White dog whiskey refers to a whiskey that has not been aged in oak barrels. However, there is some controversy over whether or not it’s really whiskey. Many believe that oak is a defining characteristic of whiskey. The oak is what gives whiskey its color. Besides color, oak also greatly contributes to the smell and taste of whiskey. If you take two samples from the same distillation and age one for a couple years in oak, and let the other sit in a closed container, you will notice that the two spirits are radically different. So different if fact, that it’s hard to imagine that they would or should belong in the same category.
Legally speaking, everything isn’t black and white. In order for whiskey to be called whiskey, it must be distilled below 90% alcohol. That is to say, everything that is collected out of the still must have come out below 90% before it is watered down to a more palatable percentage. Whereas Vodka must be distilled at or above 90%.
In order for whiskey to be labeled as Scotch Whiskey, it must first be aged for at least two years in Scotland and in oak barrels. In the United States, Bourbon must be aged in new chard oak barrels for at least two years. Corn whiskey is the exception in that it doesn’t need to be aged in oak barrels. However, it must be made from at least 51% corn.
One argument that I have heard from a distiller who makes and sells white dog whiskey is that “charred oak is mostly used to mellow out bad flavors picked up during a distillation.” In some sense this is true. Aging in oak allows the alcohol to breathe and mellow out over time. Some alcohol evaporates out of the barrel over time. This is known as the “Angels Share.” However, aging in oak won’t make bad whiskey taste good. It’s also a practice that is used by the most highly respected and coveted brands.
The U.S. Government defines whiskey as such, “Whisky: “Whisky” is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain produced at less than 190° proof in such manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky, stored in oak containers (except that corn whisky need not be so stored), and bottled at not less than 80° proof, and also includes mixtures of such distillates for which no specific standards of identity are prescribed.”
So why are some distilleries not aging their whiskey? The reason for this largely has more to do with profits than it does with anything else. Whiskey is one of the most sought after and widely consumed products on liquor store shelves. As such, being able to label your product as whiskey makes it much more marketable. The issue is that aging spirits is expensive, and many new distilleries simply cannot afford to do so. Besides the cost of buying and storing the barrels, the distiller also has to sit on their product for two years before they can begin bottling. And as with any business, time is money. Many new startups simply cannot afford to wait several years before seeing a return on their investment.
The growth of brands that advertise their product as legal “moonshine” (it’s not really moonshine) and “white dog whiskey,” has to do with the growth of the distilling industry. The U.S. government has started to relax regulations concerning distilling. This means that there are many new distilleries that are looking for ways to market their product and stay afloat. To many, this practice may seem a bit dishonest. In the end time will tell. Distilleries depend largely on return customers. If customers don’t like your product, they won’t come back.