Backwoods Booze Returns

Click here for a slideshow on five white whiskeys to try.


Distilling was legal and untaxed in this land until the Whiskey Act of 1791 came along, enraging farmers who sold their grain in the form of whiskey. Whiskey rebels took to the backwoods, giving rise to the black market of moonshine: bootlegged hooch so rough and raw it hardly deserved to be called “whiskey.”

Some two centuries and a score later, a new generation of whiskey rebels is making news. No, they aren’t evading excise taxes. Instead, they’re producing a palatable un-aged whiskey known as white whiskey.

Death’s Door Spirits of Middleton, Wis., is a modern pioneer in the un-aged whiskey category. Made from a mash bill of organic winter red wheat from Washington Island in Door County, Wis., and organic malted barley from Chilton, Wis., Death’s Door White Whisky exemplifies the trend among craft distillers to carefully select grains and other ingredients, thereby satiating consumers who seek a handmade spirit with authenticity and character. (For other “artisan” white whiskies, see Five White Whiskeys to Try, at right.)

Economics is one reason white whiskey is crowding liquor store shelves. A distillate sitting in a barrel for years isn’t generating revenue, but an un-aged spirit can. Hungry for cash flow, even industry giants like Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace have added white whiskies to their portfolios. For the same reason, white whiskey is often the first product a new micro-distillery launches. Such will be the case when St. Louis’ newest distillery, Still 630, opens its doors this summer at the corner of Fourth Street and Chouteau Avenue. It will be six to nine months before rum is available at the Still 630 tasting room, while bourbon and rye are some two years away. So owner David Weglarz will allow St. Louisans to “taste our approach” with his twice-distilled 80- to 90-proof white whiskey.

Another reason white whiskey is experiencing a boon: The clear spirit is a fresh alternative to vodka. While the latter only carries a hint of its origin, white whiskey can proffer the distinct flavors of the grains used to distill it. For drinkers, that means a tastier nip and an interesting option for mixing.

Local drinkers can get a taste of the white dog in action, shaken and stirred in springtime sippers. Danno’s American Pub bar manager Chris Muether created a sour using Koval Raski Millet White Whiskey, while at Sanctuaria, mad chemists Matt Seiter and Joel Clark opted to use Koval’s white rye to concoct Vieux Carré Our Way, a barrel-aged twist on a NOLA-born cocktail. Downtown at The Thaxton Speakeasy, Hudson New York Corn Whiskey is featured in a seasonal ‘tail called EZ-Fizz.

Whiskey purists may raise a brow to the white lighting revolution, but backwoods booze has never tasted so good.