Two signs hanging in the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky best sum up the attitudes of the traditional players in the bourbon business, an industry that accounts for a staggering $8 billion in sales globally. One is the company motto. “We make fine bourbon — at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon.” The other is a direct shot across the bow to a growing number of modern distillers who use sophisticated technology to, essentially, cheat time. “No scientists allowed in this distillery,” the sign reads.
Nobody trades more on whiskey that is aged slowly for a long time than the company’s president Julian Van Winkle. His 23-year old Pappy Van Winkle is the Holy Grail for many bourbon collectors — fetching up to $3,000 a bottle — and he believes that the quality comes from the geographic and climatological advantages of Kentucky. “One of the beauties of our climate is that it is so miserably hot in the summer and cold in the winter,” says the cultishly followed pappy of Pappy. “This is good for whiskey since we get better extraction and absorption from the barrels over the seasons. It’s been said that one year in Kentucky is worth five years of aging in Scotland.”
And as the sign suggests, when it comes to a new wave of accelerated aging — a movement that utilizes everything from shrunken barrels to ultrasonic sound waves — Van Winkle most certainly isn’t buying it. “I’m just not a fan,” he says, cutting to the point. “I’m old school and believe if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I understand that some folks are forced to do it to try to get some cash, but I haven’t encountered anything that struck me as great stuff yet.”
Traditionally, whiskey distillers have been a very patient lot, willing to wait years for their product to reach maturity in the dark recesses of huge warehouses tucked in the hills of Kentucky or the cellars of Scottish castles. Rick Wasmund, the head distiller and owner of Copper Fox Distillery, located in rural Sperryville, Virginia, isn’t one for patience. He employs a host of non-traditional aging techniques to accelerate the process of maturing his Wasmund’s Single Malt Whiskey. And he thinks his liquid is as good, if not better, than the stuff set aside for a decade or more.
Compared with the traditional method of stacking barrels filled with moonshine in multi-story barrelhouses and allowing time and temperature to do the work — the way bourbon is produced throughout Tennessee and Kentucky — Wasmund’s process is different, one he describes as incredibly labor-intensive. “We figure that we’re replacing aging time with our time,” he says.
It’s a centuries-old formula: alcohol + oak + time = deliciousness.
While some may complain that his methods are “cheating,” Wasmund says he hasn’t heard about it. “Nobody’s said it to my face, and I guarantee that we work harder at what we do than anyone practicing traditional aging.”
Jim Rutledge, the master distiller at Four Roses Bourbon since 1995, has words for Wasmund’s. “There’s nothing that replaces time in a barrel and what Mother Nature does to whiskey over time,” he says, slightly irritated. “Bourbon is a sweeter whiskey than scotch or Irish whiskeys. Those sweet flavors are generated in the aging process through maturation from the natural sugars in the wood.”
It’s a centuries-old formula: alcohol + oak + time = deliciousness. Despite what the marketers behind the recent spate of un-aged white whiskeys and innumerable new moonshine varieties might tell you, it’s the lovely notes of vanilla, caramel and maple — formed by the cellulose and lignin in the wood during the in-barrel maturation — that really gets the brown spirits geeks excited. The natural expansion and contraction of the whiskey into and out of the charred surface of the interior of oak barrels adds the flavor, color and character to the clear base alcohol.
The liquid is drawn into the wood in an almost tidal pattern as the heat of summer increases the pressure inside the cask and chillier weather pulls it back out. The more seasons that the alcohol spends in repose, the more opportunities the elixir has to achieve its ultimate character, usually 6-8 years for American whiskey and 10-15 years for scotch, though some can still improve with even more aging.
This delayed gratification can be problematic in the capital-intensive distilling industry. Despite what the toothless protagonists on Moonshiners might promise you, you can’t start up a distillery for $50,000. Between equipment, licensing, bonding and initial marketing costs, you can go ahead and multiply that number by at least 10-20 times for anything more than a bathtub micro-distillery. Imagine going to a banker with a loan application and saying, “I need $875,000 to build a complex chemical engineering plant. I’ll make a product that we will store in a warehouse for most of a decade. And then we’ll find out if it’s any good. If it’s good, we’ll start to sell it, and start paying you back.”
Rutledge acknowledges this difficulty. “I can’t think of a harder business to start up in than the whiskey business. You have to have some sort of positive cash flow while you wait for good bourbon. It’s a challenge to find investors who are willing to put up that sort of money.”
Enterprising distillers have addressed the problem in different ways. Some concentrate on producing white liquors — vodka, gin and moonshine are fixtures at many upstart distilleries — while they wait on the bourbon. But others have experimented and discovered new methods for accelerating the aging process, often with remarkable results.
Tuthilltown Spirits, founded in New York’s Hudson Valley in 2003, was an early advocate of innovative aging techniques. Rather than using the industry-standard 53-gallon oak casks, they aged their Hudson Baby Bourbon in barrels as small as three gallons. The logic is that the increased ratio of surface area to volume allows for more surface contact between the wood and the whiskey. Translation: Speed aging. To get the maturation going even more, Tuthilltown pumps low-frequency sound waves through their aging room to keep the liquid agitated — like dancers waiting for the drop at a dubstep show. The results are a whiskey that isn’t just palatable after only four months, but that is actually wining awards.
