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Imagine the boys from the Dukes of Hazzard wearing Rag & Bone jeans, carrying Herschel bags, and custom-painting the stars ’n’ bars onto the hood of a new red Tesla Model S. You now have an idea of the very odd position white dog occupies among adult beverages. For years this unaged clear spirit — also commonly referred to as moonshine, rotgut, and white lightning — sat at the butt end of the drinking canon. It was a drink made by lowlifes for lowlifes. But lately it’s become downright cool to drink, and increasingly it’s a go-to in the arsenals of hotshot bartenders.
White dog’s transformation began with the fetishizing of bourbon over the last decade. Suddenly it wasn’t enough simply to source obscure bottles — aficionados wanted to get ahold of the building blocks of those obscure bottles, the fresh-from-the-still spirits before they decamped for multiyear hibernation in charred oak barrels.
The allure of white dog is that, in theory, it shows the distiller’s art at its most pure, consisting of nothing more than the spirit’s “mash bill” — that all-important base of corn and/or wheat, rye, and malted barley — put through a careful distillation. The results show what’s what before the heavy influence of the barrels takes effect. In the moonshine days of old Appalachia, the mash bill was a corn-dominant mix, and the distillation process was so rough that the resulting spirit could literally be deadly. Today’s white dog is similar to a heavy rye vodka, like Belvedere, but with a bit more kick (actually, a lot more kick). There can also be citrus and beeswax-like notes that you don’t get in most vodkas.
Another reason for white dog’s rise is that many of our local craft distillers are keen to make real whisky but have to contend with a Canadian law that says anything labelled as whisky must be aged for at least three years. Selling white dog gets some revenue flowing while the spirit sits, plus it gets consumers excited about the finished product. Among new Vancouver-based distillers, Liberty Distillery is already going great guns with its Railspur No. 1 White, and Odd Society Spirits will be untethering Mongrel in the coming month. As for casked whiskies, Okanagan Spirits, Shelter Point, and Pemberton Distillery all release single malts in the coming months.
Buffalo Trace White Dog ($47) Checks in at a mouth-numbing 62.5 percent but has nice yeasty notes, and some corn flavour that harks back directly to the mash. Pricier than regular Buffalo Trace bourbon, so you have to admire the brand’s pluck
The Liberty Distillery Railspur No. 1 White ($49) The mash is pure barley, and when it emerges from the cask in 2016 it will be in the style of an Irish whisky called Trust Whisky. For now it’s a muscular sip (47 percent will do that!) that’s very full in the mouth but avoids a major burn
White Owl ($36) Actually a blend of properly aged whiskies (some up to 10 years old) that has been aggressively charcoal-filtered back to a clear state. In so doing, it loses some of its sweet caramel flavours, but the remainder has a pleasing citrus-zest taste that’s definitely smoother than pure white dog
From Matt Cooke, Odd Society Spirits, 1725 Powell St., 604-559-6745
1.5 oz Odd Society Mongrel (or other white dog)
2 tbsp cranberry preserves
3/4 oz maple syrup
3/4 oz fresh lime juice
2 dashes orange bitters
1 sprig rosemary
Add the rosemary sprig and a splash of white dog to a rocks glass. Set the liquid on fire to roast the sprig and smoke the glass. Remove the sprig, fill the glass with crushed ice, then return the sprig to the glass. In a cocktail shaker, combine other ingredients. Shake hard with ice, and fine-strain into the iced glass.