Cutting Corners?

A fine, aged whisky (or whiskey) is a thing of beauty.  Whether it is Scottish, Irish, Japanese, or American, a full bodied, oaky, slightly smokey pour is my idea of simple perfection in a glass, unadulterated by water, temperature, or mixer.  However, an unsettling trend has developed in the whisky world, a trend placing profits and production over time, patience, and ultimately, quality: the reincarnation of white whisky.

You might not have heard of white whisky before.  Or perhaps you know it by its other name, moonshine.  Well, not exactly, and therein lies the root of the problem.  Moonshine – un-aged whisky bottled straight off the still, the kind produced illegally during Prohibition – is not identical to the present craft distilled white whiskies.  Modern white whiskies are aged somewhat, but nowhere near the length of time of traditional scotches and bourbons.  And there it is, our problem: time.

Aging whisky in barrels, oftentimes for decades, costs money: the barrels themselves as well as the space to house said barrels being the two most obvious expenses.  Because you cannot sell the spirit whilst it ages, startup distilleries have a hard time making a profit: this “is why many new distillers start with ‘white’ spirits like vodka and gin, then invest in whiskey once the money is flowing.  But the allure of producing brown liquor is a strong one, so for the last few years entrepreneurial types have been looking for ways around the time conundrum,” writes The Atlantic’s Clay Risen.

So, what to do if you’re a distiller who wants to produce whisky but doesn’t want to wait?  You produce whisky with only minimal aging, allowing you to turn a profit much more quickly.  Yet cutting corners comes at the cost of quality: regardless of what artificial aging techniques are used – bags of wood chips, smaller barrels, even moving the whisky inside the barrel – there is no substitute for time.

Perhaps consumers are wise to this fact: The Washington Post’s Jason Wilson asserts: “It’s unclear how many people are buying white whiskeys, and even more unclear how they’re being consumed… ‘Demand for them isn’t high, and I rarely see repeat sales on them. Most folks just want to try them to satisfy their curiosity.’”

Curiosity is certainly understandable, but is by no means a substitute for good old-fashioned patience.  Perhaps these corner cutters would be better off remembering “the maxim of Julian ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle: ‘We make Fine Bourbon. At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always Fine Bourbon.’”

Published in: on August 12, 2011 at 1:54 pm  Comments (3)  
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