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.


Unknown said...

Hear Hear.

EW is a great standard to go by. And it's all of $9 where I am at (The white-label bonded version is my preference though, at $16).

Lew Bryson said...

The Evan Williams Test works for this, and for a lot of $40 "craft" bourbons as well. I'll even give them a handicap: if you can make something that tastes as good as Evan Williams Black Label for under twenty bucks, you've got something.
No one's passed the test yet.

Erik Fish said...

"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."

While I couldn't agree more on the "tastes better" part, you know as well as I do that the "sells for less" mechanism of the free market has been disabled for whiskey ever since the beautiful people rediscovered the beverage. These days, with the right marketing "sells for MORE" can fatten your bottom line AND give people what they think they want.

Josh said...

It'll probably be evident by this comment that I've been working on my own rant about this practice, but here it goes.

The methods are silly and the marketing is misleading at best, but the thing that bothers me most is the use of the term "age". It's physically impossible to speed up the aging of whiskey. Attempting to speed up the maturity... sure, whatever, but the age? Impossible.

TTB states age as "The period during which, after distillation and before bottling, distilled spirits have been stored in oak containers. “Age” for bourbon whisky, rye whisky, wheat whisky, malt whisky, or rye malt whisky, and straight whiskies other than straight corn whisky, means the period the whisky has been stored in charred new oak containers."

So unless these people have broken the laws of physics (the passage of time as measured by rotations of the plant) what they're saying is just flat out impossible and a lie.

They should at least be forced to call it something that has some merit and plausibility to maybe, possibly happen: Rapid maturation by attempting to speed up the natural chemical reactions that happen while whiskey ages in wood. It's still a smirk-worthy, but not entirely implausible or pointless, endeavor and a far more accurate description of what they're attempting to do.

Though, If someone actually does manage to age whiskey faster than it's supposed to it means they've broken time itself. If that happens the bastards should be brought up on charges against physics, nature, humanity and common decency for shoving the entire universe 4 years closer to the grave in the span of 4 months.

Mr Manhattan said...

Well, I myself wouldn't write a high-tech solution for 'aging' off so easily. The advent of oak inserts and micro-oxidation has given the us a glut of cheap, easy to drink wines that approximate the taste of much more expensive wines. This had led to something of a two-tier market: high-end products which are made from the best fruit, vinified under the best conditions, and barreled in the best wood and mid- to low-end products that are manipulated to approximate the results of high-end wine but priced as a commodity. I think it's conceivable, given an ever increasing global demand for whiskey, that a cost-effective technology which results in a reasonable facsimile of aging in a fraction of the time (i.e. for much lower cost) could cause in a similar market bifurcation.

Mark said...

@Erik (and Chuck too, for that matter)...

With regard to pricing - at this point, I'd take just the "tastes as good as Evan Williams". Taking out the startup costs of a distillery etc. that might actually require a higher price to cover expenses (which may or may not be true in all cases, esp. regarding more established "craft" whiskey brands like Hudson), they're simply trying to position their product as one of higher quality by using the price. Unfortunately, most alcohol consumers are under the misguided notion that more expensive automatically equals better.

$40 for a 375 ml bottle is ridiculous in any case, though, for these "craft" product in any event. Given the perception issue caused by pricing, I'd be happy enough if they just made something as good as Evan Williams for the price of your old school "premium" bourbon, i.e., Knob Creek, Elijah Craig and the like.

Anonymous said...

I love your closing statement, Chuck. Been saying that for years, and people still ask me why I don't open my own distillery!

Anonymous said...

It's really patience that is the key. I've tasted lots of examples of delicious whiskey that is aged for 2-4 years. If you can't wait that long, you are in the wrong business.

Anonymous said...

Using a mass produced cheap alcohol as a benchmark for the industry is like saying that a Ford F-150 is the standard of automobiles. Sure a lot of people accept functional mediocrity, but thank God millions of people strive for ingenuity, diversity, creativity, and individuality. When I'm old or broke I'll drink "old rotgut" aged so long it's reasonably palatable, but until then I'll stick with products that define the future of taste.

Anonymous said...

This isn't just for the craft/micro/quick-agers out there. How about the main companies putting out new releases? I got so annoyed talking with my local supplier and looking at the prices... Said F-It and bought some Mellow Corn BiB. Cheap and to the point.


Keith said...

I tried one of the latest "Maverick" to me it tastes like what it is, very young whiskey. It might be "smooth" but lacks character. If smooth was my goal I would just drink water. All of these distilleries racing to put out product, it is hard to begrudge them for wanting to make money, but I am sorry there just isn't a short cut. You are just going to have to have bake sells and make a lemonade stand until that whiskey is finished.


Anonymous said...

