Today, Millie Milliken takes a dive into the surprisingly rich world of new make spirit. Unaged whisky can be delicious, packed full of character and a great cocktail ingredient. Who needs barrels anyway?
The beauty of a long-aged and nuanced whisky is a wonderful thing. There’s the romanticism of the angels’ share, the complex flavour imparted by the carefully-chosen casks, choice of barrel the whisky patiently rests in and its resulting complexity; and finally that magical amber hue sparkling in a cut crystal decanter. Bring me my smoking jacket!
Then there’s new make spirit: there’s no colour or age statement. Despite being as close as you can get to whisky DNA and with its own fascinating history, it has to be one of the world’s most unrecognised and unappreciated spirit subcategories.
So, what’s the beef with new make? We got in touch with whisky producers and open-minded bartenders to find out why we should be paying more attention to this enigmatic, young spirit.
What is new make spirit?
In a nutshell: unaged whisky. The clear liquid that comes off the still after distillation (packing a punchy abv of around the 70%) and before it’s moved into barrel. Most commonly, it’s associated with Scotch but technically, new make can be any style of whisky: from Finnish unaged rye, to single malt new make made in Tel Aviv.
And then there’s white dog, new make’s American twin, which also goes by the monikers moonshine, hooch and white lightening. It’s the prelude to bourbon whiskey, more Stetsons and swinging saloon doors than wingback armchairs and roaring fires.
Why do some distilleries bottle it?
A lot of distilleries use it as a way of making money while they wait for their whisky to age, giving their distillery guests a glimpse of what’s to come. “We initially did it before we had whisky to sell,” says Peter Holroyd, distillery manager at Fife’s Kingsbarns Distillery which set up shop in 2014. “It’s great for people to taste something from where they have visited, especially when it isn’t hiding behind any oak.”
While, of course, it comes with its practical uses, there is also a very real value to being able to present customers with the liquid that acts as a base for a distilleries many different expressions. “We always talk about a flavour profile at Mackmyra Whisky, and I think the best way to explain that really is giving people access to your new make spirit,” explains the Swedish whisky’s Scotland brand ambassador Micky Plummer, who describes the beautifully floral Mackmyra Vit Hund (‘white dog’ in Swedish) as its “DNA”. Holroyd also points out that as many distilleries don’t bottle their new make, for those that do, it provides an interesting niche: “it’s really a curiosity”.
Why don’t we see it more often?
For James Hawkins, head bartender at whisky-focused Sexy Fish, new make’s lack of representation on shelves and on bar menus is the absence of age. According to Hawkins, most people associate whisky with an age statement “so it’s very hard to convince your average consumer that this [new make] is still a good product.”
Sexy Fish lists two new makes on their menus: Nagahama New Make Heavily Peated from the relatively young Nagahama distillery in Japan, and Karuizawa/Ocean Blend ‘White Ship’ a premium and rare new make from the now-closed distillery. Bottled in the early ‘80s, it’s possibly the only remaining insight into what Karuizawa new make would have tasted like.
Michal Maziarz, bars manager at Great Scotland Yard Hotel, agrees that the misconception that anything that distillers create “is rubbish before it goes into the barrel” and the classic categorisation of whisky both play a part in new make staying in the shadows of its older counterpart.
Is now the time to experiment with new make?
The creativity of smaller producers is a factor that Maziarz thinks is contributing to more interesting and better quality new makes making it into bottle. “Small producers have time and knowledge and are willing to experiment right at the beginning of the process with yeast, fermentation and different malts,” he explains.
It certainly seems like now is a good time to drink them with the likes of Lindores Abbey and Kilchoman releasing their own in the last two years (albeit the latter having spent a few months in barrel).
Hawkins thinks that drinkers who have discovered a love for other clear spirits like tequila and mezcal might be the ones to embrace new make in the coming years, looking for a long refreshing drink but with a heavier profile than the likes of gin or vodka. After all, you still get all the flavour characteristics from fermentation and distillation.
How can you drink it?
It really depends on the distillery style, but a lot of new make spirits can be enjoyed as you would a whisky: neat, on the rocks, or with a dash of water.
However, there are plenty of ways it can be used in cocktails too. Holroyd knows the orchard fruit, apple, pear and peach characteristics of Kingsbarns’ new make means it works great as a palate warmer, but also knows of customers and friends who drink it with soda (like a Whisky Highball) or in a Bloody Mary. Indeed, smokier new makes make for an excellent vodka replacement for the latter.
Maziarz reckons these more fruity new makes would be fantastic instead of pisco in a Sour, while bolder and funkier ones would fit nicely in Tiki drinks. Or, you could go simple: “something lightly flavoured like a good quality tonic would work”, he says.
Plummer says that replacing gin in some cocktails is a clever approach. For example, making a Vesper Martini swapping the gin for Vit Hund and the vodka for a light whisky. Hawkins admits he’d prefer a New Make Collins over a Vodka Collins every time.
It seems that new make spirit is far less enigmatic and much more versatile than originally thought. Or, as Maziarz lovingly describes it: “quite a clever little kid.”
Two new makes worth discovering:
Perhaps my favourite new make spirit, this unaged rye from the maverick Finish distillery is bursting with flavours of warm rye bread, spice and subtle notes of liquorice. Delicious on its own.
This lovely drop from the Dornoch Distillery is the beginnings of its single malt whisky and displays fruity notes of crisp apple and lime with the undertone of malty characteristics.