For American Distillers, a Whiskey Crisis Looms on the Horizon

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Aging bourbon is expensive—and distilleries are cutting corners to speed up the process. Will the entire industry decline?

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One of the biggest obstacles facing a startup whiskey distiller is time. No matter how quickly you can turn yeast, water, and grains into alcohol, you still need to mature the product in oak barrels to get something you can legally call "whiskey." Most big distillers use 53-gallon charred barrels, which they fill, plug, and stick in an uninsulated warehouse for a few years—or longer, depending on the qualities they're looking for. During that time, the barrels impart color and flavor to the liquid, while absorption and evaporation remove unwanted chemicals. Eventually the distillers decide the whiskey is ready, move it into bottles, and ship them to stores.

All this waiting takes money—a lot of it, and all before you've sold your first bottle. If you're an established distiller, you're covering the upfront costs of your new batches with the profits you're making off the finished ones. But a startup doesn't have that sort of cash flow, which is why many new distillers start with "white" spirits like vodka and gin, then invest in whiskey once the money is flowing.

But the allure of producing brown liquor is a strong one, so for the last few years entrepreneurial types have been looking for ways around the time conundrum. Some have used "tea bags" of wood chips to increase the surface area of wood in contact with the liquid. Others use barrels with honeycomb patterns cut along their insides, to increase the surface area. Tuthilltown, in upstate New York, has even experimented with vibrations from bass-heavy music to agitate the aging whiskey, thus increasing the movement of the liquid against the wood.

The most popular trick, however, is to use smaller barrels—from five to 30 gallons, instead of the standard 53—to speed the aging process. The greater the surface area relative to the volume, the more contact the liquid will have with the wood. The result is, at first glance, impressive: brown color, woody flavor, and less bite than the unaged liquid you started with.

The debate, though, is whether the result is the same as what you'd get from a larger barrel and longer aging (I am far, far from the first person to comment on this; see Chuck Cowdery and John Hansell, among others). There are many people out there who swear by the flavor profiles produced by smaller barrels (and not just from craft distillers; Laphroig makes a line of scotch aged in quarter-sized—roughly 13-gallon—casks). I have a lot of respect for craft distillers, and some of them make very good whiskey in very small barrels. I'm particularly fond of Garrison Bros., from Texas, which ages its whiskey for two years in 10-gallon barrels. But for all the craft whiskeys I've tried in the last few years, my overwhelming impression of those aged rapidly in smaller casks has been one of immaturity, excessive woodiness, and lack of complexity. And while there's nothing wrong with tasting some of the grain, I've had whiskeys that taste like a liquefied bowl of Chex.

The problem is that as much as some startup distillers would like to believe there is a way around the time element, chemistry says otherwise. There are three parts to the aging process: absorption, evaporation, and the restructuring of the ethanol and water within the distillate. The first is simply the movement of the liquid in and out of the wood, which removes certain chemicals from the charred inner surface of the barrel, giving the whiskey much of its flavors and color. Absorption is influenced by temperature, humidity, and the ratio of surface area to volume—which is to say, all things being equal, the smaller the barrel the quicker the absorption. But not all absorption happens at the same time, no matter the size of the barrel: some chemicals come out of the wood easily, while others can take years. And those chemicals need time to react with those already in the liquid.

As a result, a whiskey aged for a few months in a small barrel might have a brown color and certain woody flavors, but it will lack the complexity and depth found in properly aged liquor. What's more, the other two factors simply can't be rushed. Chemicals in the liquid (alcohol, but also certain esters and sulphides) slowly evaporate out of the barrel, while over time the ethanol molecules in the whiskey "clump" together inside the water portion of the aging whiskey, subtly changing its flavor.

To be fair, I'm no chemist, and there may be some promising ways around all this. But enough people much smarter than I am about these things—not to mention hundreds of years of whiskey making—would seem to support my basic premise. Again, I'm not trying to criticize craft distilling as a field. And there's nothing wrong with small barrels per se; it's the belief that they are a way for craft distillers to cut corners that bothers me.

Indeed, cutting corners is a real problem in the sector. Scroll through the discussion boards on the website of the American Distilling Institute, an organization for craft distillers, and you'll find a disheartening number of comments like this one, praising a new technology that promises to mimic the aging process almost overnight:

If I had some real money invested in Beam, Daniels, Jose, etc. I would be nervous. Can you imagine the franchise opportunity for this? In an open state like Missouri we could have a product on the shelf, out the front door, on the Internet, and in distribution in weeks not years.

Now, you'll also find lots of commenters who are skeptical about methods to speed up the maturation process, if not downright critical. My concern is that if even a sizable minority of distillers accept shortcuts like this as part of being "craft," then American whiskey as a whole will see its reputation threatened. It's happened before, after all: The sector is only now climbing out of its decades-long purgatory as the bottom-shelf bastard son of Scotch. It was there largely because, after a wave of consolidation, too many owners decided to focus on profits over quality. They had forgotten the maxim of Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle: "We make Fine Bourbon. At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always Fine Bourbon." It would be a shame if many craft distillers, in a rush to compete with the big guys, made the same mistake.

Image: Sonnett/flickr

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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