Friday, October 5, 2012

Jack Daniel's And Jim Beam Pile Onto The White Whiskey Bandwagon.

Clearly, there is some high level market research out there that says so-called 'white whiskey' is a product consumers want, because the world's two biggest American whiskey brands are rolling out their versions over the next few months.

Micro-producers created the white whiskey category a few years back, ostensibly as a way to generate revenue while their whiskey aged. Mixologists praised its bold, spicy character as a great cocktail ingredient and its clear appearance appealed to people for whom vodka is the quintessential cocktail base.

An informal survey of whiskey enthusiasts showed that while most find white whiskey interesting, few actually drink it regularly. No one reported buying a second bottle.

Although white whiskey must, by law, have some minimal contact with wood to be called 'whiskey,' it can be as little as five minutes, too brief for the wood to have any effect on flavor or appearance. Unlike Europe and most of the rest of the world, the U.S. has no minimum aging requirement for whiskey. It just says the spirit must be 'stored in oak barrels' in order to be called whiskey. It doesn't say for how long.

The rap on white whiskey has been that it's simply white dog, whiskey distillate straight from the still, too hot and harsh to be truly enjoyable, especially neat or on-the-rocks, the way most whiskey enthusiasts drink. This has continued to be true despite the sometimes hyperbolic claims of the micro-producers for whom it is bread and butter.

Although both products are bottled at a mild 40% ABV, Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's are approaching the subject differently, from the micros and from each other.

Beam's product is called Jacob's Ghost, after 18th century family patriarch Jacob Beam. It is standard Jim Beam bourbon, aged one year, then heavily filtered to remove the color and harsher flavors. The result is a product that is still pretty raw, but much milder than white dog, with significant amounts of corn body and barrel sweetness. It is scheduled to be released in January.

Beam calls its product white whiskey, Daniel's does not. Because it's not whiskey.

As the press materials say repeatedly, new Jack Daniel's Unaged Tennessee Rye is the first new grain bill used at Jack Daniel's since Prohibition. "While many rye products only contain the required 51 percent rye in their grain bill, Jack Daniel’s Unaged Rye consists of a grain combination of 70 percent rye, 18 percent corn and 12 percent malted barley."

Notice the use of the term 'rye products,' not 'rye whiskeys.'

Take a close look at the label. Jack Daniel's Tennessee Rye is not whiskey, it's neutral spirit.

In other words, it's Jack Daniel's vodka.

Daniel's doesn't talk about any of this in the press materials.

Jack Daniel's Tennessee Rye actually tastes quite a bit like Jacob's Ghost, and very unlike the typical micro-producer white whiskey or any vodka I've ever had.

From the taste, it's hard to believe it meets the legal definition of neutral spirit. It tastes like a mild whiskey white dog.

Jack Daniel's Master Distiller Jeff Arnett, in his tasting notes, talks the way you would about an unaged rye whiskey. He describes it as more fruity than spicy, and he's right about that. They also as much as say it was already in barrels when they decided it was so good they should sell it white. That sounds like a fairy tale anyway, but is incompatible with the neutral spirit classification.

You see, the terms 'neutral spirit' and 'whiskey' are mutually exclusive. A product can't be both. You also can't put neutral spirit into a barrel and someday harvest whiskey, although they imply that's what they're doing with the phrase, "it's just a taste of what's to come."

I imagine people will be talking about it as "Jack Daniel's moonshine," but it's actually Jack Daniel's vodka, and that's just bizarre.

Both products are far more drinkable than a typical micro-producer 'white whiskey.' The Daniel's rye is spicier and drier than the Beam product. Still, you have to have at least some affection for white dog to drink either, because that's still how they taste.

Everything Arnett says about the product is consistent with how it tastes, but not with how it's labeled. That's the mystery.


Wade Woodard said...

There is a Canadian Whiskey using the same approach as Jim Beam - White Owl - they filter the color out. Pretty stupid to me. Could they make another go at making Light Whiskey?

Anonymous said...

The Beam product brings thoughts of the infamous 8/80 from the 70s, just with less aging. Hopefully it tastes better than that dud is reported to have.

The "neutral spirit" label on the Jack product sounds like a strange label, considering the impressions given by Arnett's and your tasting notes. I wonder if its some obscure result of having to use it for filtered unaged spirit, presuming the Lincoln County process is used on it.

I must admit surprise that Jack would jump on two bandwagons with one product. Heck, the idea of a Jack rye is strange to me considering the extremely low rye in their normal mash bill, and here they're going in the opposite direction with a rather high rye percentage. I wonder if they will eventually release an aged version of it.

Lazer said...

The only good news here is that in about three or four more years we can potentially have some Jack Daniel's straight rye whiskey. Now that would be something I would buy.

Gary Gillman said...

Good notes Chuck (per usual).

It would surprise me if some time in the very early history of Jack Daniel's, it didn't release some rye whiskey. The history is probably too far back to know. Rye and bourbon (including a bourbon-type like Old No.7) are close cousins. It's not quite like "love and marriage...", but almost.

Despite the ambiguities in what this new release contains, I agree with Lazer that it is good news that a Jack straight rye will see the light of day some years hence. In fact, I think a rye mash may be peculiarly susceptible to amelioration through the Lincoln County Process. We will see.


P.S. I agree too with the other commenter that given the taste notes available to date, the new product seems rather un-GNS-like. Maybe it really is rye white dog and the neutral spirit classification was just their way to try to classify it. Anyway, I believe this will likely get clarified before long.

Carlton said...

I just listened to an interview with Jeff Arnett on Whiskycast. The unaged product is the same as the aged version, but, instead of going into a barrel for maturation, it is reduced to 40% abv and bottled. Since it never touches wood, it can't be called whiskey. Both versions undergo the Lincoln County Process.


Chuck Cowdery said...

All well and good, but it's labeled neutral spirit and neutral spirit has to be distilled above 95% ABV. Something distilled above 95% ABV can never be whiskey. That's what doesn't compute.

Carlton said...

According to the interview, it is distilled to 70% abv, so I don't know how they justify calling it neutral spirit.

Chuck Cowdery said...

That's the mystery. I'll see if I can get an answer.

Sean McPherson said...

I agree the exact same product can't be both the base for aged whisk(e)y and a neutral spirit, due the <95% and >95% limits for each.

On the second note, however, I do believe there's no issue w/ regards to 'incompatibility' to the fact that the neutral grain spirit produced from the rye mash actually has flavor and such. Perhaps there's a more detailed review available, but from what I have at hand it's acceptable as-is, I believe. Specifically, I'm looking at on classifications and types. In this doc, only Vodkas as a Type have the "without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color" descriptions; there's no such limit in the Grain Spirits Type definition.

Chuck Cowdery said...

You are absolutely right as to the rules but I've tasted the Daniel's product and it sure doesn't taste like a >95% ABV distillate.