I find this article to be right on the "money," literally. Since the more recent increase in market diversity, regarding both the larger established and newer craft distilleries, I have sampled and purchased well over 100 varieties, more as a collector (who enjoys displaying bottles representing various industry names, brands, nostalgia, etc.) than someone seeking the great/preferred affordable "Table" whiskey similar to that mentioned within a recent article in Whisky Advocate. I am truly a consumer who wants to know what is in the product and will not buy anything with added color or flavor, however, I don't mind the blended products as long as they disclose the percentage of neutral spirits added to the whiskey. Of course it needs to be pleasant and enjoyable. In my experience I have noted that so many producers, both the distillers and non-distiller producers are increasing their prices, likely due to supply and demand, (real or fabricated) as well as the simple fact that they can. And, of course those who perceive themselves as socially elitist willingly pay top dollar to drown their "quality" whiskey with mixers and bitters. Regardless, in the end, I have found many brands referred to as bargain brands, to include Evan Williams, fit the ticket regarding consistency, quality, and drinkability. My prediction is that the bubble will burst again, and not in the too far off future. The consumer will at some point realize the intrigue doesn't require that they buy the most expensive whiskey in order to obtain good whiskey. Regionally, I am noticing that area craft distilleries are having to keep changing things up to keep the attention of the younger crowds whereas they seem to lose interest if things aren't constantly changing with regards to variation in product and hype. I clearly see that the current generation of consumer runs back to the distillery adding flavor to a large variety of whiskey or shine flavors, when the regular Rye and Bourbon seem to be bought by consumers who have a connection to heritage, self awareness and are guided by at least some knowledge. We are at a very complex bend in the road whereas the national economy in the U.S. is such that more and more people have turned to "drink." This has happened time and time again in our nation's history and one thing is and has always been certain, "change happens," and nothing stays the same. Meanwhile, I will sit back and enjoy the ride watching far enough ahead to see the bend in the road, and at the same time will enjoy the whiskeys that earn my interest and respect.

Pittsburgh, PA

Anonymous said...

It is true that the "old guard" bubble will burst. Everyone knows it. That's why they are all now beginning to lie about their "stories" as well as go to No Age on their bottles. They see the writting on the wall, and they are just trying to prolong their position. Even the premis of this article is absurd in the face of No Age Statement. If the Mega producers even believed themselves that "oldest is best" they would be making damn sure that they stated said age on every bottle of old rotgut they pull from their barrells. But they dont, cause it ain't ! Get over it. It's just whiskey and there are a hundred ways to make it, and the old guard only knows one way.

Anonymous said...

I don't know Chuck. I just picked up a bottle of Evan Williams Black Label, and after sampling, I think that sets the bar way too low. I'm a hobby distiller, and my six to eight month old all grain spirits put that EW to shame. As do my year old sugar heads. And no comparison to my two year old stock.

The difference between me and the craft guys: I'm making the best I know how, and they are in it for the money. Because I've got a job, I can afford good technique and good cuts because I'm making it for me and me only.

Erik Fish said...

".... I'm a hobby distiller, and my six to eight month old all grain spirits put that EW to shame. As do my year old sugar heads. And no comparison to my two year old stock."

It's nice that you have a high opinion of your product, and there is nothing wrong with that. But it can't put EW to shame, because whatever you're making, it's not 6 to 7 year old oak-aged Kentucky bourbon. My wife likes vodka a lot more than bourbon, but that doesn't mean that her Grey Goose puts my E.T. Lee to shame. Different stuff.

Micro-distillers are creating a lot of new and very exciting spirits. The issue Chuck is raising comes up when spirit fabricators are trying to use trickery claiming to imitate a traditional product, rather than create their own identity. I have several bottles of interesting, two-to-three year old local whiskeys on my shelf, distilled for example from wheat/barley mashes or triticale, and I've tasted another local whiskey made entirely from rice. It's nonsensical to say they're better or worse than my E.T. Lee or Weller bourbons; they're not pretending to be the same thing. Some of the "miracle agers" are pretending to be able to create that, and that's the main point of criticism.

Anonymous said...

@Erik: Try making your own. With time and experience, you will learn to appreciate what I was talking about, especially in my comparison to EW.

Anonymous said...

Making your own is great and all are valid points, but if you honestly add the cost of good grain (not your local animal feed grade), water from a non public chlorinated source, quality yeast strains, and the heat supply, in the end you will realize the cost is far above the Evan Williams "baseline." Making proper cuts in the spirit run requires several stripping runs just to get a gallon of spirit. Then of course the cost of oak barrels is crazy right now. Even if you buy a used barrel, disassemble, remove the original charred surface and then flash char to your own liking, the cost continues to rise. At that basic economic rate you wind up near the cost which makes it cost ineffective to run your own batch. It is clear based upon all those aspects, why the little craft guys charge so much and how the big industry can charge so much less. I didn't even mention the amount of time you have to spend and of course time is money and money is time. I like the local hobby craft approach, but at the end of the day there are so many whiskies out there aside from Evan Williams to chose from which are better than what you can make in a week's distilling, which are under $40.00 a bottle. That sure beats hobby distilling at $80.00 a bottle.

Pittsburgh, PA

Anonymous said...

