Distilleries are cutting corners to speed up the process of making whiskey. Will the industry suffer?
The biggest obstacle a new whiskey distiller has to overcome is time. Simply turning yeast, water, and grain into alcohol is a relatively speedy process, but maturing a product in oak barrels to get something you can call whiskey – now that takes time and lots of it. Big distillers use 53-gallon barrels which they age for years, all the while the wood from the barrels imparts color and flavor to the liquid, while absorption and evaporation remove some of the less desirable chemicals.
Time is money—and proper whiskey making requires a lot of both. Established distilleries have the luxury of covering the initial cost of new batches with the revenue from aged ones. But a startup doesn’t have this benefit, which explains why new distilleries often begin with vodka, gin, or “white” whiskey. Once the money is flowing, they move on to the “brown” liquors.
New distilleries have been looking for ways around this time constraint. In upstate New York, Tuthilltown has experimented with heavy vibrations produced by music, to agitate aging whiskey – thereby increasing the movement of the liquid against the wood. Some use “tea bags” containing wood chips, which increases the amount contact the liquid has with wood while in the barrel. Others use barrels with textured patterns carved on the inside, to increase the surface area of the barrel’s interior. The most popular trick, is to use smaller barrels – from five to 30 gallons, instead of the standard 53. The greater the surface area relative to the volume, the quicker brown colors and woody flavors develop.
Here’s the rub though: Is the result the same? There are people who swear by the flavor profiles produced by smaller barrels. Unfortunately, as much as some would like to believe there is a short-cut, science and common sense say otherwise. Whiskey aged for only a few months in a small barrel might be brown color and contain certain wood-related flavors, but it lacks the intricacy and depth present in properly aged spirits. There are three golden rules which must be obeyed in the aging process: absorption, evaporation, and restructuring. Quite simply – it can’t be rushed.
True whiskey makers take the words of Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle to heart: “We make Fine Bourbon. At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always Fine Bourbon.” And, doesn’t that thought pair nicely with what your father always told you, “Fools rush in.”