Tuesday, June 4, 2013

"I Must Govern the Clock, Not be Governed by It"


The legendary Israeli leader Golda Meir said that.

She was not talking about whiskey aging.

But because what she said resonates, it may help explain why someone is always selling one scheme or another to 'govern the clock' with regard to the aging of whiskey, and why people are always eager to believe them.

Cleveland Whiskey's Tom Lix is only the latest, but he's generating a lot of publicity right now. (To which I hate to contribute, so you'll have to Google him for yourself.) Many articles call him a distiller, which he is not. He is a non-distiller producer (NDP), but not a mere re-bottler.

What he does is take bulk whiskey -- six-month old bourbon -- and subject it to a Frankensteinian process he has developed that he estimates ages the spirit the equivalent of 24 hours every second.

(If 'Frankensteinian' seems too strong, consider this. He chops up the barrel and mixes it with the spirit, then subjects the whole mess to agitation, pressure, and lightning. Okay, not lightning.)

Some craft distilleries make similar claims for small barrels, five- to fifteen-gallons as compared to the standard 53.

That's not to say that small barrel aging doesn't have its place. In the hands of a skilled distiller, brief aging in a small barrel can create an original and appealing whiskey. That's a beautiful thing, but neither small barrels nor pressure cookers in Cleveland can produce the taste of a fully aged bourbon in weeks instead of years. That claim is bullshit, pure and simple; always has been, always will be.

If wood extraction was all there is to aging it might be true. There are many ways to speed up the extraction of substances from the oak. One of them, warehouse temperature cycling in winter, is practiced by several major producers. Wood extraction is part of aging but it isn't the whole story. Aging is also about oxygenation, color development, and the removal of unpleasant flavors, all of which take time.

Still, you have to admire the sheer moxie of someone who thinks he has developed something in his garage that has eluded professional whiskey makers for centuries.

In several of the articles about Lix, the writers have had people taste test Cleveland Whiskey against something like Diageo's Bulleit Bourbon or Beam's Knob Creek. That's the wrong comparison. Lix starts his process with bourbon made by a major bourbon distillery and aged for six months in a new, 53-gallon, charred oak barrel. What none of his collaborators (yes NPR and Forbes, I'm talking about you) have done is taste that good, young, properly-made bulk bourbon against the godawful mess Lix proceeds to make of it. If they did, they might recognize him for the strangler-of-babies-in-their-cradles that he actually is.

But that's not the story they want to write, nor is it a story the proud Cleveland bars that sell the stuff like crazy want to promote. So nobody tells the emperor he's buck naked, except for the occasional honest-to-god bourbon drinker who makes a brief appearance (Matt Wunderle is my hero), only to be hustled into the wings for fucking with the approved narrative.

If I sound grumpy about this, I am. I often say that sometimes I have to drink bad whiskey, but I do it so you don't have to. Well, occasionally I also have to waste my time with stories like this, so you don't have to.

32 comments:

BerryBerry said...

Maybe I'm being dense, by why do you say Knob or Bulleit is the wrong comparison? If it tastes as good as either of those, but is aged for less time, isn't that the point? (I haven't tried the Cleveland stuff, so I'm not making the claim it tastes as good. But I glean that the media stories are making that claim.)

Matt Wunderle said...

Chuck,

Honored.

Matt...

Waiahi said...

There are no shortcuts to the best things in life. Zero.

This is the true beauty of Whiskey and other quality spirits.

After all, it's the same story with tequila and rum...

The cheap brands have caramel coloring and flavors added to it so that it resembles the look and taste of the real thing, aged in wood over a period of time. Then they call it "Gold" or "Silver" or "Dark" or some other such nonsense.

There are no shortcuts to quality Whiskey. That's the beauty of it.

Seth said...

So, Chuck, what does it taste like?

Anonymous said...

Chuck,

You have big brass balls to tell it like it is in such an honest and upfront fashion. Could not agree more with your assessment.

Dan

Jon Hill said...

God, I love the smell of napalm in the morning!

Anonymous said...

