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