@Anom: Hi Anom, I would be pleased to taste one of your sample. I am a hobbyist too but without that much succeess. ;-)

Whiskeyman said...

It seems that the subject of this article is very likely Bryan Williams of Lost Spirits.

Disclaimer: I haven't tried anything produced by his "accelerated aging" process.

But with that said, I'm not sure he's a total bullsh***er, as the author of this blog apparently believes. I am looking forward to trying some of his product that has gone through his process. Although I'm not sure that "accelerated aging" is really the right terminology. From reading his white paper and various news articles, it appears that his system takes the distillate through a variety of chemical reactions and results in a GC-MS profile similar to aged spirits.

Have there been plenty of dubious claims regarding accelerated aging? Absolutely. Does that make the Lost Spirits process "another one just like the other ones"? I think the author of this blog is doing a disservice by not naming names, or trying the product and making a judgment based on actual experience.

Does it work? Is it any good? I suggest that the author of this blog and all skeptical commenters (myself included) try some of his product before denouncing it as fraudulent.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I agree completely. My sole point is that the record suggests there is no revolution pending.

Whiskeyman said...

The nature of revolutions is that they generally catch a lot of people by surprise. In other words, "the record" is not a reliable source for predicting the future. I recommend the book "The Black Swan" for an extended riff on this topic.

Chuck Cowdery said...

One must not be too easily beguiled by the promise of the new.

Whiskeyman said...

No one is getting beguiled here. Just pointing out that past results are not a guarantee of future failure. Lots of people tried and failed to build an airplane before the Wright brothers. At the time, most people thought it couldn't be done.

Anonymous said...

Get is "straight" . The reason the mega producers sell their rot gut so cheap, and age it so long are opposite sides of the same coin. It's cheap because it is poor grade grain with little or no malt, usually run one time in a column, and then set out back for years to take the "stink and burn" out by years of storage. You still get the same hangover, no matter how long it's been subjected to wood, and you essentially end up drinking little more than "oak tea".

Craft isn't just about "accelerated aging" . It's about making a product to begin with that doesn't require decades of "fixing".

Anonymous said...

Yes, but up to the Wright brothers, I guess that no inventor failling to fly was claiming to have engineered an airplane ... (at least).

Unknown said...

I keep hearing "rotgut" in regards to EW.

I've spent the better part of 2 years sampling a variety of bourbons, from the inexpensive all the way up to stuff I'll rarely get to try again. Even though EW is inexpensive, it's definitely not rotgut. Neither it, nor Very Old Barton 100 are anything close to rotgut, yet they live at the bottom of the pricing tier. One of the best things about bourbon is that even in today's boom market, you can still find good product and not have to pay an arm and a leg for it.

I've tried some $70 "craft" bourbon that tasted like pure-boiled horse pee in comparison to Evan Williams. Don't discount the big names just because they are big. They also know what they are doing, and have been doing it a long time.

Bedlamist said...

Speaking of which, a couple hours ago the young cashier at Rite Aid stepped in front of me to mark Wild Turkey 101 down a whopping $4, so I bought it for the first time in years. And guess what: it tastes YOUNG now, closer to 4 years old than 8. I realize it's been NAS for over a decade now, and it's still good whiskey, but still. No way I'd spend $25 for it, not when Old Grand-dad BiB is still well under $20. I'm disappointed: WT 101 used to be my favorite a few years back when I could afford it, but after this I'd just as soon buy Evan Williams *and* new heels for my boots. Sheesh.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

I know this is a very late response to the post, but I just recently found this excellent blog. I am familiar with your name and reputation, but had never bothered to hunt down your online work. Great stuff. I'm glad I found it.

A few months ago I stopped into my local ABC liquor store, intent on trying "something new". By "new", I mean something I haven't yet tried--not necessarily new to the market. I saw something called "Puckett's Branch Bourbon". Never heard of it. Since I have tried most of the well known brands, and wasn't ready to spring for $50+ on an unknown entity (I try to taste those at a bar first), it seemed like a great option as it was on sale for $22 or so. I skipped something I typically do before buying anything---carefully looking at the label. Oops.

I got it home, cracked it open, and gave it a go. It was smooth---but something was off. I really couldn't explain it, but it didn't seem like a quality bourbon to me. The mouth feel was wrong. Look, I'm no bourbon expert, just a guy who has been drinking bourbon for 40+ years. And this didn't taste, well, authentic to me. So, I searched the internet for reviews. Nothing. It took a bit of time, but I finally connected Terressentia, and their speed-aging process, to Puckett's Branch.

Anyway, I won't say it was undrinkable, because eventually I drank it. But I can tell you, I prefer a $10 liter of Heaven Hill, or a $20 1.75 of Evan Williams, to this stuff. Now I make sure to look at the label a bit more carefully.

And don't get me started on the flavored and white whiskey trends...

Glenn Cotler said...

I agree strange off putting flavor on the finish. Wei t buy again regardless of price!