Here’s the headline of a news release just received from Early Times, that old workhorse American whiskey: “Early Times Becomes Official Spirits Sponsor of the ACO.” That would be the American Cornhole Organization.
Corn whiskey and cornhole. Yes, folks, it’s true. Sometimes my columns just write themselves.
Consider the corporate message: Let those other spirits be the official whatever of regattas and golf tournaments and Super Bowls and fashion shows and Hollywood after-parties. Drinkers of lowbrow, $9.99 Early Times will be just as happy with a backyard game in which one throws small bags of corn through holes cut into plywood. Brilliant.
At moments like this, I’m reminded of why we love American whiskey. It’s not because aficionados try to fancy it up and put it on the top shelf or act as though bourbon is the new single-malt Scotch. American whiskey is an affordable, humble sort of pleasure, beginning with its main ingredient, corn. Prosaic, down-home, delicious all-American sweet corn.
Of course, when whiskey fans talk about bourbon or rye, we rarely talk about the corn. We talk about how much rye or wheat is in the mash, about the barreling, about the aging. The corn, however, is always there. Bourbon must contain at least 51 percent corn as its primary grain, and in most cases, corn accounts for about 70 percent of the recipe ingredients. Even in rye, there’s usually a substantial amount of corn in the mix.
“Bourbon should have a sweetness that Scotch doesn’t have,” says Jim Rutledge, master distiller at Four Roses in Lawrenceburg, Ky. The corn is what gives American whiskey that telltale sweet kiss. By now, I hope we’ve all gotten over the idea that “sweet” does not mean “sophisticated.” The complex kind of sweetness that the best American whiskeys deliver is, in my opinion, one of the foremost enjoyments of adulthood.
It stands to reason, then, that the sweet taste of corn is driving the latest trend in American whiskey: high-end micro-distilled moonshine. These white whiskeys offer distilled corn in its rawest expression.
I wrote about the first wave of these white, unaged corn whiskeys last year, around the time Max Watman’s entertaining book on moonshine, “Chasing The White Dog” (Simon & Schuster, 2010), was published. At that time, the most widely available of them were from Death’s Door in Wisconsin and Tuthilltown in Hudson Valley, N.Y., and, locally, from Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Va., and Catoctin Creek Distilling in Purcellville. I especially recommend Catoctin Creek’s, called Mosby’s Spirit.
Since then, a steady stream of white whiskeys has entered the market, including Smooth Ambler from West Virginia and a white oat whiskey from High West in Utah.
The big boys have also gotten involved. Buffalo Trace released its White Dog, previously available only in its gift shop in Frankfort, Ky. This past spring, Heaven Hill released two bottlings of New Make in its Trybox series: two unaged whiskeys, one predominantly corn and the other rye.
If you’re keeping track, it appears that moonshine is the new absinthe: a formerly illicit spirit that’s now the darling of the cocktail cognoscenti. Of course, it’s unclear how many people are buying white whiskeys, and even more unclear how they’re being consumed.
“Most consumers simply don’t know what the hell to do with them,” says Joe Riley, fine spirits manager at Ace Beverage in Northwest Washington. “Demand for them isn’t high, and I rarely see repeat sales on them. Most folks just want to try them to satisfy their curiosity.”
One thing about white whiskeys is that they’re usually very high in proof. Some are taken straight off the still at 125 proof and bottled. That’s higher octane than most folks usually play around with.
There is, however, at least one tasty new white whiskey: XXX Shine by Philadelphia Distilling, bottled (in a glass jug with a handle) at a somewhat gentler 88.8 proof.
Gina Chersevani, bar manager at PS 7’s in Penn Quarter, was part of the tasting panel that helped develop XXX Shine, and she created recipes for it. “It’s very tricky, because the spirit cannot hide behind aging,” she wrote via e-mail. “It is [the] liquor equivalent of being naked.”
I’ve enjoyed mixing cocktails with XXX Shine. It worked well in several Manhattan variations, including Chersevani’s Rouge Manhattan and the White Manhattan recommended in this column last year.
Because summer corn season is upon us, I also muddled some kernels off the cob, then shook them along with white whiskey, St.-Germain elderflower liqueur and lemon juice to make a delicious Silver Queen Daisy.
The next time I make that one, however, I intend to save a handful of corn kernels, which I will place in a small bag, with the intention of throwing it through a hole cut into plywood. I figure that this summer I should start my training for this year’s American Cornhole Championships.
Wilson is author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed Press, 2010). Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist.