Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Artistry Or Sorcery? The Quest To Age Whiskey Faster.

The impulse is understandable. Let's say it is your dream to start a distillery and make the world's greatest whiskey. You've been dreaming about it for all of your adult life. All around you now other people are starting little distilleries, why not you?

So you dive in. You put everything you have into it. You get your family and friends to kick in. You've gotten your license. You've ordered the still. You're doing it.

Your plan is to start out making vodka, gin, absinthe, liqueurs, but that's just to get some cash flow going. What you really want to make is whiskey, great whiskey, the best whiskey ever.

You figure, go big or go home.

Then some spoilsport reminds you that the best bourbons are eight to twelve years old and the best scotches, if you want to make something more in that style, are eighteen years old and up. And none of them got it right on the first try.

Let's say you're 40 now. You're going to be -- absolute best case scenario -- 48 before your baby goes to market! Is that acceptable? Is that a good business plan? Is it a good life plan?

Thus begins the quest to age the whiskey faster and, what do you know, this being America there are all kinds of people ready to sell you products and processes that promise to do exactly that, give you "the taste of an eight year old whiskey in as little as two."

How can you resist?

I won't point to anyone in particular. You know how to use the internet. Search "age whiskey faster."

The problem is, it doesn't work. That's not to say you can't make a good, even very good, two year old whiskey, or an even younger one. It's one thing to say, "here's this two year old whiskey I made. I think it's good for two year old whiskey." It's another thing to convince yourself, and try to convince the drinking public, that your two year old whiskey is equivalent to a much older whiskey.

There is artistry in making good two year old whiskey but that doesn't make it eight year old whiskey.

You need sorcery to do that.


Unknown said...

And just as importantly, if you make and sell that 2 year old whiskey you need to price it accordingly. There are craft distilleries putting our 375ML bottles of whiskey that I am certain haven't been aged longer than a year and they are retailed at $40-45/bottle. That's double that for a typical 750 bottle. Shocking.

G. said...

First, just finished your bourbon book and really enjoyed it.

I'm not sure how people accelerate whiskey development but I would guess it involves heating and increase barrel surface area to whiskey contact (using staves in the barrel or toasted oak chips). What does this do to the whiskey that makes it different from increased time in a standard barrel exposed to the varying ambient conditions of the rickhouse? Are the flavors different or is it more subtle such as the mouthfeel?

I don't know if the process would be worth the effort but I can't see why it wouldn't be possible to accelerate whiskey development.

Chuck Cowdery said...

The techniques you mention, and others, have an effect. It might even be useful, as an analogy, to describe that effect as "accelerating aging," as long as you understand the limits of the analogy. Some aspects of aging can be 'forced,' while others cannot. The result may be pleasing, but it's never the same as real aging. Look at it this way. Aging has been practiced the way it is now for more than 100 years. The people who run the major distilleries are not chimps. If there were a faster way that really worked, they'd be using it.

G. said...

I'll defer to your expertise, I'm certainly not an expert on whiskey aging.

It would be interesting to see what specific differences standard aging imparts in barrel imparts rather than "acceleration" methods.

The chemistry is pretty complex if you consider a set of chemical reactions lasting 9+ years with an ever changing set of reaction conditions. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much published research in the area. I did find an article on the aging of wine vinegar that supports what you wrote. The results indicated that using oak chips accelerated some things like vanillin extraction but not others. Meaning the final product would be similar, in that it had some characteristics of longer aging. Others characteristics would not be present.

Thanks for the post and discussion.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Don't confuse "published" with "available on the internet." A lot of work in this area has, in fact, been published but not widely disseminated.

G. said...

Of course, I was imprecise. When I wrote published I meant published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Anonymous said...

"It's another thing to convince yourself, and try to convince the drinking public, that your two year old whiskey is equivalent to a much older whiskey." Who says "equivalent" is even desirable? Is the point of distilling to make an equivalent product to what's already out there? I thought one of the joys of whiskey were differences - as well as similarities.

Certainly, pricing is a challenging issue, but it is disingenuous to say it is okay to pay $x because it is "y" years old but its not okay to pay $x if the age is less than y, but if cost structure is radically different than for a major? It's okay to charge for time, but not for economies of scale (or lack thereof)?

Whiskey should be judged based on what is in the bottle. If the contents are no good, who cares how old it is? Age does not magically make a bad whiskey good, nor vice versa. If the contents are amazing, who cares how old it is?

"The people who run the major distilleries are not chimps. If there were a faster way that really worked, they'd be using it." Of course - they're smart folks! But many of them are doing the exact same thing (Laphroig Quarter Cask, anyone?). Or they add color. Or they add sugar to the mash to juice yield. Or they load up the tails to improve yield. Or are the "chimps" so smart that they realize that an age statement is one thing that they can point to that a small guy can't? Aging is lessened as a competitive disadvantage with large budgets and a store of spirit to draw on and are competing against similarly situated competition.

Chuck Cowdery said...

You make some very interesting points and I agree with about 3/4 of them.

You are absolutely right about pricing. Anyone who understands business knows pricing is only peripherally based on cost. (Aging is a cost.) Pricing is based on what the market will bear, and people will always pay more for rarity and excellence.