Nicely summarised Chuck.
I think it would be fair to summise that every moonshiner and home distiller is familiar with the concept of small barrels and oak staves/chips for an expedited "aging" effect.
This guy hasnt so much reinvented the wheel as he has sanded it back with coarse paper and given it a lick of lead based paint.

Anonymous said...

Prime rib is wonderful but why wait around for the dry aging, trimming and roasting when it tastes the same pulverized with a food processor and microwaved into Cleveland Meatloaf?

Chuck Cowdery said...

I say comparing it to Knob or Bulleit is wrong because that doesn't tell you what you need to know. Only by comparing his processed whiskey to the whiskey he started with can you determine what his process actually does. With his training, he knows that's the real proof of concept, so why isn't he setting up that comparison?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps that is true, it does not prove that his method improves anything, but if it tastes good, and it's priced right, why not drink it. I'm sure it's different than it was prior to his method anyway, whether this is better or worse is yet to be determined. It's similar to wine barrel finished whiskies, who's to say if it's better or worse.

William

Chuck Cowdery said...

It's a free country. Buy whatever you want.

Greg said...

I love it....I enjoyed that little piece of bourbon whiskey honesty

Anonymous said...

Richnimrod said;
"...strangler-of-babies-in-their-cradles.." Wow, I love that you're so tactful in your description of this character. Reading between the lines, I gather you don't care too much for him, his methods, or his attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of at least a few unsuspecting consumers. Me neither; nor the media types who seem so anxious to abet this charlatan.

Wade said...

Tom from Cleveland Whiskey email is tom@clevelandwhiskey.com. The hang tag on the bottle says to let him know what you think. I sure did and my review was harsh but honest. I will say Tom responded back that he was glad to have the feedback. He then added the what is getting to be typically micro distilling marketing spin of please try our later forthcoming batches; they will be much better.

Toby McFaith said...

Though it is written with enthusiasm, I find the NPR piece a bit more damning. After all it mentions the appeal of joining the "bourbon boom" instead of being a lover of the spirit itself.

As for the whiskey, it is sort of shocking to read about folks who think that aging alone is what makes good or bad whiskey, despite the fact that a whiskey that is aged too long can taste woody. What is revolting in itself is the cut up barrel. This is a whole different animal than bourbon at this point, which is why I think the comparison to the original, un-molested but young whiskey is quite warranted.

That said, it is a damn gimmick (and I find Chuck's short book/Bourbon County Reader article on Buffalo Trace's small barrel experience illuminating) but gimmicks do sell. (The shelves of the biggest liquor stores in my city certainly tell this tale.)

It's a disservice to the actual craft distillers... in Colorado you can buy a young and sweet, but enjoyable bourbon from Peach Street Distillery (who do use full size barrels), for example, that really is a craft product. The same is true elsewhere.

If I'm going to buy NDP whiskey, it's going to be from an NDP that's less obnoxious. Despite their sins, why pay for Cleveland Whiskey when you can get something like Bulleit Rye via LDI for $20 a bottle?

Fah. Cleveland Whiskey is quite... steamy... in poor taste, haha.

Anonymous said...

Sucks when innovation happens so abruptly that it catches people off guard. You always end up with this, "I'm confused by new technology so I'm going to shun it" crowd - that is, until everyone else is using it. How embarrassing is that? I wouldn't know.

'Direct current' was also the way electricity was delivered in this country before Westinghouse came along with the alternative we now use daily. I assume the so called 'experts' of the whiskey community will pull an Edison and in similar fashion spread disinformation, publically kill animals, and all-out lobby against this threat to whiskey tradition.

As an American I embrace innovation and ingenuity because its what makes this place so great. Someone comes out with a way to make TV's bigger, better, and cheaper by using LCDs and I bet ol' Chuck doesn't write a blog about how he's going to hold on to that solid state, vacuum tube set.

What makes an 'expert' anyway? Is there a certification? I've had the Pappy's, frequented the Basil's, toured distilleries. I like this Cleveland stuff. So go ahead, don't buy it. More for me and the rest of us who are proud of the science behind it coming from Cleveland.

