Tuesday, August 25, 2015
The Accelerated Aging Challenge
Once again, as we see every few months, someone has hired a publicist to generate coverage of a new system to accelerate the aging of whiskey. No names, claims, or descriptive details are needed. You've seen it all before. It's another one just like the other ones. They come and they go, which means this one will soon go too. There is no reason to be disturbed by it.
Publications with space to fill and little or no editorial integrity will provide the publicity. A few people, recently disembarked from the turnip truck, will get excited. Others, the hopeless optimists, will mutter that perhaps this is the one, a whiskey messiah for the chronically impatient.
It began with America's first whiskey boom, in the period after the Civil War, when whiskey evolved from a locally-made agricultural product into something that was standardized, manufactured, and nationally-distributed. The model for what most people wanted to drink -- a grain distillate aged for several years in new charred oak barrels -- was established and, almost immediately, people began to look for ways to duplicate that model in less time.
The first solution was what we now call compound whiskey. It started with a young or minimally aged whiskey, perhaps even a neutral spirit, to which flavorings and colorings were added. Ingredients such as tea, caramel, lanolin, vanilla, tobacco, prune juice -- and worse -- were used. With no effective system for regulating labels or advertising, unscrupulous producers could claim anything they wanted for these products and no one believed that listing the actual ingredients or describing the actual production methods was the way to go. Instead they claimed they used traditional methods including long, natural aging.
The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, and subsequent laws, put an end to that era. Since then, we have seen various schemes for achieving the results of long aging through other means. Some, such as the use of wood chips and other wood additives, are prohibited for straight bourbon, straight rye, and other coveted identifiers. Others, such as using small barrels, or subjecting the aging spirits to sound waves, oxygen infusion, or other exotic treatments, do not offend the regulators. At least one technique, warehouse heat cycling, actually works, although its benefits are modest.
However it is done, what matters are the results, which never measure up. One failed scheme fades away and another emerges to take its place.
Back in the 19th century, people who made fake whiskey knew they were running a con. They didn't have any illusions about making a quality product. They were in it for the quick buck. Today you can't always tell. Often these schemes attract business development money from local governments, so there is a potential motive to deceive, but for every scammer there is a sincere but misguided individual or team chasing the American dream of building a better mousetrap and having the world beat a path to your door.
It's not necessary to know which is which. They all ultimately face the same test, of putting a product in a bottle and getting people to drink it. So here is the challenge. Evan Williams Black Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is made the traditional way. It does not carry an age statement but based on labeling laws it must be at least four years old. It is probably closer to the seven years it was before the age statement was removed about ten years ago. In most places, a 750 ml bottle of it costs less than $15.
Other products could have been used for this exercise but Evan Williams is a good choice because it is widely available, a good value, and a product most American whiskey consumers are happy to drink.
Until you can make something that tastes better than Evan Williams and sells for less than $15 a bottle, you have nothing. You're just wasting your time and ours.