What to Drink This Week: White Owl Whisky
Oh, all right, I’ll say it: This is a White Owl Whisky is a strange bird.
Ha ha ha ha ha haaaaoookay I’m done now.
As we’ve discussed recently, whisky is a particularly thorny topic, one passionately defended by purists, and under constant siege by johnny-come-latelys whose expertise is based purely on which color of Johnny Walker they like best (answer: green!). The carefully-articulated rules that define whisky production, and even moreso those for Scotch, don’t leave a whole lot of room for radical invention — unlike gin, which can be infused with any number of lunatic botanicals, or rums can be spiced or blackened or… not.
To me, a drink as carefully regulated as whisky had only the opportunity for refinement, rather than innovation. Nobody was going to suddenly produce a blend that would taste like grape Jolly Ranchers or spew confetti from the top or be infused with sour apple, because that isn’t what whisky IS — maybe bourbon (we are looking firmly, sternly and perhaps a little sadly at you, Jack Daniels), but not real whisky.
No, the extravagances of other liquors, with their flavors and their colored bottles and their nightclub-affiliated advertising, aren’t available to proper dignified whiskys. There are only commercials about how grown-ups appreciate its flavor, how choosing your brand is a sign of your strength of character, how paying for the top-shelf stuff is how people know you’re a total baller.
So where in all this does a white whisky fit?
As a bit of background, there’s a growing trend among distillers to produce what’s being called “white whisky” — insofar as it is alcohol produced from the same kind of mash that might produce a whisky, but without the troublesome aging, flavoring or seasoning. Those of you who used to plunder your parents’ liquor cabinets may recall “Alcool”, which is basically what we’re talking about here: stiff, clear poison distilled from grain liquor, crafted for the purpose of shattering your liver into tiny little pieces and jumping on them.
Because America is the sort of place where Big Government can’t impose Oppressive Laws about piddly trifles like accurate labelling and product standards, this quickie liquor is being successfully marketed throughout the country, despite failing to meet any of the actual definitions of what constitutes whisky.
So, one may be surprised, then, that a reputable distiller should take up the same practice in Canada — where Big Government can write you financially ruinous citations for not raking your leaves, let alone misrepresenting recreational beverages — and expect to succeed. Don’t they realize how confused people will be? Don’t they understand that one simply can’t slap a label on things without nutritional info and translations and approvals and signoffs? Haven’t they read the rules!
But hilariously enough, Alberta’s Highwood Distillers have, and in sticking within them not only have produced a liquor that amply qualifies as a true rye — they did so with a level of extra effort that turns “white whisky the quickie gutrot” into “white whisky the premium blend.”
White Owl is a full-strength, honest-to-goodness rye that has gone through the requisite fermenting and distilling for a grain whisky. But rather than simply storing it in a plastic tub for two weeks and shoving it out the door, Highwood has gone to the lengths of aging it to standard, and then charcoal filtering out the amber color that comes with the process.
Why? Because shut up, that’s why. This is pure sports car thinking, and I absolutely love it. But before I get into that, the drink itself:
- Color: As advertised, this is clear liquor that you’re dealing with. It clings to the glass like a rye would, rather more firmly than, say, a vodka.
- Nose: White Owl has got a sweet citrus aroma to it, without a whole lot of hot liquor burn. This is a comforting first sign.
- First taste: Well, it sure is a rye — and happily, it’s a good one. The woody flavor that you’d expect is there, but it’s balanced with a burnt sugar bitterness that offsets that lemon-orange nose.
- Finish: It’s really, really clean. There’s almost no aftertaste — and those of you who frequent low-end Canadian Club can appreciate just how wonderful that is. There’s a nice warmth to it, rather than senseless, destructive acidic Buffalo Wing fire-pain.
In other words, it’s a flavorful, competent and enjoyable whisky. If I were to be blindfolded and asked to offer my opinion, I’d choose it over a lot of other ryes I’ve sampled in my time, and I’m willing to say that I’d be hesitant to use it as a mixer.
That’s a statement about White Owl’s quality, but also its price: At $40 for the 750 mL, we’re into Hendrick’s and Belvedere territory — otherwise known as the, “For God’s sake don’t pour that in the Fresca nooooooooooo” class of liquors. And while the flavor on its own I think holds up in that category, the real reason you don’t want it swimming in someone’s Canada Dry is its novelty.
Because let’s face it, you’ve just bought a legitimate white whisky. You have paid extra for entirely unnecessary presentation. You have funded wholly superficial detailing of an otherwise decent product. And you have done so because it is totally neat, and you want to tell everyone about it. There is a totally boss owl attacking something — possibly you — on the front.
This is sports car logic, through and through. Do doors that flip up like that actually make a car in any way better? Does having four tailpipes make it go any faster than if it had one (or fewer, like your old Hyundai Excel)? Will a carbon fiber steering wheel render any more acceleration than a cruddy plastic one?
Of course not. Except that those things are awesome, by merit of them being different and more and better than the normal boring stuff that you are forced to look at all the time.
And in the end, that’s exactly what makes White Owl so worth supporting: It saw the potential in an idea that was actually undermining whisky, and turned it into a wholly superficial way to set itself apart in a crowded field. White Owl doesn’t taste any better for being clear, but it’s more interesting and more fun notwithstanding. In a tradition that had little room left for innovations, White Owl managed to stand out as one.