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The Accidental Return of Light Whiskey

How a flop from the ’70s has inspired a whole new category of whiskey.

High West Light Whiskey

In 1972, the American bourbon industry introduced a new category of whiskey that unreservedly leaned into its lack of flavor as a ploy to win the attention of a public increasingly enamored of vodka. The bottles had names like Crow Light, Galaxy and Four Roses Premium—the latter’s slogan boasting a “taste that underwhelms.” Far from a success when it was first introduced, this long-derided category is undergoing a revival, all thanks to the discovery of a forgotten stock from the 1990s.

By definition, light whiskey had to be distilled to at least 160 proof, though it was typically distilled as high as 190 proof, stripping it of its flavor until it closely resembled grain neutral spirit (GNS). (Bourbon, by contrast, usually enters the barrel in the 100- to 125-proof range and legally can never be distilled higher than 160.) Light whiskey would then be briefly aged in used barrels, typically bourbon barrels, which, having gone through the ringer a few times, were largely lacking in char flavor. These factors resulted in a mildly flavored, almost vodka-like whiskey. It failed to catch on as a standalone spirit and, for the last three decades, has been used as the cheaper, more neutral component of lighter American and Canadian blends.

“I didn’t live through the ’70s. I think that allowed me to look at [light whiskey] objectively,” says Eugene Nassif, a 25-year-old lawyer by trade, who helps source single barrels of whiskey for the Iowa-based Cat’s Eye Distillery, which recently released a 13-year-old light whiskey that Nassif had acquired. “While light whiskey may have gotten a bad rap when it was young, as it aged, it developed into something truly special.”

High West Distillery was among the first to notice this development. In April 2016, it bottled a light whiskey that had been distilled in 1999 at the Lawrenceburg, Indiana, distillery that would go on to become MGP. As a light whiskey, it should have been dumped from the barrel after just a few years; it certainly was never intended to rest for 14 years, as it did. (Once High West bought the stock, they likely transferred it to a tank for a few years before bottling).

“It quite honestly fell off the books,” says Brendon Coyle, High West’s master distiller. Back in the ’90s, some excess stock didn’t fit on a truck destined for Canada, and the distillery simply forgot to schedule another delivery. “When MGP was cleaning up old inventory, they found the barrels,” says Coyle. “Knowing we liked weird, interesting stuff, they gave us a call. We simply [bought it] for educational purposes.”

High West 14 Year Light Whiskey has a delicate, cream-soda-like flavor. Nassif likens the profile of the category to “liquid candy,” heavy on the toffee and butterscotch. These flavors likely develop so prominently because the used barrels don’t overwhelm the corn-predominant liquid—99 percent corn in the case of MGP—with char and oakiness, like they might in a well-aged bourbon.

“It’s a totally different flavor,” says Joshua Hatton of the “cotton candy notes” he finds present in light whiskey. As the cofounder of Single Cask Nation, an independent bottler based in Connecticut, he first tried light whiskey when High West offered him some of its barrels for a collaboration blend back in 2013. “One of the first things we said was, ‘Why is this called light whiskey? It’s not like it’s Diet Coke. It’s not lacking in flavor.’”

In May of 2014, Single Cask Nation released the first “modern” light whiskey, having convinced High West to sell additional barrels of both an 11- and 13-year-old light whiskey it had acquired in that initial purchase from MGP. The two products sold out quickly, and Single Cask Nation has continued to experiment with light whiskey since then, even bottling an eight-year-old light whiskey finished in an ex-rye cask that once also held IPA.

With aged bourbon and rye becoming increasingly harder to acquire, there’s been a boom in aged light whiskey releases recently. The Colorado-based Weaver’s Spirits introduced a seven-year-old expression in 2016; in 2018, Berkeley’s Mosswood Distillers released a series of light whiskeys finished in oddball barrels, including ones that held sour ale and another “seasoned” by cold brew coffee; meanwhile, the San Francisco–based Bitters & Bottles, an online liquor club, launched its Old Fortunate brand in late 2018 for the sole purpose of bottling a 1992-distilled light whiskey.

“When I first tried it…the part of my brain that lights up with excitement over something totally new got triggered,” says Joe Barwin, the club’s cofounder. “The American oak flavors of caramel, vanilla, and wood spice all get softened up, making room for this lovely gentle fruitiness. It feels like a classic American whiskey profile executed with some of the elegance of Scotch.”

Each of these light whiskies, it should be noted, have stemmed from the same forgotten stock from the Lawrenceburg distillery, the only location that has produced it for the last couple of decades. That, too, is changing. A few craft distilleries are revisiting the 1970s model of young light whiskey. Wisconsin’s La Crosse Distilling started making its own high-rye light whiskey since opening late last year, while Wicked Tango’s recently released “rowdy” light whiskey is served in packaging that looks like a gasoline can—not exactly a ringing endorsement for the product held within.

“It seems like the rush to judgment in the whiskey world has peaked, and there is more curiosity and openness to whiskey in all its different expressions. And even the more cynical whiskey geeks have gotten excited about being able to try something so unique,” says Barwin. Still, he realizes he might have just had an intriguing one-off release on his hands, and light whiskey may continue to remain nothing more than an industry curio, noting: “If light whiskey does find a following and continues to be made, who knows if anyone will ever let it sit around for 25 years before putting it in a bottle again.”

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