For years, big liquor companies have been pulling a fast one and getting away with it, unloading old whisky on a drinking public too timid or complacent to demand better. I’ve seen 12-year, 18-year, even 40-year-old whiskies selling for ridiculous prices. No matter the cost or cobwebs, millions of otherwise cultured people drink it by the tumblerful in bars and basement rec rooms around the world. Until recently, I was one of them. But then my wife took me to dinner for my birthday at Applewood in Brooklyn and an item on the dessert menu caught my eye: Death’s Door White Whisky. The waiter explained that it was white – or, more accurately, clear – because it was a new whisky, not having spent years in wooden barrels. One sip and the gig was up for the Macallans and Glenlivets of the world: fresh whisky is better.
I ordered it neat and added a couple of drops of water to open it up. Sure enough, it was clear as gin, which was hard to reconcile with the aroma, an unmistakable mix of fermented wheat and barley. It certainly smelled like whisky. I took a sip and let it penetrate my tongue for a few moments. There was the astringent burn of any hard liquor, but it slowly released a bouquet of pleasant flavors: caramel, vanilla, spice, clove, pear. I swallowed, exhaled, and looked again at the clear liquid in my glass. Sure enough, it tasted like whisky too, smooth, warm, and delicious. A delightful after-dinner drink.
The color, or lack thereof, takes some getting used to, but once you do, it’s pure pleasure. I looked Death’s Door up online and learned that it’s made of “hard red winter wheat” from Washington Island, Wisconsin and spends less than 72 hours in American white oak barrels. Boy does that make those other whisky makers look bad. They let their booze languish in wooden barrels for so long that it actually turns brown before they get around to bottling it.
Not so those eager go-getters at Death’s Door – the name is a nod to the legendary Death’s Door passage between Washington Island and the Door Peninsula – who understand the importance of freshness. Let’s hope their success causes the major whisky makers to step up their game and add a little hustle to the production process. I’m not getting any younger here.