Light Whiskey has more recently entered the whiskey scene. But, many whiskey enthusiasts are confused or conflicted by it. Those who don’t know what it is are often off-put by the name since many believe color indicates flavor or quality. Those who know what it is can be conflicted by the higher proof and lack of conventional aging methods in modern whiskey production.
We recently picked a 15-year light whiskey at King’s Family Distillery that will be available online soon. Yet, when we announced it, many people were curious about what light whiskey. Many hadn’t heard of it, and many others didn’t know much about it. So, we figured an article was in order.
So, what is light whiskey? How is it different? And, why should light whiskey be taken seriously?
What Is Light Whiskey?
Light Whiskey has actually been around a lot longer than most think. However, the legal category for light whiskey is relatively recent. This happens fairly often in the whiskey industry. When a specific type of whiskey gets prevalent enough to be made with some regularity, it is usually soon fleshed out into its own category with its own criteria.
Light Whiskey has been being made for generations as grain-based moonshine, just without the qualifier “light.”
So, light whiskey has some different qualifications than any other whiskey. Let’s see what they are:
First, it’s distilled between 160 and 190 proof and can be entered into the barrel at any proof in between. Bourbon must be distilled below 160 and can’t be entered into the barrel above 125. So, it is immediately different than bourbon. One of the reasons for bourbon’s proof being so low is that it keeps oils and certain characteristics from the grain. Distilling higher strips some of these away but doesn’t distill it high enough to be a neutral grain spirit. This keeps some of the grain character but makes it much more neutral than bourbon.
Now, this will be similar to the high-proof moonshine that many people think of. It was common for whiskey to be proofed this high many times in history. And, American Whiskey as a category can still be proofed as high as 190. So, it’s still within the whiskey category and has longstanding merit. This means it’s not so different from many other whiskies at this stage of production.
Light Whiskey must be aged either in new and uncharred oak containers or used oak containers.
This is where there’s a major deviation from most whiskey, as most modern whiskies use unused charred barrels. These newly charred barrels give the whiskey that deep color as the charred bit is broken down and absorbed into the whiskey. New uncharred oak containers aren’t usually used, as most distilleries like the character and flavor imparted by used barrels. Though, it’s not uncommon for toasted barrels or secondary barrel finishes to be used to add extra dimensions of flavor.
Using previously used barrels allows some of that remaining char to be broken down into the whiskey. It also allows some characteristics from the previous spirit locked in the barrel stave to intermingle into the light whiskey.
Moonshiners and early whiskey distillers would usually use whatever barrels or containers they could find to ship their whiskey. Sometimes a lot of those barrels had previously held something like beer and/or hadn’t been charred since that was a later discovery. Though the whiskey didn’t age as long, this can be seen as a precursor to the category that still technically satisfied its requirements.
Much of the wood sugars and chemicals have been leached from a barrel’s first aging, so light whiskey usually ages much longer than your typical whiskey. The flavor is different than most modern whiskeys. It is usually sweeter and more delicate in flavor. It has vanilla, caramel, and floral flavors upfront, and some of that grain character comes through. The barrel flavors typically take a backseat, making it much the opposite of the usual flavor balance.
Light Whiskey also typically grasps onto the flavors in a secondary barrel more readily, as those flavors have less to contend with.
Greg Sinadinos started his spirits journey writing a whiskey periodical for Fine Tobacco NYC Magazine. He began answering review requests under a social media page he named “Whiskey Culture,” which quickly merged with Greg’s passion for connecting with others and his interest in history.
Today, Greg travels the country not just looking for great whiskey, but also exploring the history and individuals that the whiskey community is founded upon. He has authored “Whiskey History From Around The World” and is the host of “The Rickhouse” web series.