I recently met a bootleg distiller from upstate New York. We'll call him Laird. He's been making his own booze for about 30 years, and his knowledge of the craft is vast. I happened to have in my possession a few of the new white dogs that are on the market. I was curious what he thought of them, being a maker of white lightening himself, so I let him sample a couple.
After noting the presence of a paraffin flavor in making of the craft distillers making white dog out there, and generally disparaging the kind of cheap, Dutch stills he was sure each maker was using, he led me through an interesting science experiment. A friend of Laird's and mine—at whose home we met—is an amateur winemaker. He had some French wood chips on hand. Laird suggested I put a few of these in a glass of the Buffalo Trace White Dog (which has an alcohol content of 62.5%) and watch what happened. I was astounded. The whiskey started to take on the wood immediately. Within a minute, it was darker and tasted markedly different. In five minutes, it began to taste vaguely like aged whiskey. I had no idea such things could occur so quickly. "It only works with French oak," said Laird. "The French stuff is great for that. With American oak, it's a slower process." (Here's a photo of the whiskey in question, below.)
And that was that. Until I visited that same friend this weekend. He had an idea—wouldn't it be kinda cool to do the wood-chip thing, but in the context of a cocktail? Light bulb! It would indeed.
My friend gave me a small stash of French wood chips. I went home and prepared myself a white dog Old Fashioned, using Death's Door white whiskey. (Death's Door seems to be the white dog that works best in most standard cocktails.) I muddled a sugar cube with some Angostura, then threw the wood cube in there and stirred it around some more. I added the whiskey, stirred; ice, stirred.
It definitely looked darker than the white dog Old Fashioneds I had made in the past. But that could have been my dose of Angostura. It did, however, taste different. The woodiness came through. It was an interesting accent, one that I liked. And I loved the idea that the taste of the drink would evolve as I sipped at it. I was beginning to think I had stumbled upon a bit of mixology genius.
I moved on to a white dog Manhattan. I figured I could used the wood cube for the cherry. I used Death's Door again, employing Neyah White's white Manhattan recipe, which uses Dolin Blanc vermouth and Benedictine. One thing I discovered as I strained the cocktail into the glass: wood floats. Of course, I knew that. But I had forgotten, since the ice in my Old Fashioned had kept the chip well at the bottom of the glass. But there was my woody oaken bobbing at the surface.
The drink tasted good. But it didn't taste different. What's more, that color of the drink didn't change over time either—though it was hard to tell, what with the color of the Benedictine muddying matters.
I drew some conclusions. One, a wood chip just thrown in at the end doesn't have as much effect on a drink as one stirred along as the cocktail is made. Two, a wood chip is going to have more of a noticeable flavor impact in a sipping drink like an Old Fashioned than it will in an up drink like a Manhattan, which is consumed more quickly.
I wondered if a higher alcohol white dog would make a difference. It does in infusions, after all, sucking out the flavor of whatever's in the alcohol more rapidly. I made a Manhattan with the Buffalo Trace, using just Dolin Blanc. No Benedictine. There did seem to be a slight different in color and taste from the Death's Door Manhattan. But not much.
I had another idea. Maybe the coldness of the liquor was inhibiting the wood chips from doing their aging jazz. I put a cube in some room temperature Buffalo's Trace white dog for 10 minutes. It did its work; the whiskey got darker and sharper. I made a Manhattan with that. Different from the previous one, no doubt, even if the difference was subtle.
More wood chips in the drink would work quicker magic, no question, but it would also be more unsightly. Who would want to drink a Manhattan with five chunks of kindling floating on top?
I still think I'm on to something. This could be the latest bar gimmick. So if anyone out there reading this decides to start adding wood chips to their cocktails, please give me a credit. Of course, there is the question as to whether this would pass muster with the Health Department. But it's not like bartenders actually concern themselves with the health codes that much anyway...