Just last week, I waxed poetic, or appreciative at the very least, about the ever-expanding diversity and quality of non-alcoholic craft beer styles, embraced now more than ever in the annual sober-curious celebration that is Dry January. The growth and normalization of NA beer has been a great success story of the industry, breaking down old stigmas implying that NA beer was nothing more than a consolation prize for those unable to enjoy “the real thing.” For anyone who has been willing to give them a try, the rapid ascent of quality in this corner of the beverage world in the last five years or so has been remarkable.
The flip side of this coin, however, has been the relative struggle of “non-alcoholic spirits” to latch on to the same wellness-driven enthusiasm of NA beer, and the perpetual disappointment in flavor when it comes to products that make grand promises to “taste like whiskey” while being anything but. The truth of the matter has become frustratingly clear: It’s just much more difficult to make a palatable “non-alcoholic spirit” than it is to make a passable non-alcoholic beer, for myriad reasons. Whereas a standard pale ale can more or less function without the flavor of alcohol derived from fermentation, a whiskey-like product is often entirely lost without the backbone of ethanol (and flavors) derived from distillation. A whiskey without ethanol is like a ship without a hull—it can barely be said to exist at all.
In fact, the vast majority of “non-alcoholic spirits” on the market have never contained any alcohol to begin with—they’re more like complex, flavored tinctures that the marketers are simply hoping will scratch a similar itch to traditional spirits such as whiskey or gin when incorporated in a mixed drink. Some of the most successful of these products on the market, such as Seedlip, are able to find their own satisfying niche for making home mocktails and non-alcoholic drinks, but it’s ultimately not because they’re able to closely mimic real spirits—far from it, really. And the more closely these non-alcoholic spirits attempt to mimic that profile, the more uncanny and unpleasant things have a tendency to get, as was the case with something like Glyph Molecular Whiskey, which attempted to replicate the flavor of bourbon entirely with chemistry. I simply can’t accept that this type of result is satisfying anyone.
One approach we haven’t really seen, though, thanks to the amount of time and resources involved, is legitimate aged spirits that then have the alcohol removed from them, presumably leaving a ghost of the original flavor intact. This is the philosophy behind WhistlePig Rye Whiskey’s new PiggyBack Devil’s Slide, a truly unusual take on non-alcoholic spirits that the distillery is referring to rather ridiculously as “non-whiskey” that has been “undistilled.” It’s a limited time product, obviously being offered throughout Dry January via the online store, with an added charitable incentive, as 100% of proceeds will go to benefit the U.S. Bartender’s Guild foundation. MSRP is a reasonable $50 for a 750 ml bottle.
So, what does “non-whiskey” really entail? Some of the details are sparse, but it boils down to the following.
— Devil’s Slide essentially starts with the company’s mid-shelf staple, PiggyBack 6-Year Rye. This rye whiskey is legitimately aged for six years in newly charred American oak, exactly as any batch of Piggyback would be. At this point, it could simply be bottled as PiggyBack Rye, but instead this is just the start for Devil’s Slide.
— The alcohol in that whiskey is then removed, which is what the company refers to as being “undistilled.” That, however, is just a buzzword rather than a scientific process—it’s unclear what actual method WhistlePig is using to remove the alcohol. It’s presumably similar to one of several methods used to make non-alcoholic beer, where the alcohol is either removed via heating, or pressurized vacuum heating, or a unique method of filtration. Ultimately, this leaves a scant amount of alcohol intact (WhistlePig notes that Devil’s Slide is between .5% and 1% ABV), which technically makes Devil’s Slide a 1 proof “non-whiskey.” Even if you drank an entire 750 ml bottle, it would be like consuming 5 oz of a standard beer.
WhistlePig is immediately fighting an uphill battle for people to not be turned off by the opaque appearance of this stuff.
Suffice to say, this is a basically unheard of way of doing this, because it requires the company to essentially destroy a batch of already finished and aged whiskey to create it, after waiting six years for that whiskey to be finished. It also likely explains why this is a limited release from WhistlePig—it’s far too onerous a process to do indefinitely, which makes this ultimately more of a clever piece of Dry January advertising for WhistlePig than it is a true new product launch. Perhaps they’ll call my bluff, though, and begin producing Devil’s Slide during the rest of the year?
So with all that said and explained, let’s get to actually opening this bottle of Devil’s Slide and investigating what “undistilled” rye whiskey really tastes like.
The first thing one can’t help but notice, just picking up the bottle, is that the process of removing the alcohol from Devil’s Slide has resulted in a sadly unappealing physical appearance for the liquid. It’s a brownish-yellow, cloudy, opaque color, and the most charitable way you can describe it is to say that it looks like fresh pressed apple cider. I doubt that most who sample it will be quite so kind in their description of its appearance, however. It puts the drinker off on a bad foot, regardless, because no one in their right mind can look at a beverage with this appearance and think that it looks aesthetically pleasing.
On the nose, however, things actually take a turn for the better. This is where Devil’s Slide is at its best, because you really can recognize a lot of distinctly whiskey elements. There’s significant oak here, along with baked apples and brown sugar, cinnamon applesauce, a little bit of roast and slight cocoa. A faint bit of anise rounds out the aromatic profile, which genuinely evokes whiskey on at least some level. I will say, most of the “whiskey” elements here feel barrel derived, rather than necessarily rye-driven.
On the palate, though, the illusion of the nose more or less collapses. The texture is immediately off-putting, with the use of xanthan gum and glycerin giving it an unnaturally full and syrupy mouthfeel that is meant to replicate the fuller body of American whiskey. Flavors, meanwhile, initially evoke maple syrup and citrus, but it transitions to dryness very quickly, with oak flavors combining with surprising acidity to dry out the palate. This would already have to be judged as somewhat disappointing, but things then take another odd turn as the finish turns noticeably spicy, with an almost chile-like heat that prickles on the back of the throat. I assume that this is an addition meant to mimic the “alcohol heat” of ethanol, but the oddity of this kind of substitution is just one of the reasons why so many non-alcoholic spirits tend to read as disconcerting.
Now, I will fully grant that “neat” is hardly the way that Devil’s Slide is likely intended to be consumed for most people who would end up buying it. It may be expecting too much, in fact, to even hope that a “non-whiskey” would taste good on its own. Wanting to at least acknowledge this, I mixed some Devil’s Slide with ginger ale, and the results were unsurprisingly better than drinking it straight—you get hints of oak and toffee if you use enough of the Devil’s Slide in your rocks glass, but it primarily disappears into the mixer. On some level, you can call that a rousing success, at least for this sub-genre of the alcohol world. But is it something that a person would pay $50 a bottle for, just because it’s inoffensive with ginger ale?
In the end, WhistlePig PiggyBack Devil’s Slide “non-whiskey” is legitimately the closest to the real thing of any of these non-alcoholic spirits I’ve sampled to date … but that still leaves it trapped deeply in the uncanny valley of booze. Unlike NA beer, where the last few years have demonstrated that the heart and soul of beer can still thrive in the product when the alcohol is removed, I’m simply unconvinced the same is true for the likes of whiskey. It may be that in this category, the gulf is simply too great to cross.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.