Friday, April 20, 2018

Can Maturation be Slowed Down for Extra-Old Whiskeys?

Deep inside Buffalo Trace's perfectly innocuous Warehouse P is
 an unexpected sight, a huge silver door. What could it be?
Let's have a look, shall we?

What's this? Whiskey barrels? In a giant refrigerator?

What happens when you age whiskey for more than about 15-years in a conventional Kentucky warehouse? Most of it goes to heaven. When distilleries harvest their oldest barrels, many come out dry. The rest contain a mere fraction of what went into them originally.

But what is left often can be sold for hundreds, even thousands of dollars a bottle.

It is no secret that barrels for products such as Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon come from the lowest, coolest parts of the warehouse, where they age slowly. In Scotland, some whiskeys are aged for 50 or 60 years, to great acclaim. Scotland is a much cooler climate than Kentucky. What if you could change that? Such as by storing barrels in a warehouse that is held, year-round, at a constant temperature of 45℉?

It is just an experiment now, but the new refrigerated warehouse at Buffalo Trace can hold about 400 barrels. Some of the barrels in it now already have a few years on them, others are newly filled.

Forty-five degrees is pretty chilly, and keeping the temperature constant means there is no cycling, the heating and cooling process that keeps liquid moving through the wood, where it picks up sugars and other goodies. What if, at 45℉, nothing happens? "Then we'll try 50℉," says Sazerac CEO Mark Brown (pictured).

Research conducted elsewhere on the Buffalo Trace campus, at the experimental Warehouse X, has shown that the temperature in an unheated Kentucky warehouse can range from -5℉ to 105℉ over the course of the year. All of the new warehouses Buffalo Trace is building are insulated and heated. In Warehouse P, they're going the other way, holding the maturation process back as much as possible.

Imagine a 50-year-old bourbon.


Anonymous said...

If this approach works out, Old Rip Van Winkle 25, you've met your match :-O

Unknown said...

My one visit to a distillery was Buffalo Trace and I was not disappointed. A fantastic location and a great tour experience. Glad to see that BT is at the cutting edge of Bourbon research!

Unknown said...

As a consumer, I would think the objective should be to make a better bourbon, not just an older one. 30 or more years in the barrel is no guarantee that the liquid that comes out will be better, more likely the opposite will be true. What will actually happen is that the price will skyrocket. That might be good for the distillery, but for the consumer, not so much, particularly if you plan to drink it as opposed to looking at it.

Erik Fish said...

"Paul Porter said...
.... What will actually happen is that the price will skyrocket. That might be good for the distillery, but for the consumer, not so much, particularly if you plan to drink it as opposed to looking at it."

I would suggest not to over-dramatize. Experimentation is good, it keeps people interested and the distillery in the news. Actual amounts are and will be minuscule for the foreseeable future, so fretting about prices seems overwrought.

Look at Pappy. If you are wrapped up inside the "bourbon bubble", Pappy seems huge, prices develop accordingly, and everybody wants a bottle but can't get any. However, if you look at Pappy compared to the total number of bourbon consumers who buy BT products at normal prices, you realize Pappy is an irrelevance for the general market.

The same applies to the Experimental Collection and any extra aged stuff they might come out with over time. Fun stuff for the geeks.

Unknown said...

I’ve always what would happen if someone sent their scotch barrels over to Kentucky to age and vice versa. I haven’t been able to find where someone has tried.

Andy said...

Cadenhead (a scottish indie bottler) has done some releases of heaven hill and I think dickle which were at least partially aged in their scottish warehouses ( I imagine there are other bottlers out there doing similar. I don't think it's allowed to be called bourbon if not bottled in US, but maybe I am wrong?

Anonymous said...

Unknown, Makers and Laphroaig swapped barrels at some point while Pickerell was there. He said the rate of maturation was about 4 times faster in Kentucky.
Andy, there's no rule against bottling bourbon elsewhere. That's been going on for decades. Another IB bottled some Barton as single barrels a number of years ago, as well. And those HH Cadenheads bottles are amazing.

Anonymous said...

Interesting experiment, to be sure. What I'm wondering is why not dump the barrels at their peak and just store in neutral containers? I.e. Cognac houses do that with older spirits - they store them in bug glass jugs called "demijohns" in a cellar called "paradis". And IMHO Cognac is the closer parallel here, because Scotch is matured in used barrels, whereas Cognac and Armagnac - in new barrels, albeit they are toasted, not charred. And like bourbon, Cognac and Armagnac are known to possibly deteriorate passed a certain peak.

Of course, even Scotch is merely "surviving" past a certain age in a barrel, according to Ralfy. And this makes sense: there are chemical reactions occurring and with no input of reagents they have to come to a conclusion. Can't squeeze blood out of a turnip. Hopefully at some point the fascination with very old spirits will give way to preference for well-selected and those dumped and bottled at their peak. Age statements should be disclosed but it should be more important WHO tasted the barrel before deciding to dump it - THAT is the art/craft.