Brian

sam k said...

I had this stuff courtesy of a friend a couple weeks ago, and to my taste, it was absolutely undrinkable. I was really kind of appalled that this could be considered an acceptable substitute for actual whiskey by anyone.

I guess the mixologists love it because you can't drink it straight...you HAVE to mix it!

Anonymous said...

I'm really surprised by this post. It's a lengthy discussion (complaint, really) about how the whiskey is made and marketed, but there isn't a single word about how it tastes.

Anonymous said...

And the internet will never work and only the rich have cell phones. Nothing will ever replace my horse.

Bob

merd said...

Thanks for this post and your perspective. As you know, it didn't settle well with me either.

Whiskey Detectives said...

This is my thought to a "T", "Still, you have to admire the sheer moxie of someone who thinks he has developed something in his garage that has eluded professional whiskey makers for centuries." I'm sure Maker's, Beam, Brown Forman, Diaggeo have all spent large sums of R&D money trying various methods to age "faster". Seems they must have found nothing beats time in a barrel.

Mat Garretson said...

I've come across so many of these types over the years. They all think they've discovered how to shortcut the system', and they're so emotionally attached to their new-fangled process that they're unable to critically, dispassionately assess the end result.

And - to a person - when I've provided them with feedback that doesn't lavish praise on the product, they all shake their head as if I just don't get it.

Glad I don't.

Anonymous said...

I am from North East Ohio so I should be one of the people being excited about this product, but after having it multiple times (I ran out and bought 4 bottles of the first bottling and 1 of the second because of my love of local products) I just can't. The whiskey is hot, not talking about high proof, one dimensional, thin, and the only flavors that you get is varnish and heavy wood, like you sucked on a toothpick for an hour.

I am love new ideas and am all for technology, but his process doesn't work. I wonder if its the result of exposing the Bourbon to both sides of the staves, charred and other wise, that would not normally occur, or just a combination of a multitude of things.

I hope that someone does figure out a way to quicken the process. I love whiskey and if someone is able to provide me with a quality product that mimics a Bourbon aged 12-15 years for fair price, I'll buy it by the case, but for now, I'll have to keep on waiting for that to happen.

John in Ohio

Alex said...

John,

No need to wait for someone to provide you with a quality, 12 year-old bourbon for a fair price--plenty of the traditional producers already do.

Buffalo Trace's W.L. Weller 12yr bourbon is a favorite of many, and usually costs around $28 a bottle.

You may also want to try some that aren't 12-15 years old, as that can be too long for some bourbons. For example, Eagle Rare 10yr usually costs about $30, and many people like it.

If you haven't already, I would recommend the bourbons on this list from Chuck. With the exception of Woodford Reserve, most of these are $30 or less.

That's less than the stuff from Cleveland, and some people would say it's a certainty that they taste better too.

Anonymous said...

I agree. Nothing good could be invented in a garage (exceptions: aviation, the lightbulb, apple computers). I'm sure - even if the technology worked, the big distilleries would still prefer to sit on the stuff for a decade instead of monetizing today, as they are more about the tradition than making money.

Dan in NE Ohio said...

@Alex and @John,

Ohio is a control state, so likely the only Weller 12 in NE Ohio is in my house. But yea, Eagle Rare is around and thankfully Elijah Craig 12 is as well and cheaper than Cleveland Whiskey.

I haven't had Cleveland Whiskey, mainly because I'm more annoyed he isn't distilling yet. I want a real craft distillery in Cleveland not a flavoring operation. I hope Lix eventually does distill, but I'm doubtful that is going to happen.

EllenJ said...

@ Anonymous...
"... the big distilleries would still prefer to sit on the stuff for a decade instead of monetizing today, as they are more about the tradition than making money."

Yes, that's true -- kinda sorta.

But you need to understand (actually OTHER READERS need to understand; YOU already seem to) that the established distillers already HAVE as much 4-10 year old whiskey as they were expecting to sell this year. And next year. Etcetera. Distilled whiskey differs from most other products in that its asset value continues to increase the longer it's stored (up to a point, at least). That barrel of whiskey will be worth more next year than it is this year. And boy, don't the accountants and stockholders love THAT? You can "make money" just be sitting on it!