Clay Risen, an editor at The New York Times and author of American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit, has his own opinions on Hudson’s speed-aging technique. “They’re just not as matured in flavors,” he says. “I taste a lot of raw grains, literally like breakfast cereal, and there’s a rawness to it that wood aging could take the edge off of.” Risen concludes that you are only awarded some oak and vanilla notes from quick aging, but you completely lose the chocolate and vanilla notes produced by the slow (10 year) marriage of the chemicals in char of the barrel and the whiskey. Risen does see a place for the younger whiskeys, though. “They can be useful in different types of cocktails, but I don’t particularly like to sip on them.”
“There weren’t any books about how to do this. I just wanted to make the best whiskey on the planet.” — Rick Wasmund of Copper Fox
At Copper Fox, Wasmund was trained in the art of whiskey making in Scotland. But he realized that he didn’t have the time or patience to wait 20 years for an exceptional product, so he turned to science and experimentation to speed up the aging process of his excellent Wasmund’s Single Malt Whiskey. The procedures are a combination of old-school techniques and high tech voodoo. Wasmund starts with the very traditional method of “floor malting” his own barley, spreading the damp grain out with a wooden rake on the floor of his distillery, allowing it to sprout, and then gently drying the barley with the gentle heat and subtle smoke of a fire made from cherry and apple wood. After that step, the process jets to the 21st century.
Immediately after filling a 53-gallon barrel with a single batch from his double-pot still, Wasmund introduces extra wood to the alcohol by dropping in toasted oak and apple chips that are contained in a mesh package — not unlike a tea bag. These barrels are agitated throughout the 12 months, like dipping your bag of Earl Grey in and out of your cup to steep it faster. After the year, the chip bag is removed and reused, and the whiskey is then transferred into another barrel (which is heated and then rolled, still hot, to ensure that the alcohol achieves maximum penetration into the charred internal layers of the barrel). After cooling, the process is repeated 2-3 more times over the next few months until the spirit is ready for bottling.
“There weren’t any books about how to do this,” says Wasmund of his modern approach. “I just wanted to make the best whiskey on the planet.” After several trials, he determined that he could produce a golden whiskey full of a lovely array of nicely balanced characteristics ranging from woody to earthy in just 14 months by employing innovative aging techniques.
Tom Lix is not afraid of being called a radical for his whiskey-making methods at his new venture, Cleveland Whiskey Company In fact, the hangtag on his whiskey bottles proudly touts that this product is “Radically Different.”
When Lix decided to enter the distilling business, he realized that he would be confronted by problems of capacity and throughput. “The whiskey industry is at its very core a business of tradition,” he says. “To be clear, not all of this is bad. The industry overall makes a good product; it’s in great demand, and the world market is growing at a significant pace. The issue, however, is that current production capacity simply can’t keep pace with the growing demand.”
Lix knew that there could be an opportunity for a new player who could produce whiskey that drank like a traditionally aged product, but that could be ready to ship early and often. Instead of having to wait for his whiskey to mature and forecast demand for his product years in advance, Lix sought a process that could let him deliver a quality whiskey and scale up his production quickly as demand and distribution increased.
Armed with a $25,000 grant from the Innovation Fund of the Lorain County Community College Foundation, Lix developed a scientific solution for the issue of maturation speed — shortening the process to as short as a week through the use of steel tanks filled with wood chips under pressure to accelerate the absorption of the essence of the oak into the whiskey.
To simplify the explanation, Lix uses the analogy of a sponge in a bucket of water. “When you squeeze the sponge, it’s almost dry in your hand. Then, when you let it go, the water rushes deep into the pore structure of the sponge. Squeeze it again, it’s dry, let it go, it’s wet. That’s essentially what we do.” Cleveland purchases very young bourbon already in a barrel, which satisfies the legal requirements for calling his end product bourbon. He then empties the bourbon into stainless steel tanks. Cleveland processes the wood from the barrels that originally contained their product, paying special attention to control for weight, moisture content, surface area and shape. Finally, they add measured amounts of the barrel oak to the young bourbon in each tank.
“We’ve been called heretics by some, sacrilegious by others and had more than our fair share of traditionalists shout out that what we’re doing with whiskey simply can’t be done.” — Tom Lix of Cleveland Whiskey Company
By applying pressure variations to the liquid in the tank, large swings in pressure with a fairly fast frequency like the passing of years worth of seasons in Kentucky, they essentially squeeze the wood like a sponge, forcing the bourbon in and out of the pore structure of the inner surface of the barrels to leech out the character hidden in the wood.
Cleveland Black Reserve 100-proof spirit does exhibit some qualities of bourbon that has spent years, not days, in oak. In blind taste tests against older established brands, Cleveland claims to hold its own — and public acceptance has been growing rapidly. “We’ve been called heretics by some, sacrilegious by others and had more than our fair share of traditionalists shout out that what we’re doing with whiskey simply can’t be done. The proof however is in the taste.”
Risen has considered whether these modern methods of maturation are “cheating” compared to traditional aging. “I’d have to say that Cleveland is more on the cheating side,” he says. “They believe they’ve created a shortcut around the chemistry involved in making bourbon. It’s a nuanced point, but distillers who use small barrels are making decent bourbon that tastes different, but still good. Using a machine to produce what you claim is a fully-aged product is another deal altogether.”
And in the end, Rutledge understands why some producers might be looking for ways to do whatever it takes to acquire something to put in their bottles to sell. “Forcing bourbon to age is an issue for all of us,” he says of his peers in the industry. “You can’t just distill a batch of 7-year old bourbon. None of us have excess whiskey right now, and the domestic and global demand is putting a lot of pressure on the industry.” But he’s unwilling to change his philosophy for the sake of a few (million) extra dollars. “We’re not going to change our methods just to create more inventory of an inferior product.”
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