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Blinded By the Light


On our recent trip to New York, we made a pilgrimage to a BBQ-‘n’-bar establishment with the express intent of sampling what’s known as “white dog” whiskey. That’s pre-aged or “preschool” whiskey, clear as vodka, no oak-barrel flavor, no years of tempering.

Yes, my friends, we’re talking moonshine—or what is billed as upscale, foodie mash. This is fancy-schmancy, small-batch distillery fare, peeled from the soon-to-be-aged whiskey crop for our instant drinking pleasure.

Or not.

I had my doubts going in. After all, if virgin whiskey tasted that great, wouldn’t it be sold far and wide? If it were actually good, wouldn’t it be a faster-made, more profitable product? Of course it would. Hence my skepticism. But, being a whiskey fan in general (and a bourbon lover in particular), I was intrigued by the idea of an artisan experiment in youthful liquor.

The foodie-liquor movement is alive here in Oakland, with the delightful St. George Spirits just across town. Catch this amusing outtake from Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations to see just what kind of wacky concoctions these Alameda distillers think of when not making “plain old” Hangar One. (Foie gras vodka; a test after my own heart.) But the specific white-whiskey movement is a bit more vibrant back east.

A chance encounter with the New York Times led us on a pilgrimage to Brooklyn for Fette Sau‘s “Preschool Sampler.” Little did we know when making our plans that the joint also served BBQ, but I won’t get into a grilled-meat review. It was quite tasty, but BBQ is JC’s terrain.

So, back to the fancy corn mash. (Though technically, only two of the drinks qualified as a baby bourbon.) When I ordered the trio of shots, the nice bartender looked me straight in the eye and asked, “You know what that is, right?” Apparently, enough unknowing patrons order the white-dog sampler that she felt compelled to warn me. I acknowledged that I did, in fact, know what I was in for and watched as she poured three crystal-clear servings.

Preschool Sampler

The items included in the trio were, in order: Buffalo Trace White Dog, Death’s Door White Whiskey, and Tuthilltown Spirits‘ New York Corn Whiskey. I have to say I expected to like the Tuthilltown best. At 100% corn, born and bred in my home state, not half an hour from my childhood home, it was the emotional favorite.

I won’t pretend to have the experience in whiskey-tasting that some online reviewers have. And I don’t think it’s necessary. The bottom line for most people is that this stuff is nearly undrinkable. JC took one sip and passed on the rest altogether. I hung in there for the educational aspect of it all, comparing the three beverages, but I would never order the stuff again.

The Buffalo Trace was the cleanest and sweetest. I ended up pouring it over ice and drinking it after a few sample sips. I wish I could say that it had some of the appeal of bourbon in a clear, raw, purified state—but I can’t. And I’ve had plenty of strong bourbons straight-up and on the rocks, as well as being a fan of straight vodka, soju, and other clear drinks. If I were a backwoods distiller and this moonshine came out of my still, I would wait another ten long, dry years for actual, delicious whiskey.

Death’s Door was the least appealing to me. It had a rather strong, smokey flavor, like Scotch. And since Scotch is my least favorite whiskey family (No hate mail, please. It’s just my preference.), the combination of that taste with rubbing alcohol really wasn’t a pleasurable experience.

And then came the Tuthilltown. It had an interesting, yeastiness to it that, again, I can’t say I was fond of. Better than the Death’s Door, and a bit more manageable with ice, but still too blinding—which was a shame since we were prepared to take a field trip to their distillery in Gardnier, which is just across the river from where we were staying upstate. But after surviving that white-dog sampler, I’ll be just fine if I never have moonshine again, either home-baked or gourmet.

Actual Whiskey Sampler

Actual whiskey sampler

If all of this virgin-alcohol talk has you interested in what it’s all about, google “white dog whiskey” for more info, or consult the recent book Chasing the White Dog, from earlier this year. Bay Area folks can check out this Chronicle article to find bars that serve it here.

Go ahead, try it if you dare. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.


From → Food, Travel, Weird Things

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