I’ve mentioned before, in this bloglet, my long-held ambivalence toward the unaged Whiskey that’s colloquially known as “white dog”. In the US, white dog was only rarely seen, up until the advent of all our artisan distilleries that sprouted like wild chives in the past ten years and that was mainly because A) Whiskey that’s given sufficiently barrel age IS unquestionably better, more flavorful, and more fun to drink. And B) Money, honey.
White dog traces its roots in America back to pioneer/cowboy times, when men were men and Whiskey was for gettin’ knee-walkin’, snot-flingin’ drunk. (Not a lot of raised-pinky tastings going on at your average cow-town saloon) Then, during Prohibition, it had a resurgence, mainly because, again, of Bang For Buck – with liquor outlawed, people wanted maximum impact for each glass of Felony. And hand in hand with the more muted flavors came a great affinity for mixed drinks, which the more assertive aged Whiskeys tended to dominate. With liquor quality at a dreadful low, cocktails became all the rage, as fruit juices, sodas, and mixers were just the antidote to most of the strong off-flavors. And white dog was the cat’s ass at laying back and adding Octane.
It is also, in literal terms, what is commonly known as moonshine or ‘shine; the very colorless, near-lethal stuff that was made by scofflaws all over the country, before, during, and well after Prohibition. Americans are industrious types and many simply preferred not to have the feds telling them what to drink, how much, or how strong. My own grandfather was a Virginia moonshiner, up there in my native Allegheny Mountains, and stopped only because, when I was a baby, he was bouncing me on his knee, after sampling some of his wares, and dropped me just as my mother walked into the room. “Daddy,” she growled, scooping me up and clutching me in her embrace, “I swear to God, if you don’t quit drinking, you will never see this baby again!” He was ominously quiet the rest of the day and finally stalked out of the house, grabbed an ax, walked the mile and a half to his still, and busted it up while two of my uncles cowered in the bushes. And he never drank again. Moonshining still goes on to this day, as we see on The Discovery Channel, and what they produce is exactly the same as what’s in every bottle of white dog.
Today, with artisan distilleries proliferating like kudzu, it serves a more fundamental purpose: Ca$h Flow. New distilleries cannot wait ten years while Our Precious lurks in the depths of an oak barrel, gradually assuming that amber glow and lambent caramel-nut warmth that bewitches all us Whiskey fans. With younger converts to the distilled spirits turning increasingly away from just the clear booze – Gin, Vodka, Tequila – and tuning in to Whiskey, distilleries need cash AND Presence, the signal that real Whiskey is a’comin’, as soon as Nature, Time, and Chemistry finish their work.
The problem has been…most of them just aren’t very good as beverages. Sure, they’ll mix but what do you have then? Just a slightly more noticeable Vodka. Locally in Seattle, we’ve seen several examples, over the past five years and they ranged from sorta okay to one prominent one from the ‘burbs that tastes like a glassful of acetone, after it was used to remove nail polish. Before 2014, I had tasted FOUR White Dogs that were even interesting: the three superb Germain-Robin unaged editions – Clear Wheat, Clear Rye, and Clear Corn – and Hillrock Estates Rye. That was IT. And, of course, now that the craft distillers are actually reviving interest in white dog, most of the Big Guns are at it, too. Jack Daniel’s is even making one, so you know It’s A Craze. Are they good? For the most part, no. (see acetone remark above) High West Distillers in Colorado makes one of the best I’ve tried but at the very top of the heap, it’s still the ones mentioned above…and now Manhattan Moonshine.
So, along comes a fella named William Kehler and his Dream: to recreate a bit of the glories of the Prohibition Era Whiskeys, with its aesthetic brethren, Art Deco design and The Jazz Age. Will founded Manhattan Moonshine LLC in 2013, with the express mission of making the world’s best unaged Whiskey. And, judging from what I tasted in the glass, he’s come very damned close.
Will Kehler has, as his motivation, an all-consuming passion for Bygone Days. The company’s Facebook page is crammed with black ‘n’ white photos of The Roaring Twenties, Sinatra, NYC street scenes from various eras, and jazz, jazz, jazz. On that score, he has a definite leg up on all the mega-distillers who crank out the white dog out purely for the Benjamins. His vision, while a tad quaint, is pure and laser-focused and what he’s put into his insanely extravagant, heavy cut-glass packaging (this bottle could easily be slipped into a Clue game as a murder weapon: “Captain Mustard in the library with the Manhattan Moonshine bottle“) is several miles more flavorful, integrated, and polished than what shows in 98% of all white dog. First, it’s smoooooooth. Obscenely, lavishly smooth and subtle, with a grainy, earthy scent that shows vanilla and oats and mild spruce tips and subdued white pepper and lychee and several other lurking grace notes. The aim, here, is not to make a stop-gap cash cow that will get the company’s market presence firmly established while the real Whiskey is aging. This IS the end-game for Manhattan Moonshine, reproducing this lost vestige of the Jazz Age in the way it was properly done Back Then.
But one very important concession was made to modernity: the grain bill for this Whiskey is very unusual, as American Whiskey goes. Because there is no plan to age it, the grains used could be largely those that are a little too unassertive for a great aged whiskey, starting with oats, which only rarely show up in Whiskey and then mostly for texture. Rye provides the spices and chewy texture, while the oats add that creaminess and a warm, mellow underpinning that recalls a faint aftertaste of oatmeal cookies. If this sounds a bit like maybe an infused Vodka or an underachieving Gin, rest assured that it is not. Infused liquors, remember, are flavored with additives. The flavors here are purely a result of the grains and the process. The nearest non-Whiskey corollary I can make to this stuff is Stein’s Distillery’s gorgeous all-rye Vodka, but even that isn’t really like this. Manhattan Moonshine doesn’t so much replace clear booze in cocktails as it does to completely rethink them.
Manhattan Moonshine is a single-minded, unclouded Vision that only real passion – of the type rarely seen in larger distilleries – can produce. Will Kehler has spared no expense (obviously) and no effort to get his own Wayback Machine up and running and this is one trip down Memory Lane that all lovers of craft Whiskey would do well to take. 96 Points