Whiskey Makers Try to Hack Tradition

New processes might eliminate the need for the usual aging process
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 15, 2021 11:06 AM CST
More Makers Jump On Rapid- Aged Whiskey Bandwagon
Companies are vying to cut down the whiskey aging process.   (Getty Images/OlegEvseev)

Most people want to turn back time. Among whiskey makers, a quest has evolved to speed it up. Last fall, Silicon Valley startup Bespoken Spirits made headlines by raising $2.6 million in seed funding to introduce a rapid-aging process that would nix having to mature whiskey in barrels, which usually takes at least three years. It's an evolution that Bespoken claimed could recoup $20 billion a year for the whiskey industry, per Phys.org. "This is accelerated maturation 2.0," co-founder Stuart Aaron said at the time. Now, the New York Times takes a closer look at Bespoken and other companies like it, the history of whiskey aging, and the technology they're now using to pull off a virtually overnight process. Typically, whiskey sits in oak barrels for anywhere from a few years to a few decades, and as the seasons change and temperatures rise and fall, the whiskey is shoved in and out of the wood of the barrel, which boosts the liquid's flavor and color.

Whiskey makers are now circumventing that longer process. Bespoken, for instance, throws tiny wood chips called "microstaves," made of various wood species (i.e., not just oak) into a steel tank, along with the unaged whiskey. Workers then increase and decrease the heat and pressure inside the tank, achieving the same "aging" effect in a fraction of the time. Other makers blast light into the wood to affect its molecular structure, or "reverse engineer" the process using natural sources like yeast and plants. One company, Endless West, says it can create a copy of 30-year Balvenie single-malt scotch, which retails for $1,300 or so, and sell it for about $40. Connoisseurs say the rapid-aged whiskeys aren't quite up to par with ones aged traditionally, but that might not matter. "A whiskey like Bespoken's doesn’t have to taste like the best bourbon in order to succeed," the Times notes. "It just has to be better than the worst, at a competitive price." (More whiskey stories.)

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