[ white lightning ]
Bourbon might be America's drink, but moonshine is America's whiskey.
You know the stories, you've heard the tales, you've conjured up plenty of fanciful Podunk imagery in your city-dwelling brain — gangs of good ol' boys with just a few teeth and even fewer concerns with the law, wiping their hands on dirty overalls while working a pot still inside a near-collapsing barn off some dusty Dixie road. They pour helpings of that shocking-clear stuff into smudged Mason jars, load them up on the back of a dinged-up Chevy pickup and use it to bribe the police or to barter for some sort of prized farm animal. Or they just sip the stuff straight up, slurring their words as they dip their toes into a magical Twainian fishing hole.
The exponentially embellished lore of moonshine is strong — as strong as that rotgut paint thinner your cousin drank at that bonfire last summer ("Dude, I got soooo fucked up!"). It was a mere matter of time before white whiskey — the term for a distilled grain spirit straight off a still that hasn't been aged in a barrel like bourbon, scotch or Irish whiskey — poured over the minds of mainstream, contemporary liquor consumers. "It's a supremely American thing," says Max Watman, the New York-based journalist who wrote the 2010 book Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw's Adventures in Moonshine. "It was how we drank whiskey originally. It wasn't aged until the early 1800s, so all of the original founding whiskey of the nation [is] white whiskey. It's in our cultural DNA."
And who better, locally, to tap into our apparent double-helixed propensity for firewater than Philadelphia Distilling (PD)?
Based on the border of Northeast Philly and Bucks County, the six-year-old operation has three successful flagship spirits under its belt: Bluecoat Gin, Penn 1681 Rye Vodka and Vieux Carré Absinthe. The simply named Shine, the 100 percent corn whiskey that should make its way onto Pennsylvania state-store shelves in April or May of this year, represents PD's entry into a liquor category that's experienced a very real boom in the past year. Both boutique distilleries like Wisconsin's Death's Door and established bourbon producers like Kentucky's Buffalo Trace have released their own white whiskeys — but this isn't a trend-riding situation for PD. "We wouldn't do it if we thought it was a flash in the pan," says co-founder Andrew Auwerda, who, along with partners Tim Yarnall and Robert Cassell, decided to begin developing Shine in the fall of 2010.
After the team successfully pitched the whiskey to the PLCB this past fall, Cassell, who's earned the right to be called a master distiller through intensive study both in the States and in Scotland, began R&D. He admits that his very first "cooks" of milled corn — right now he's sourcing the raw materials for Shine from a hub in the Midwest — turned into "gelatinous muck," but it wasn't long before he was able to produce a quality mash, the starting product converted to wort in a mashtun and fermented with various yeasts in a process extremely similar to beer brewing.
At this point in the operation, Cassell takes the wort and distills it for the first time, producing a gnarly tweener product called "low wines." It's strong and "really smells like it should come out of a Mason jar," laughs Cassell.
The second round of distillation, or "spirit run," which Cassell practices on a tabletop mini-still and later scales up for production on PD's big-boy copper still, is where the magic happens. Variations in time, temperature and "cut points" (meaning at what moments during the process one starts and stops collecting the "middle" of the run, the portion of the distillate that's meant to be drunk) greatly affect a whiskey's characteristics.
"Usually a bottle of whiskey is a sum of a few parts, a few stages — the art of barreling, the art of aging," says Watman. "With white whiskey, you've cut it down to fewer influences, so the bits of craft that are at work in that bottle are highlighted even more."
Craftsman Cassell will be the first to tell you he's still tinkering — in the distillery right now, he's got a table stocked with glass vials containing 30-odd variations on Shine, all representing different yeast strains and cut points. Some smell like sweet hard candy; some are floral or roselike; others straight-up singe the nostrils. (Copper plays an important role in developing flavors, too — the buttery and sulphuric notes present in some white whiskeys are a result of exposure to still walls.) Maybe Cassell will blend multiple whiskeys, fermented with multiple yeasts, together to produce the final Shine; maybe he won't. Aside from noting the target proof (88.8, or 44.4 percent alcohol), he's altogether coy about which direction the product will ultimately head. "This category, it's hard to feel out," says Cassell. "Do people expect smoothness because it's clear? Or because it's corn whiskey, do they assume it's a rougher distillate?"
"With [PD's other spirits], I was looking at a blank slate as a base — building on top of, or creating, that blank slate," Cassell adds. "[With Shine], it's more a matter of where the flavors are being developed."
Shine's branding thrust is further along. The label pattern calls to mind a black bandanna; the bottle is a modern play on an XXX-branded clay jug, complete with wooden stopper cork. And it'll be priced in step with PD's other spirits, at $24.99 a bottle. "We're playing right into peoples' perceptions of moonshine," says Auwerda. "That's why we chose the jug look. To us, it says badass, illegal ... it sort of has that 'other side of the fence' kind of feel."
Regardless of Shine's final flavor profile, the gin, vodka and absinthe makers concede that this is something new for them. Something lighthearted, something a little subversive, a little edgy — almost an alcoholic "alter ego," in Cassell's words.
"What we do is very premium," he says. "This is more showing up with a bottle on my finger at my buddy Tommy's place to do some barbecue."