And that also explains why, as you indicated, the old-line whiskey-producers associate the release of younger whiskey as a sign of weakness and semi-desparation. It's tradition. To them, the words "aged under 4 years" or "36 months old!" would not be found on a label of a product they would be proud of.

I totally believe that the "age" of a whiskey (i.e., the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle, not necessarily the age of the other 75%) is not the same as its "maturity", which has no standard measure other than personal taste. New distillers don't have the luxury of a huge supply of old whiskey to draw from, and that's exactly the situation that existed right after Repeal. The Shenley's, Seagram's, Stitzel-Wellers, Beams, National Distillers, and so forth at the time were in pretty much the same boat then. It took years, and another war-related drought, for them to reach the level of quality and public acceptance that many new distillers today strive for. Some will make it; most will not. It's not a matter of quality -- it's a matter of money and brand loyalty.

Okay, I ALSO totally believe that anyone too lazy (or deceitful) to create an identifiable name is really not worth answering here, so this is the last response I will make to any calling themself "Anonymous". Even those who, like the person I'm responding to now, are obviously intellegent and articulate. PLEASE: Put up or shut up.

Anonymous said...


That ain't workin' thats the way you do it
You play the guitar on the mtv
Money for nothin' and whiskey for free

ezweave said...

"And the internet will never work and only the rich have cell phones. Nothing will ever replace my horse.

Bob"

In logic, we call this reducto ad absurdum and arguments of that nature are just a waste of pixels. There are a litany of "technological advances" that didn't take off: Cuecat, Divix (not the codecs, the DVD alternative system), Web TV, Internet Appliances, Metric Time, beta-voltaics, etc.

The real point is that this whiskey, from the critical reviews I've read, just isn't any good. I suspect that the reducto ad absurdum crowd might also walk around wearing Blu Tooth headsets and cargo shorts, but I'm just being petty. Just because something "seems tech" makes it neither good nor, perhaps, cool. This whole affair is as gauche as open toed shoes.

Ron Smith - National BJCP Judge, Certified Cicerone, Beer and Whiskey Educator said...

Wow, what a bunch of interesting comments. The problem isn't the technology, the problem is the final product. It tastes like wood and ethanol, with a hint of something that I can't describe, but it shouldn't be in whiskey. If you like the woody character and don't mind the solventy alcohol, I could see some people liking it, but it isn't what most of us look for in good whiskey. It is lacking the typical vanilla, almond, etc. flavors that are pulled from traditional barrel aging and it hasn't had time to mellow and lose the hot, harsh solventy alcohol. I think the process could work "to some degree", but they need to do some things differently.

Anonymous said...

EzWeave, I agree that Bob's argument commits a logical fallacy, but reductio itself is not a logical fallacy. It is a perfectly valid form of argument, as the Wikipedia article that you link attests. Bob's problem is that he commits something akin to a hasty generalization (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hasty_generalization). He seems to suggest that just because many new technologies which people complain about turn out to actually be important innovations, this is true of all such new technologies. As many other commenters have pointed out he is wrong precisely because the technology, at a minimum, has to actually work as promised first! Sorry to hijack the discussion briefly, but logic is important!

Edwin Vargas said...

Chuck, You are right on point Cleveland Whiskey is an over worked juvenile whiskey. I bought on of the first bottles and rushed home to taste it. See my review here. (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=507081332681919&set=a.209533329103389.55350.209500935773295&type=1&theater)

With the name of my beloved city on the bottle and as a whiskey drinker I am more than disappointed. You could not have said it better. "The Emperor Has No Clothes". What I hope does not happen is that when one of the few but proud distillers in the Cleveland/N.E. Ohio area do release a proper whiskey they are not lumped in with Huckster. Great article Chuck and if you ever find yourself in Cleveland and need of a drink don't fear I have more than enough for the two of us in my collection.

Cheers!!