head bartender Christian Gaal, one of at least a dozen local mixologists now playing with Shine.

"When you're looking for a grassier, more refreshing side of the corn, unaged whiskey is better at bringing that out," he says. "It's good to have another color in my palette."

On the image front, many of the new products pay homage to the dangerous mystique of backwoods hooch with packaging steeped in hokey Americana. Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine comes in a mason jar (ours even had a floating fly - unintentional, I presume, unless this is the Dixie equivalent of the mescal worm). Shine's black bandanna label with the skull and crossbones, meanwhile, says "Good Ol' Boy-meets-Northeast Philly."

But sipped simply neat, the best of this new generation of "white dog," "new make" and so-called "moonshine" can still be as smooth and complex as fine tequila or eau de vie, even at high proof levels ranging up to 62.5 percent alcohol. The 88.8-proof Shine, for example, is deceptively smooth and has the aroma of fresh, sweet kettle corn or, as Gaal says, "Kellogg's Corn Pops."

Steeping a mash of grains in a pot still, then cooking it to vapor that's condensed into liquid spirit, is at the core of making bourbon, Scotch, and rye, too. Without the softening vanilla and caramel filter of aging in an oak barrel, though, white whiskey vividly highlights the flavor of those raw grains. "It reminds you whiskey is an agricultural product," says Watman.

And it puts the distiller's skill front and center.

"Barrels fix a lot of mistakes," says Christian Krogstad, owner of Portland's House Spirits, whose White Dog topped a recent Inquirer white whiskey tasting. (It's expected to hit Pennsylvania and other East Coast markets early next year.)

"You're really putting yourself out there," says Philadelphia Distilling's Rob Cassell. "You're using very few ingredients - just water, grain, and yeast - and distilling it and putting it in a bottle."

The key is the quality of ingredients and the still-master's art. Should it be neutral like vodka? Fruity with grassy sweetness like sugarcane rum agricole? Oily and rich like Scotch? Every tweak along the way has an effect.

Cassell, for example, experimented with umpteen varieties of yeast, including strains from Champagne to California ale, to Scotch and Tennessee whiskey - before finally tracking down the winner, a yeast descended from Pennsylvania's old Michter's distillery that was used in the 1950s.

He's been using heirloom corn from New York early on, but has already contracted fields of Pennsylvania corn near West Chester and north of Harrisburg for future batches, hewing close to the go-local spirit of craft distilling. The early result was among the best of the tasting - perhaps the most well-rounded, best-blending bottle of the nine sampled.

But there were more distinctive spirits, as flavors varied widely depending upon the "mashbill" (the recipe of grains), as distillers worked with corn, rye, barley, and oats.

The Western Oat Silver Whiskey from Utah's High West, available now in Pennsylvania's online store, was among the most intriguing, a "light whiskey" aged in French oak ("for as little as a minute") that was as smooth as butter and smelled like summer fruit salad and molasses. House Spirit's White Dog made from Oregon barley, meanwhile, filled the room with aromas of berries, licorice, candy, and malt.

Such sophisticated spirits don't necessarily jibe with the hillbilly marketing that clings to much of the white whiskey genre - a contradiction Watman thinks is potentially troubling for the longevity of the movement.

"Being able to access a little bit of outlaw-dom . . . is a very tempting angle for people," he says. "But associating yourself with a product people don't inherently trust is not a recipe for long-term success. Craft distilling and moonshine do not have shared goals."

Likewise, the gimmick of a legal taste of the formerly illicit proved to be a short-lived come-on for absinthe, which has seemed to do a quick fade within a few years.

Whether white whiskey becomes more than just a novelty ultimately may depend on how widely it's embraced by bartenders and experts.

Watman, who has enjoyed white whiskey as a simple Collins or sour, believes its mixing potential is key: "the grain flavors create a great architecture for flavor, as opposed to vodka, which is just blank."

Gaal agrees, and has used Shine - "a beautiful product" - to craft a series of drinks named for Bond villains as a sort of corn liquor nod to "the deliciously corny in life." In place of bourbon, it works its way into a refreshing version of the now-trendy "White Manhattan" that he calls the "Goldfinger," with Lillet replacing the usual dark vermouth for my new favorite summer drink.

In the "Kananga," Shine's grassy notes pop as a stand-in for tequila alongside green Chartreuse and jalapeño syrup. The "Blofeld" gives yet another great reason to try the underappreciated artichoke liqueur Cynar. In the "Scaramanga," it lends a more substantial punch than vodka might as a base for sparkling cider.

