Happy Hour: How To Make Clear Whisky Cocktails

Happy Hour: How To Make Clear Whisky Cocktails

It’s known by many names. White whisky, new make, white lightning, unaged whisky, “straight from the still”. Some even call it moonshine. To us, it’s white dog, a unique spirit with a lot of diversity and character. It’s time we got to know it and talked about what you can do with it.

It’s time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo’s weekend booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science and alcohol. Let’s all howl at the moon.

What Is White Dog?

You know how bourbon is made? No? Well, here’s a quick refresher. It starts with a grain mixture that’s generally at least 50 per cent corn and may also contain wheat, rye, and/or malted barley. That mixture is ground up and boiled in water. Yeast is added and it’s left to ferment. Then it’s run through a still. The alcohol that comes out of that still is typically around 130 to 160 proof (or 65 to 80 per cent alcohol), and is put into charred oak barrels and left to age for a minimum of three years. Then it’s poured into a bottle and you drink it until you say something you regret.

White dog stops when it leaves the still. Some water may be added, but the main takeaway is that it never goes into that charred oak barrel, which gives bourbon its colour and a lot of its flavour. It’s the straight spirit, and it’s about as clear as liquids come. It’s generally sold at 80 up to 130 proof.

Best in Show

Well, first and foremost, a good white dog whisky is absolutely delicious, and that’s all the reason you need. But, if you want to geek out, it’s basically how a distiller flaunts how good he or she is at distilling. The barrel-ageing process that bourbon goes through — while definitely resulting in a great product — hides a lot of the natural spirit’s character. This is the unadulterated goods. If the distiller messed up, you’ll taste it. If they knew what they were doing, you’ll taste that too.

This isn’t vodka, which is generally run through the distilling process enough times that it has no flavour. So boring! No. Each white dog has its own unique characteristics. Some are very sweet, some taste like corn on the cob, and some taste like a burnt shoe dunked in tequila. You’ll never know until you find your brand.

Many of the major bourbon distillers have introduced a white dog in recent years: Maker’s Mark, Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace are just a few examples. It’s easy for them to do. Just distill as usual and go straight to bottling (skipping the ageing process). What you, the drinker, will taste, however, is what the whisky you know so well actually taste like before they’re aged. Spoiler alert: some are incredibly nasty, tasting like turpentine smells. Others are dreamy, buttery and delicious. We’d suggest starting with one of your favourite bourbons and trying its white version.

Pure Bred

Despite the fact that bourbon comes from white dog, white dog doesn’t taste much like bourbon. So the drinks you’d normally make with bourbon need to be tweaked. I decided to try a clear Manhattan using the following recipe: 2.5 ounces white dog, 0.75 ounces white vermouth, and a dash of orange bitters (instead of the traditional Angostura bitters, which turn the drink pink… believe me, I tried).

I used some Smooth Ambler White Whiskey (100 prof), some white Dolin vermouth, some orange bitters, and an orange expressed over the top. As you can see in the top photo, it was plenty clear. The problem was that this particular white dog packed a lot of punch, and the white Dolin wasn’t enough to balance it out. You need the tannins you find in more flavourful vermouths (like Dolin Rouge or Caparno Antica). The solution was to add just a little more vermouth (about 1/4 ounce more) and double the amount of bitters, and suddenly it became quite tasty.

I then tried a slight variation on a cocktail from the website There Will Be Bourbon. The version I made went like this:

Combine those ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice, shake it, and then strain into a rocks glass. The result is an incredibly balanced drink. The ginger spice helps to neutralise the smokey bite of the Smooth Ambler White Whiskey. It went down smooth and left you wanting another one. Success!

Or, y’know, you can just take it as a shot. If you’ve got a really good white dog (buttery, smooth, warming) you can just take it straight. But again, there is a great distance between good and terrible (much like tequila), so experiment. Do some tastings at a bar, if you can. Find one you really like and build from there. A good white dog won’t taste as harsh as the proof suggests it would be, and it won’t leave you with a burnt-tire taste in your mouth.

But Better Than Bourbon?

That’s a matter of opinion. The easiest answer is, “It’s a different animal.” It doesn’t have that same woody smokiness. It’s brighter, lighter, and generally has a warmer mouth-feel to it. Overall, team Giz prefers bourbon. We’re old school. That said, there are some very good bourbons and some absolutely terrible bourbons out there. Similarly, there are some very good and some very awful white dog whiskies. It’s up to you to find one you like, and then experiment with cocktails that show it off (and don’t mask or hide it) to convert your friends.

If you’ve got a white dog cocktail you love, by all means, please share with the class in the discussion below. Let’s make this page the internet’s best source for white dog cocktail recipes.

Thanks to the incomparable C. Bay Milin for the photos. We recommend you check out his site.