“Whiskey is split off like Christianity,” says Jace Sheehan, the bar manager at Wink & Nod. What he means by this is that there are many different types, but they all generally have the same ingredients. He asks a waitress for two Glencairns – glasses made specifically for drinking whiskey. He wants to take a “hands-on approach” when it comes to teaching me about his favorite liquor. “We [bartenders] like drinking maybe a little too much,” he laughs.
Wink & Nod is in the South End, an upscale neighborhood of Boston. The bar is built underground, and dark wood covers the walls and ceilings. Dim lighting from chandeliers and the red, glowing bottom of the bar create a sophisticated atmosphere. Sheehan wears a Hawaiian style shirt adorned with motorcycles. His ensemble is topped off with a flat woolen cap—a look as unique as the bar he works in.
Nosing whiskey is difficult to do without practice. “Don’t try to look for anything, just let it happen,” Sheehan instructs. He hands me a Glencairn and we lift the glasses up to our noses. We’re smelling and sipping Bulleit bourbon, a mid-level bourbon with a caramel color. He tells me that unpracticed noses only smell the burn of alcohol at first, and he’s right – I just smell bourbon. But when he sips it he says he can taste a vanilla hint at the end, which helps me recognize the flavor myself. This end note comes from the vanillin compounds in the American white oak barrel that it’s aged in.
The popularity of bourbon and whiskey has been growing in the past ten years in the U.S. and overseas. According to the Council of Distilled Spirits, in 2004, the U.S. sold almost 14 million cases of bourbon; in 2014, 19 million cases, generating $2.7 billion in revenue. This so-called “Mad Men Effect” has skyrocketed the popularity of the spirit, and new competitors for the old whiskey giants pop up one after the other.
Whiskey distilled in the U.S. is required by law to be aged in charred oak barrels – though which species of oak and for how long is up to the distiller. Distillers usually age bourbons like Bulleit’s for 2-3 years. “Typically people think that the older the scotch, the better the scotch and the more expensive it is,” Sheehan says, and the longer you age it, the deeper and softer the flavor. “Barrel aging gives whiskey its character” says Sheehan. “It’s like you have a blank Barbie doll and the barrel dresses it up.”
This same law requires whiskey to begin the aging process in newly manufactured barrels. The freshly charred barrel acts as a filter and softens the spirit through time. Because the industry needs a constant supply of new wood, distillers suffered when the housing crisis hit in 2007. Sawmills shut down, hardwood production dropped significantly and resulted in a barrel shortage. In response, smaller distilleries began innovating to break into the market faster without buying stockpiles of expensive oak barrels.
And though the shortage is over, the race to find the perfect whiskey recipe is still on. New distilleries, instead of aging whiskey traditionally by passively letting it sit for 12, 15 or 21 years, are inventing methods to pump out more product faster to meet the growing market demand.
Tom Lix, founder and CEO of Cleveland Whiskey, is one these innovators. He developed a method that’s much faster than the traditional process by only aging whiskey in the barrel for a couple days before transferring the liquid to a pressurized stainless steel tank. Lix chops up the barrel and place them into the tank with other species of wood that enhance the flavor of the whiskey. Then, he alters the pressure in the tank so the liquid flows in and out of the wood. But Lix keeps the gritty details of his method close to his sleeve because of proprietary reasons.
The law that requires distillers to age whiskey in a barrel also specifies that the barrel must be made of oak – and there are only three species of oak to choose from. “[Distillers] have been using the same [oak] barrels, and yet there are thousands of species of wood [in the world] that might have incredible flavor profiles,” remarks Lix. He says this is one of the reasons he can develop deeper flavor in a shorter period of time.
“I’m a bit of an amateur chemist. I tend to think that if I had a better attention span I would be a real chemist,” says Lix, “I started playing around with things and essentially came up with a technology that dramatically accelerates the aging of spirits.”
As newly distilled whiskey hits the barrel, the clear spirit permeates the charred oak. The wood acts like a sponge, and as it expands and contracts with temperature flux, the whiskey flows in and out of the wood. Fall and spring are better aging seasons because the warm days and cool nights allow for a natural cycle of the wood and whiskey equilibrium. This cycle also gives whiskey its soft caramel color as it siphons the tint of the timber from the barrel.
Although a whiskey recipe has many different variables, distillers must first decide the majority grain in their whiskey recipe. Bourbon must be 51 percent corn, rye must be 51 percent well, rye, and whiskey is usually a blend of corn, rye and barley. For their whiskey, Bully Boy, a small-batch Boston-based distillery, uses 41 percent corn, 51 percent rye and the rest barley—corn contributes the sweetness, rye the spiciness and barley the smokiness. Each distillery brews its own combination of these starchy grains to produce a distinct whiskey.
Other distilleries are also trying to use science to cheat time. Tuthlitown Spirits in Hudson Valley New York uses much smaller barrels than industry standard size—two to five gallons instead of the standard 52 to 55 gallon barrels. This increases the amount of alcohol in contact with the wood, shortening the aging time. Copper Fox Distillery in Virginia uses the same concept to shorten its aging process, only instead of using smaller barrels, they add free-floating charred wood chips to the mix.
Distilleries are not just evolving to save time, but to save money as well. The largest up-front cost of opening a distillery is purchasing a still, the apparatus used to distill the alcohol. A single still can cost anywhere from $150,000 to $200,000 and distilleries need a series of different stills to operate. But when distilleries use these work-around methods such as pumping whiskey into wood at an accelerated rate, they get their product on shelves faster, and hope to defray that start-up cost sooner
Buffalo Trace Distillery is one of the oldest and largest distilleries in Kentucky, but instead of trying to swindle Father Time, the distillery relies on traditional aging methods. They pour money into long-term research projects to improve their whiskies by finding out how to improve their methods. In 2011, they started a four-year project which looked at seven different variables that affect taste such as char level of the barrel and if the barrel was made from the bottom or top of the tree. The company wouldn’t disclose their specific findings for competitive reasons, but say that the results are now being used improve the recipes all of their whiskies.
Although some say that the taste of these younger whiskeys doesn’t compare to the slowly aged ones, others disagree. Lix boasts that his Cleveland Black Reserve 100-proof spirit has held up in taste tests and won medals even though he is “stepping outside of the generally accepted practices.”