Aging whiskey is somehow both the simplest thing in the world…and a process the (mostly) old men who do it might not even fully understand.
The simple part: a distilled white spirit—typically corn-based in America—is put into a barrel—typically charred oak in America—and then left to sit around for a decent stretch of time.
The complex part: over these many years, the climate’s changing temperatures cause the whiskey to seep into the wood, then get pushed back out, extracting with it flavorful compounds like vanillins and hemicellulose which naturally linger in the barrel staves.
Whatever the case, when the whiskey ultimately comes out of the barrel, the product will be darker, have (usually) had the white dog’s rough edges smoothed away, and become a now-complex offering packed with flavors such as caramel, vanilla, and even tobacco.
Unfortunately, creating great whiskey has always meant dealing with that annoying little time factor.
Straight bourbon legally must be aged for two years, someone like Eddie Russell (the co-master distiller at Wild Turkey) has told me he thinks bourbon hits its sweet spot around six years, and, of course, some of the world’s most coveted bourbons, ryes, and scotches often take ten to upwards of twenty-something years to become truly divine.
But what if there was a way to cheat the system? Why, you’d immediately revolutionize the industry and surely become quite rich in the process.
Suntory doesn’t exactly need to revolutionize the industry any more that it already has, and it’s already plenty rich enough, but this ancient Japanese distillery is still trying.
This week, the world’s fourth-largest liquor company announced that on August 16 they will send some of their whiskey to the Japanese Experiment Module “Kibo” aboard the International Space Station.
Interestingly, the six glass flasks being sent aren’t even new whiskey. Instead, Suntory is sending ten, eighteen, and twenty-one-year-old whiskeys, planning to leave them on the station for at least a year.
Reportedly, the company’s researchers believe storing the whiskey in an environment without temperature fluctuations or gravity could lead to a mellower flavor profile upon its return to earth.
“Our company has hypothesized that ‘the formation of high-dimensional molecular structure consisting of water, ethanol, and other ingredients in alcoholic beverages contributes to the development of mellowness,’” notes Suntory’s mumbo-jumbo-y press release.
At first glance, this may seem like a gimmick, similar to Ninkasi Brewing’s recent “out of this world” experiment.
Last year, the Eugene, Oregon brewery rocketed several vials of yeast 400,000 miles above earth, seeing if anything might happen to it.
When it returned, brewery scientists found nothing had really been altered chemically, and the resulting Ground Control Imperial Stout got fairly pedestrian reviews.
Having said that, back in 2011, noted Scottish distillery Ardbeg also sent to the International Space Station half a liter of scotch terpenes alongside shards of charred oak inside a NanoRacks MixStix.
Once aboard the station an astronaut activated the experiment, causing the spirit to mix with the oak particles to simulate barrel-aging.
Though the vials returned to earth in September of last year, we are still awaiting the results of Head of Distilling & Whisky Creation Dr. Bill Lumsden’s exhaustive studies, the findings of which will eventually be released in a white paper.
A slightly less interesting, but perhaps more viable place whiskey has been aged is on a boat. While fishing with a friend, Trey Zoeller, the founder and master blender of Jefferson’s Bourbon, had an idea: what about aging his bourbon at sea?
He figured that just maybe, the constant sloshing of the bourbon due to the natural waves of the ocean might cause the product to age faster.
Conveniently, Zoeller had a friend, Chris Fischer, who was the founder of OCEARCH, a great white shark tracking group.
Fischer allowed Zoeller to put a few barrels of unaged white whiskey on his boat when the researcher went off on his next global tracking mission. Some four years later, Zoeller tried the bourbon and was stunned.
“The bourbon went in (the barrels) clear as water and came out black,” he told NPR. “Bourbon always picks up color in the barrel, but this four-year-old bourbon was darker than thirty-year-old bourbon.”
What had happened was the more frequent than usual contact with the barrel wood had stripped away bad, astringent flavors quicker than usual, while helping the positive flavors become faster extracted from the wood.
As a bonus, the sea air had also somehow gotten into the exposed barrels as well, adding a unique briny taste to the bourbon.
First released in just a few-hundred bottles in 2012, Jefferson’s Ocean is one of the most intriguing bourbons I’ve ever tasted, one actually worth its higher $85 price tag.
Others clearly agree, as it has become a now regular expression in Jefferson’s catalog. They are now on “Voyage No. 4,” which was released earlier this year, and Zoeller often notes: “I can tell the difference between each voyage.”
Maybe his method isn’t so bizarre. As Zoeller told Food & Wine: “Whiskey was aged for the first time when it was floated down the Mississippi then up to New York. This was the original maturation process.”
Somewhat luckily for Jefferson’s, they don’t actually distill their own bourbon, so they have plenty of time to worry and wonder about aging techniques.
Jefferson’s buys most all of their bourbon already aged from factory distilleries like MGP in Indiana. Furthermore, recent batches of Ocean have seen barrels already six- and seven-years-old put aboard the boats.
At the same time, some craft distilleries have opted for aging their whiskeys via methods that don’t have them deciding whether to put their distillate on planes, trains, and/or automobiles.
These companies are banking on that fact that it’s less important where whiskey has been aged, and more important how it has been.
Virginia’s Copper Fox Distillery tries to speed up the aging process with a tea-bagging-like method, adding a mesh sack of toasted oak and apple wood chips to the distillate for a year.
Meanwhile, the Tuthilltown distillery in upstate New York ages its Hudson Baby Bourbon in tiny, three gallon barrels to facilitate more wood contact (traditionally, bourbon is aged in 53-gallon barrels).
Additionally, low-frequency sound waves pulse through the aging warehouse at all times, the distillers believing it agitates the liquid, causing even more barrel contact.
There’s also Cleveland Whiskey which pumps its white distillate briefly through barrels—to legally attain the designation “bourbon”—before adding it to stainless steel tanks with chopped-apart barrels.
The tanks then undergo “disruptive pressure-aging technology,” causing the wood chunks to act almost as tiny sponges, pulling the liquid into their pores, then squeezing it back out again. The newly-released Highspire Rye is intriguingly aged in California wine barrels for 130 days with a blend of oak staves added inside.
I must admit that, while many of these techniques sound like they might logically work, I’ve yet to find any that truly do.
True, most of the aforementioned “rapidly-aged” whiskeys come in gorgeous bottles and have bombastic founders who are absolutely, 100% certain their whiskey is as good as the well-aged stuff you’ve actually heard of.
Unfortunately, while I can tell you that none of the aforementioned booze tastes “bad” per se, none of them truly taste like anything other than young whiskey.
So what’s next? Can the science of aging spirits actually be cheated? Is there some special place to put white dog whiskey that will truly speed up the process?
Perhaps buried in the desert, atop a skyscraper, at the North Pole, or maybe even at the bottom of the ocean like the rum-maker Seven Fathoms has recently tried.
Or maybe it’s more in discovering a special process that can act like a time machine. It still seems unlikely, but one man might have come closest to cracking the mysteries of aging.
Though details are still scarce, Lost Spirits master distiller Bryan Davis has reportedly developed a patented, hyper-speed reactor that can provide the equivalent of twenty years of barrel-aging in just a week (and without a single barrel necessary).
The few bottles of artificially aged single malts and rums he has already sent out into the world have been massive hits, lionized by geeks and critics alike.
If his technique is proven truly viable when his prototype is finally unveiled to the public next month, Davis may very well revolutionize the way we all drink aged spirits. If not…well, many, many good men and women might be headed back to the drawing board.