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.