For simpler home drinking, though, Gaal says, "I can just see mixing it with a nice tonic and sipping it on the deck."

That, no doubt, would be white whiskey's day in the sun.


Drink

But How Does It Taste?

Some bourbon-loving pals helped me sip and rank these white whiskeys. Most were impressive, with great variation in style, but only subtle differences separating favorites. Note: Prices from Pennsylvania's online store (finewineandgoodspirits.com) include free shipping.

1. House Spirits White Dog, 50% alc.; 100% malted barley (expected to be available here by early 2012): This Portland-made Oregon whiskey was intensely aromatic with berry fruit, licorice, and a malty sweetness that reminded some of a Whatchamacallit candy bar. A beguiling saltiness kept the sweetness in check, making this worthy of solo sipping, despite its high proof.

2. High West Silver Whiskey Western Oat, 40% alc.; 85% oats, 15% barley ($36.99 online in Pa., Code 30842): From America's only "ski-in" saloon, in Park City, Utah, this oat-based whiskey was the smoothest of the lot, buttery, with aromas of fruit salad tossed with muesli and molasses.

3. Buffalo Trace White Dog Mash #1, 62.5% alc.; corn, rye, and malted barley ($16.99 for 375 ml bottle online in Pa., code 30570): No surprise this favorite bourbon maker produces one of the most polished, powerful, and balanced versions. At barrel strength, it's like plum-scented firewater; with a splash of water, more like a boozy fruitcake.

4. Shine XXX White Whiskey, 44.4% alc.; 100% corn ($24.99 in Pa. stores and online, code 30640): Among the most well-rounded examples, and the best mixer, it shows the delicate grassy notes and sweetness of corn - with an aroma of warm kettle corn or Corn Pops cereal.

5. Hudson New York Corn Whiskey, 46% alc.; 100% corn ($49.99 in Pa. stores, code 30939): Bold and intensely earthy, nosing a glass is like sticking your head inside a feed bag. On the sip, a bright minty finish emerges, but it tastes like cereal, too - a healthy one, like Chex.

6. Trybox Series Rye New Make, 62.5% alc.; mostly rye, plus corn and barley (about $30, online in Pa. by early October ): The unaged version of Rittenhouse Rye has cask-strength heat, and the fiery spice and minty note of rye. Mixed into a White Manhattan alongside a traditional darker version, it was appealingly lean and lively without the caramelly weight of oak.  

7. Kings County Distillery, 40% alc.; corn (About $19.99 for 200 ml bottle in Brooklyn and Manhattan): A hipster cult favorite in its native Brooklyn, the modestly proofed booze inside this small (and pricey) flask was among the more one-dimensional corn liquors. But a splash of water coaxed more character, with an elegant and lingering minty finish.

8. Glen Thunder Corn Whiskey, 45% alc.; corn (available by September for $22.99 online in Pa.): A high-octane ode to the Watkins Glen speedway, this Finger Lakes spirit has an earthy aroma of roasted corn. After a smooth start, all that horsepower seems to spin out like rubber on hot blacktop.

9. Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine, 50% alc.; 80% corn, 20% "secret" (expected by 2012): With a mason-jar bottle (à la rotgut, Georgia Moon), this popskull from Gatlinburg, Tenn., plays the white lightning shtick to the hilt. More corn sweetness and mint than expected, but it fades quickly.


Drink: The Goldfinger

Makes 1 drink

2 ounces Shine

1 ounce Lillet

1/2 ounce maraschino liqueur

4 dashes Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas' Own Decanter Bitters (or Fee Bros. Orange)

1. Stir in mixing glass with ice until frosty. Strain into cocktail (martini) glass.

2. Garnish with a strip of lemon peel, the color of yellow gold.

- From Christian Gaal, head bartender at Noble


Drink: The Scaramanga

Makes 1 drink

1 ounce Shine

Chilled sparkling cider          

1. Stir Shine over ice and strain into champagne flute.

2. Top with chilled sparkling cider. (Mr. Scaramanga provides no warning, and hence no garnish.)

- From Christian Gaal, head bartender at Noble


Drink: The Blofeld

Makes 1 drink

2 ounces Shine

1 ounce Cynar (an artichoke liqueur; if not on speaking terms with Cynar, use Ramazotti or Averna)

Ginger ale (preferably sweetened with cane sugar, such as 365 brand)

1. Pour Shine and Cynar into tumbler of ice.

2. Top with ginger ale. Squeeze a lemon wedge as if for information (for garnish), then drop, as if into piranha tank.

- From Christian Gaal, head bartender at Noble


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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