Just for the record, American whiskey makers, regardless of size, do not juice their mash, nor color their final product, nor is it fair to say the little guy can't age. Templeton Rye, for example, was established in 2005. They could have six-year-old whiskey of their own making maturing next year if they were a real distillery and not just a bottler and marketing company. It's a business choice that has cost implications but people are doing it. There are several people with 2- and 3-year-old product in the market now, and as time goes on we will see older product from true micro-distilleries, not just the Potemkins.

samk said...

In late 1932, Fortune magazine published an issue that focused on the impending return of the distilled spirits business, specifically whiskey. It mentioned that Publicker had come up with a proprietary process to age whiskey "overnight."

These quick-aging schemes have been dancing in the minds of distillers for decades, and if any were appreciably faster than actual aging, we'd have seen some of them become part of the culture and tradition of the industry by now. That's not to say that smaller barrels and wood chips haven't had some effect over the years (I have a three-gallon barrel from the Dillinger Distillery in PA from before Prohibition), but the aging alchemy they've long searched for has yet to be discovered.

As long as they don't start shrink-wrapping barrels in this country...

Anonymous said...

Dear Friends,
I have nearly had a heart attack today at the thought of fast tracking the whisky/ey aging process. The thought of it is enough to make the High Lands weep. Aging is Gods time and like creation should never be rushed. The angles themselves hang on the vapours for years, imagine their horror when they would find that suddenly a comfortable location above a malt aging for about 16 years is suddenly cut to two. Heaven itself would be upset.
Seriously though can you just see us bar staff selling a malt, it may go something like this “....here is a delightful 18 year old scotch, expressed aged in two.....” end of sale I would think. There are many things which science had improved, there are just as many more that science should leave alone. Aging whisky/ey is one.
John Moriarty
Bar Manager

Matt Lange said...

I think the idea that the big distillers are not stupid has very little bearing on this issue. They are not in the business of finding the fastest way to put whiskey on the market, or even (necessarily) to make the best whiskey. They are trying to make the most money they can by producing a variety of products, some cheap and some premium, that will allow them to make the most money with the least cost to them. Getting a product out faster would certainly cut out some costs, but if they have the time and space to age things out a little longer, using "acceleration" methods, regardless of their merit in making good whiskey, may not be more cost effective.
For example, one suggestion is smaller barrels can accelerate aging. (Side note: i do agree that the term "accelerated aging" is an oxymoron and the phrase "increases the rate of absorption of certain oak compounds" is more accurate, if less concise) But cooperage is one of the costliest aspects of whiskey production, and while smaller barrels use less raw material than larger ones, the labor required to produce the barrel is almost identical. Because of this, five 10 gallon barrels would cost a given distillery a lot more money that one 50 gallon barrel. Even if they could get a quality product to the market more quickly, the extra costs incurred would make foolish to do so. For a brand new distillery who needs to bring some cash in the door, this might not be the case.
Anyway, I think we're basically on the same page here, and I would never endorse a product that claims to make Ten year whiskey in two years. I do think, however, that there are alternative methods for creating quality younger whiskeys that have merit. The Tuthilltown stuff is a great example; whether it's worth $45 for a 375ml is up to the consumer, but I think the quality is unquestionably quite good.

Nathan said...

As it turns out, this post is currently the top result on Google for "age whiskey faster."

dg said...

I have been saying this for a while, that you can not cheat mother nature or father time.
If you can get $40+ for half a bottle, and sell your story then bravo!
As Chuck said the SWA and American big boy could accelerate maturation by factors of 2 or 3 times faster, they would have been doing this, but you cant and the distillate on the back end will always have a new make,white dog finish that only proper amount of time will change

Anonymous said...

It seems that most of the scientific research into whiskey production died down around 2000. There was tons of interesting work done on whiskey production and aging, and a few books published most of which are priced new from $200-600. Most of the work I've found was published in the UK, or France, although the American Society of Enology and Viticulture had some interesting stuff. I suspect that with the increased presence of small distilleries in this country some universities will take interest and start producing work again.

Anonymous said...

Somebody mentioned that major whisk(e)y bottlers do not color their whisk(e)y.

This is incorrect. They add caramel to the whisk(e)y in order to make all the product look identical. Ageing adds a certain color but not the nice yellowy liquid we've come to expect.

They use color chart to ensure that the color exactly matches.

Chuck Cowdery said...

You are only partially right. The Scots, Irish, Canadians and Japanese may color their whiskey, but American producers may not. No color (or anything else) may be added to bourbon or rye.

Unknown said...

There are laws to which a whiskey can legally be called whiskey and there are a minimum of years that it has to be aged. Otherwise, it is only known as a distilled spirit.

Cypress said...

Our Scottish and Irish originators established the 3 yr rule to be called Whiskey but how did they come up with that seemingly arbitrary timeframe? And why. And what were the alternatives?
The days of old gave a certain respect for elements in ones life that only patience, time and hard work could produce. This was reflected in many areas ....the courtship process or an internship to learn a trade for example. And most would agree we have lost a great deal of those traits from our forefathers in the instant "here and now" world we inhabit today. And because Quality and Time have long been associated with Excellence , Rarity and High Standards my instincts are to leave that basis of the process alone while exploring the possiblities. Having said that there are individuals who even if a legitimate shortcut was found (and apparently has been), would choose to maintain tradition.