What makes whiskey whiskey?
In sampling a new whiskey for this post, I discovered a heated debate inspired by the recent trend in white whiskey. White whiskey is un-aged or fresh whiskey, essentially going straight from the still into the bottle. Opponents and supporters argue not only its flavor merits but its right to call itself “whiskey” rather than being a separate spirit unto itself. There’s even debate on whether all the varieties of white whiskey (corn, barley, rye, etc) out in the marketplace today can be called “moonshine” or if it’s just fresh corn whiskey that has earned the right. Some argue that moonshine is anything distilled illegally, but once the taxes are paid on it it’s no longer considered ‘shine. Add to all this the debate as to whether the other names used synonymously for moonshine- white dog, white lightning or, my favorite, popskull- are instead names referring to the non-corn varieties. Considering that in states like Arizona, Georgia, Virginia and Tennessee you can carry your gun into any bar, there really should be less reasons for argument over alcohol.
So, is fresh whiskey a true whiskey? Or should it be on the un-aged spirits shelf, instead?
Legally speaking, to be called “whiskey” a spirit has to be distilled from grain and has to have touched wood at the end of its distillation, so many distillers have the spirit pass through a wooden container and pour out through a hole at the bottom. In a situation like this, it can mean a barrel age of 5 minutes. But whiskey enthusiasts here in the States have never been too concerned with what the Law has to say about things. Enthusiasts passionately squabble over whether or not the definition of whiskey must include putting in real time inside the barrel. While Barrel-agers demand the name “whiskey” be reserved solely for the grain distillate aged in a barrel, Freshies believe that diversity is welcome under the whiskey banner. To them, fresh white whiskey is simply another type of whiskey.
But, you may ask, if you take away the barrel then whiskey is simply an alcohol distilled from grains, so why isn’t vodka in the whiskey class? In fact, vodka is a close cousin. For example, a rye vodka and a white rye whiskey are made almost the same way; the difference lies in the proof number to which it’s distilled. American whiskey is distilled under 160 proof while vodka is distilled to over 190 proof. The difference in proof creates a defining difference in taste.
With no charred-wood influence to hide behind or to mellow from, white whiskey can taste a bit rough compared to its barrel-aged counterparts. I haven’t spent too much time with white whiskeys for this very reason. The sharp taste has always seemed similar to Pisco, and I’m simply not a fan of Pisco. However, I recently came upon a bottle of Silver Coyote Malt Whiskey, crafted by Santa Fe Spirits in New Mexico, and discovered a fantastic sipping whiskey that I’m excited to share.
The owner, Colin Keegan is an Englishman who put down roots outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. He discovered a passion for spirit-making after trying to decide what to do with all the apples on his property. After learning the skill of crafting apple brandy, he moved on to vodka, gin and white dog. A mesquite-smoked single malt is coming soon.
Interestingly, master distiller Nick Jones works with a recipe aimed at making fresh whiskey taste good rather than, say, using one typical for a barrel-destined whiskey and simply bottling the resulting spirit before it’s aged. Another point of contention for the moonshine purists! Anyway, using 100% barley rather than the more common corn, he avoids the “creamed corn” flavor and unlocks something much tastier at 92 proof. As he explains, “Silver Coyote is mashed using 100% brewer’s 2-row pale malt. The grains are separated from the wort and the wort is fermented using a Scotch whiskey yeast strain. The fermented ‘beer’ is twice distilled: once in a pot still and once more through a column still with five plates, yielding a spirit of 180 proof – well above a traditional whiskey’s ABV, but well below the ABV of a vodka in order to retain the flavors of the yeast and the malt,” Jones, explains. “Other than the mash bill, the main difference is the use of a column still in the second distillation of the Silver Coyote in order to push the proof up to 180 so that it is an exceptionally clean and smooth malt whiskey. With barrel aging it is reminiscent of a light Speyside, but its true complexities are best enjoyed fresh, as with any other white spirit.”
COLOR: Clear. NOSE: A big waft of warm banana muffin.
MOUTH: The first sip is sweet and grainy. The banana’s still there, and with subsequent sips it’s dipped lightly in vanilla custard. A grassy burn comes in for the finish. Once I stop thinking of this as whiskey I find I’m able to appreciate it fully on its own merits. In fact, I actually want to drink this again. No small statement there. This white whiskey stands head-and-shoulders above the others I’ve tried so far. If you want something a bit different for your shelf that offers more than just novelty then I highly recommend it. And while the trend is to use white whiskey in cocktails, Silver Coyote one has enough complexity and flavor to stand alone.
In 2012, Silver Coyote Pure Malt Whiskey won a Gold Medal from The Beverage Testing Institute and a Silver Medal from The San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
To get your hands on a bottle (average $30 US), go to their website. And once you do you can call it whatever you want, but brace yourself for controversy.