What do you think it's like to stand at death's door? This is how we picture it: Drink of the Week is a frail old lady with crepe-y skin and wispy white hair, lying in a hospital bed at the ripe old age of 112. With our last raggedy breath, we see once more the people who loved us best. Mom and Dad cooing at us as a baby, eyes full of light and pride. Our brothers. Our first love, as he was at seventeen, when we thought love would always be as soft and sweet as a piece of angel food cake. The man who made us our first manhattan. The point is, most of the people who have populated one's life, the trifling romances, the fair-weather friends, they will be lost from memory. In the end, only a few really matter.
This is what we are thinking about as we sip Death's Door White Whiskey, partly because we sometimes get sappy when we drink alone, and partly because it has got us thinking about the effects of time. White whiskey, also known as white dog or white lightning, is so called because it is un-aged and thus remains clear. It is raw distillate -- essentially moonshine, but legal.
This version starts with a mash made predominantly of wheat and a small amount of malted barley. It is twice distilled in a small-batch copper pot still, then stored in a stainless steel vat for three weeks. The spirit is then transferred to an American white oak cask for 72 hours (in order to meet the U.S. government's requirement to be called "whiskey") and set loose upon the world.
Were it to be left on oak, it would turn brown and develop the caramelly, woody flavors we normally associate with whiskey. For point of reference, whiskey must be aged in charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years to legally be called bourbon. Most brands on the market have been aged at least four years; Maker's Mark ages for about seven.
The argument for skipping this step, aside from the obvious financial expediency of doing so, is that it allows the characteristics of the grain and the craft of the distiller to come through. Death's Door's slogan is "Simple. Local. Exceptional." This Wisconsin-based artisan distillery certainly does have something to show off in the process and the materials they use, especially the organic red hard winter wheat from Washington Island, Wisconsin, where all their products (vodka, gin and whiskey) begin.
Tasted with just a few ice cubes and a splash of water, Death's Door's alcohol burn is toned down some and the whiskey's flavors open up. It smells bracing and fruity, but the flavor is of yeast, with a faint grassy, woodsy quality. Only band dorks will get this reference, but it reminded us of sucking on the reed of a woodwind instrument. We tried it in an old-fashioned, but only tasted the bitters. The Death's Door website compares the spirit to reposado tequila, perhaps one would have better luck treating it that way than like a brown whiskey.
The idea was to sell some of the fresh spirit right away and put the rest in oak barrels to age and sell down the line, but the White Whiskey has become so popular that it's cutting into Death's Door's aged production. The distiller sold more in the first quarter of this year than all of last year, and in Chicago, DD's biggest market, it is outselling their more established vodka and gin. In a city where speakeasy-style bars abound and cocktail culture is all the rage, the appeal of Prohibition-throwback "moonshine" is, well, clear.
Several other companies have recently put out un-aged whiskeys, and cocktail enthusiasts can't seem to get enough of the stuff. It's fiery, it's novel and, as with any budding flirtation, it seems brimming with possibility. For us it's just a passing distraction -- new and interesting, or at least interesting in its newness, but it just doesn't have enough character to justify spending much time with. You know what comes with time and age? A mellowing-out, layered complexity, and depth. Getting all caught up in every hot young thing that comes around -- that's a fool's path. So this bottle is going in the liquor cabinet and we're going back to the old familiar.
Death's Door White Whiskey is available at:
The Wine Merchant Ltd. 20 South Hanley Road Clayton 314-469-4500