This might get complicated…
This review was prompted by a comment I made on social media which received a fair deal of pushback. A craft distillery was touting their award-winning white dog (yes, apparently there are awards for new make now), describing it as a “complex spirit.” I expressed skepticism about this claim, which drew others into the discussion.
As usual, Twitter’s 280 character limit suppresses nuanced discussion of issues in a way that allows for the more full and fair consideration that these topics deserve. To rectify that, I’ll be revisiting my assertion today, as well as tasting some new make provided to me by a party to that conversation.
Regular readers will be aware that I am not a wood fanatic. I believe that flavor can – and, indeed, must – be created during the production process steps prior to maturation. Grain types, yeast strains, and fermentation time/temperature can all be utilized to produce new make that is better, more flavorful, more aromatically appealing.
I’ll go a step further and say that the industry – and I’m thinking here of the Scotch whisky industry in particular – has pushed the “X% of the flavor comes from the cask” narrative (where X is some majority proportion) in order to distract from their shortcomings in the aforementioned departments. Commodity grain, yeast chosen for efficiency, and rushed fermentation are better for the bottom line, but the whisky suffers in the end. Those who have tasted Old Laphroaig and New Laphroaig can speak to the contrasting results from this difference in approaches.
Some folks suggested that perhaps I have never tried really good new make, hence my looking askance at it. In fact, I’ve visited a number of distilleries – both small craft distilleries as well as established heavyweights – and have sometimes had the opportunity to taste new make. You’ll recall that I wrote favorably about Michter’s new make, calling it “a fascinating study in contrasts.” While I did, indeed, find it educational to try that distillery’s white dog, I would stop short of calling it “complex.”
At this point, I am fighting the temptation to revert to the pedantic trope of providing a verbatim dictionary definition of the term in question. The way that Merriam-Webster defines “complexity” isn’t as germane to this discussion as the way that we, collectively, use the word “complex” when we’re talking about whiskey.
There’s a reason that whiskey producers take the time – and incur the expense – to mature new make spirit in wood. In the way that a small acorn can grow a mighty oak, the flavors narrowly constrained within new make spirit undergo a kaleidoscopic explosion after years in the barrel. Sweet and salty and savory nuances emerge; we get flavors as “low” on the register as black tar, and as “high” on register as cotton candy… sometimes within the same remarkable whiskey.
This is the reason I scoffed at the characterization of new make as “complex.” By definition, everything comprised of more than one element can be considered relatively complex; a friend pointed out that, flavor-wise, milk is relatively more complex than water, and new make relatively more complex than milk. However, I continue to believe that applying good sense and appealing to custom is a better guide than litigating language to score technical points. To paraphrase Alec Ryrie: calling new make “complex” is a bit of quasi-scholarly nitpicking that twists truth out of recognition until it becomes its very opposite.
At least, that’s my opening position. I wouldn’t be doing my job (OK, fine: unpaid hobby) as a whiskey critic if I didn’t put my own preconceptions to the test on a regular basis. Pursuant to that end, I am the grateful recipient of a sample of white whiskey from Dad’s Hat.
You might recall Dad’s Hat from my prior review of their rye whiskey. Consult that article for a detailed history of the distillery, as told by founder Herman Mihalich. Following the debate, they sent me a pair of bottles for my consideration (free; thank you to Herman). I hope the contrast between the two will serve to reinforce my argument.
Let’s start with the new make. This White Rye comes straight off the stills and is diluted down to 100 proof (50% ABV). Dad’s hat sells a 750 ml bottle of this for $28.
Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania White Rye – Review
On the nose: Meaty and burly, this has an aromatic heft to it that is undeniable. A touch of wood (not in the sense of barrel influence, but in the sense of freshly planed pine planks), anise, and some cigar ash meet with a surprisingly spicy-sweet note of cinnamon sugar.
In the mouth: At the front of the mouth this has a little of that meatiness from the nose, but it quickly thins out and tightens up. There’s not much in the way of flavor development in the middle of the mouth, and this quiets down significantly into the finish. There’s a faint, lingering flavor of youthful grain (as they don’t come any younger than this) and maybe a mild aftertaste that echoes the anise note from the nose.
I love tasting new make as a way to experience a distillery’s DNA before any barrel influence comes into the picture. This new make is surprisingly palatable; I’m even tempted to use the verboten word “smooth,” albeit qualified with the addition of “for new make spirit.” Would I go as far as to call this “complex?” The palate, certainly, is not. I think one might be able to argue more convincingly for the application of that term to the nose… but, again, in a relative sense, though also not. This is more interesting than another white spirit such as vodka, for example, but it’s got nothing on even moderately aged whiskey (most of it, anyway).
