4.15.2011

White Dog vs. Vodka Part One: Introduction

For many years the only ways to taste unaged whiskey were either on a distillery tour or when passed an unlabeled mason jar that you were quickly supposed to forget ever existed. With more and more unaged whiskeys hitting Washington State liquor stores, which are infamous for having severely limited offerings, it is easy to see how things have changed, and how quickly. Over the past five years, the craft distillery movement has created a place for white whiskey as a viable option for new distillers desperate to get out of the red. No longer considered a stepping stone in the whiskey production process, unaged whiskey can now be used as a barometer to gauge skills of a whiskey maker that had been previously been overlooked. In fact, the popularity of small-batch distilling has sparked widespread interest in the entire whiskey-making process from grist mill to bottled product. Perhaps it is the continued strength of the craft beer movement across the country that is responsible for this attention, or the slow food/local food movements, or even the craft cocktail movement. No one can be sure. What is certain is that from the explosion of new products that showcase the talent, creativity and regionality of micro distillers, white dog has emerged and surely has been having its moment in the sun.

As with any new product, the inevitable question becomes: What can you do with it? After reading countless articles, my curiosity was piqued, and I sought out this new unaged spirit. Tastings ensued, limited as they were at the time. Shortly thereafter, every time I looked at my liquor cabinet, something seemed missing, underrepresented. Of course, I had to buy a bottle. After wading in and tasting it both neat and on the rocks, I realized I still had nearly a full bottle. I am sorry to admit that here was no eureka! moment. There is no doubt that white whiskey offers insights on the distillation process. But I, like many others, would still rather drink barrel-aged whiskey. Drinking white dog allows me to really see a distiller's vision from the grain choice to the skilled cuts, to the careful manipulation of the fermentation. But should I really call it "drinking" when I don't drink it. "Tasting" white dog makes me a better taster. I always learn something, about it or me. But I will never crave it like I do a dram of rye.

So moving back on topic, there I am with my nearly full bottle. After covering the easiest of bases, I want to know what else it can do? Lucky for me, bartenders have risen to the occasion. With a bevy of new flavors to work with, how could they not? The Internet is flush with recipes calling for white whiskey, and creativity abounds. But alas, as many have discovered, white dog is not the easiest spirit to mix with. Sure, it has been used like a more flavorful vodka in many lighter, sour-based drinks. But sometimes white whiskey's stronger grain-heavy flavor profile can clash with the other elements, or at least push the combination into imbalance. And of course unaged whiskey can be used in place of aged whiskey in cocktails. However, in most cases, the delicate flavors of the white whiskey are completely overwhelmed, and again balance is sacrificed. In the most successful recipes, the cocktail highlights and accents the complex, delicate flavors of the whiskey. But it seems that often white whiskey is called on to do vodka's traditional job just not as well: either half-taming/half-accenting bold, strong flavors or acting as a semi-blank high-proof canvas.

But as I was thinking about all that, I started thinking. (Scary thing, for sure.) Certain vodkas are a lot closer to unaged whiskey than most people would guess. Sure, vodka can be made of anything that can be fermented: sugarcane, beets, potatoes, rye, wheat, barley, apples, etc. But a rye vodka could be produced in almost the exact same way as an unaged rye whiskey. Almost. In such cases, the production method is what characterizes the distinction between the two spirits. Most whiskey is distilled to under 160 proof by law in America, regardless of whether it will be subsequently aged. Vodka, by law, is distilled to over 190 proof. That difference means everything and what it boils down to is flavor.

Distillation is a process of purification and separation. The higher the alcohol level, the more pure the ethanol. What that really means is less flavor. In distilling, lower proof equates to more impurities, and those impurities create flavors--those lovely wonderful flavors. Of course, this is a very general overview of the process. There are others ways of retaining flavor. In vodka production achieving 190 proof on the first run isn't important. Subsequent runs will continually strip out more flavors, which suits many vodka distillers and vodka drinkers just fine. When a distiller can achieve 190 proof in the first run, more flavor will be preserved. As crazy as it may sound, some vodka distillers actually want to retain the flavor of the raw materials. Those are the vodkas I actually enjoy drinking. But that is beside the point.

To sum up, proof matters a lot in distillation and it is intricately tied to flavor. Regardless of actual flavor, both vodka and white whiskey are both more delicately flavored--meaning on the whole they both tend to be overwhelmed by bigger flavors. Some vodkas have a lot of flavor (I know you don't believe it). Some white whiskeys have more delicate nuanced flavors than others. It is not easy to compare white whiskey and vodka. I am not really going to try. I am just curious by nature. So, I thought it would be interesting to see what happens when you take a cocktail recipe that successfully uses white dog and you substitute a full-flavored grain-based vodka (for relativity). Who knows what will happen.

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