Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Jan 8, 2012
12:35 PMSmall Dishes
Recently I decided to try Death’s Door White Whiskey, much acclaimed by some national critics who review spirits. Many brands of white whiskey have suddenly appeared and become popular—including the likewise locally distilled Yahara Bay Lightening. What they all have in common is they’re an unfinished product. Whether made from fermented corn, wheat or rye, after distilling, none are put into a barrel to age. Aging in oak is what mellows out the taste of whiskey and gives it the brown color.
Unlike vodka which is made with a reflux still that results in a neutral taste, white whiskey has a tang often compared to tequila or cachaça. Inevitably, it’s also compared to moonshine, a genre of illegal hooch that covers a lot of sins. Since it’s unlicensed and unregulated, moonshine can and is made from just about anything. This is often the source of its bad reputation. However, in the South where blue laws prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages in many places long before and after prohibition, it can be most refined indeed. Many of its makers often consider it a treasured family tradition and are very proud of their recipe—like the Baldwin sisters in the TV show The Waltons.
I’m not a connoisseur of moonshine, but when I first tasted white whiskey that’s what first came to mind. Growing up in Kentucky, I’ve been the brunt of many jokes about hillbillies and moonshine. Actually, to this day I’ve never been to the eastern, Appalachian part of the state, but I did know a genuine and eccentric moonshiner.
Back in high school I had a friend who lived on what I guess I would call a farm even though seemingly it was fallow. If it had been a hundred year previous, I would have probably called it a plantation. The big house on top of the hill with its colonnaded portico was right out of Gone with the Wind—the end of the movie since it would charitably be described as genteelly shabby. My friend warned me that the main drive was booby trapped and to always come by the less obvious back way.
Considering how conventional my friend was, both his parents were as exotic as characters in a Tennessee Williams play. His mother seemingly slept all day, and even when awake seemed to only possess a wardrobe of fluffy pink robes and matching mules. His dad was always busy doing I don’t know what in his “office” out back that was off limits. Recluses they were not, however, since their parties were notorious, especially a Derby Day soiree that was the talk of the western part of the state. Obviously, the driveway was swept of mines prior to these occasions.
My parents were invited to a cocktail party there and looked forward to meeting the parents of my ever so polite and well-mannered friend. They’d obviously never heard the rumors about the still. Regardless, they weren’t prepared for what awaited them and never went back again. Seemingly, all the guests had to scavenge for the booze and glassware hidden around the property before the drinking could begin … while Big Daddy sat on the porch, drinking his libation and enjoying the show.
It was inevitable that on one of my weekend visits my friend and I would unearth a hidden jar of his father’s white lightening. It was also inevitable that we’d drink it. I already tippled bourbon on occasion and was surprised at how much rougher this was, but at the same time not without redeeming value: It had a real kick. My friend suggested mixing it with Dr. Pepper which I did. Once I’d tried moonshine, I lost interest in it so I didn’t give any thought as to how it should best be served.
Having purchased my bottle of Death’s Door White Whiskey, however, I put considerable thought into how to enjoy it. Coincidentally, some friends had just given me some cherry bounce. If you’re not familiar with how it’s made, fresh sour cherries are put in a jar with sugar and brandy and allowed to sit for several months. I thought what could be a better combination than two products with roots in Door County? Basically, I poured three parts of DD White Whiskey and two parts of cherry bounce liquid over ice in and old fashioned glass, added a dash of bitters, and garnished it with one of the cherries and a slice of orange. Yahoo! It was a lot better than the Dr. Pepper.