How to score this? Another dilemma. I could just punt, but that feels cowardly. Would I buy a bottle of this for myself? No, but I’m also not in the habit of buying new make. As I just said, I taste new make almost exclusively on distillery tours, for educational purposes. In light of that – and compared with the abundant examples of mature rye whiskey available at a similar price – I’m going to shave a point off the middle of the range.
Moving along, we’ve got a bottle of the Bottled in Bond rye. Per Dad’s Hat’s site for this expression, this is a five-barrel blend of five year old whiskey. This is the 2022 release, which retails from Dad’s Hat for $66. As noted above, this bottle was sent to me, free of charge, by Dad’s Hat. Bottling proof is the legally mandated 100 (50% ABV).
Dad’s Hat Bottled in Bond Straight Rye – Review
Color: Medium orangey chestnut.
On the nose: Both sumptuous and subtle, this is a seductive nose that makes me want to get straight into tasting. Restraining myself, I am getting ample sticky-sweet scents such as honey and molasses. There’s a floral topnote of honeysuckle nectar here that meets with a creamy, vanilla oakiness. As this sits in the glass longer, I’m getting some melted milk chocolate, as well as a faint note of jasmine incense.
In the mouth: Like the new make, this is leaner and meaner in the mouth. With a mild kiss at the tip of the tongue, this moves into the mouth with a marriage of rye grain and oak notes. The flavors become more rounded at the middle of the palate, where that sugary sweetness from the nose is echoed, albeit with counterbalancing notes of stern rye grain and cracked black peppercorns. The finish is a little abrupt for my tastes, as this once again thins out, leaving behind a residual flavor of black licorice and a radiant tingle from the throat back to the lips.
A solid rye considered on its own merits, this is a nice expression of that grain that incorporates some of the aforementioned DNA, in that elements of the new make are evident. Putting this in the spectrum of the other ryes I have tried from Dad’s Hat: I like this better than the straight rye whiskey, though it is $10 more expensive. It’s not quite as good as the single barrel straight rye, however, though it costs nearly as much. On net, a score in-line with the former feels warranted.
Would I describe this rye as complex? Yes, and no. It’s got much better flavor development than the new make, as well as more textural variation through the mouth. Is it complex in comparison to the better rye whiskies I have tried, or indeed compared with whiskey of all types?
Taking nothing away from Dad’s Hat, let me just say: the whiskeys I describe as complex present a seemingly endless parade of aromas and flavors that overwhelm the senses and boggle the mind. This ain’t that. Again, not bad (as reflected by a score above the middle of the range), but I wouldn’t put this in front of an experienced whiskey drinker and ask them to marvel at its complexity.
Has this resolved the debate? For some of you, perhaps. For others, likely not. As always in whiskey criticism – as in life – it is impossible to come up with a conclusion that will satisfy everyone. Some producers will continue to refer to new make as complex, some consumers will agree, while others will snicker. That’s OK; the world is a big place with a lot of whiskey in it, and difference of opinions is part of what keeps that world turning. You’ve heard my thoughts, and I remain happy to hear yours.
“Some folks suggested that perhaps I have never tried really good new make, hence my looking askance at it”
I think so too. You only need to look at rum and mezcal for good quality new make/unaged distillate. I’ve only tried a few new make from American whiskey distilleries and most are just corn flavored. Someone let me try a sample of peated new make from Raasay and that was excellent. It was a 4 day fermentation I think.
Perhaps you can try and get your hands on new make from Leopold bros? I have a strong feeling that naturally fermented whisky is a concept more American whiskey distilleries should get into. Leopold Bro’s BiB bourbon is currently the most interesting contemporary American whiskey I’ve tried so far due to the partial wild ferment they employ.
John, as you know, I’m a mezcal fan and certainly appreciate the complexity of that spirit without any barrel aging. However, there are many differences (maguey varietals, roasting pinas) in the production processes that I think account for some of this. Again, not that new make whiskey can’t be good for what it is, but it’s also not a finished product IMO. Will certainly keep an eye out for Leopold Bros new make!
So far I know of no Leopolds new make out in the market. But perhaps you could acquire a sample through contacts. I think it can be argued that new makes are a finished product. It’s just that for whisky, the finished product has to rely on barrel aging.