For aged spirits, suppose our goal is to produce the finest possible product as efficiently as possible. Following tradition and regulation we mash, ferment, distill, and then wait a long time barrel-aging. This last step is a huge barrier to entry, a cause of significant production costs, and a source of product uncertainty/variation.
I’ve found some scientific discussions of the numerous factors involved in barrel aging, but nothing addressing the question of whether barrel aging is the most effective way of producing spirits with the character consumers want.
Suppose there were a method to produce a spirit with the qualities of a 20-year whiskey in a matter of weeks? Wouldn’t producers jump on that? Granted, I understand there may be some obstacles to marketing non-barrel-aged spirits, including the fact that they couldn’t be sold as regulated types, and also the fact that perhaps the reason consumers pay up for aged spirits is something other than their taste.
But we seem to be losing a lot of time and resources adhering to traditional barrel aging. For example, we fight against extracting too many tannins. We try to maximize exposure of spirit to wood but confine ourselves to steeping in a charred barrel and controlling the environment outside of the barrel to affect what goes on inside of it.
After just a little study it seems obvious that deliberate wood preparation and increasing exposure of wood to spirit would have dramatic effects on the spirit’s maturation rate and final quality. So why aren’t producers chipping or pulping wood, and then steeping or circulating the spirit through a matrix of carefully toasted/charred and tannin-reduced layers under controlled (but probably elevated) temperatures? I understand regulations would prevent such a spirit from being sold as “bourbon” or “whiskey,” but would drinkers really care if the end product measured up to those produced by the more archaic (and expensive) processes?
Every few years someone comes along in this industry touting a new "quick aging" method of spirits. Then you never hear from them again. Case closed.
At my first ADI conference one of the speakers, a gent from Labrot & Graham, gave a presentation on the reserch being done by the big producers on trying to understand/replace the aging process of Oak & time. I would understand his presentation much better now than then. If anyone were interested would it not be they, who spent the money on millions of these barrels? Yes, I believe several of those distilleries have 1.5+ million barrels.
I believe you can do whatever you want, but on the label it must say what you did, I.e. aged 10 year in oak, or aged 10 minutes in a nuclear powered oak flavored centrifuge. Then let the customer decide. Sometimes there are reasons for barriers to entry
Jack Daniels is already doing something like this (have been since Day 1), by passing the raw spirit through a packed column to do some pre-filtering, chemical exchange, and other early extraction techniques on their whiskey, prior to barreling.
There are some good references in Patent and Citations of scholarly articles on scholar.google.com.
Limit your range to 2012-1960 and try searching for:"rapid aging whiskey"
This industry is going through a lot of changes with the surge in micro-distillers entering the market and some of those people are Chem E's and Process Chemists who ask the same questions that you are asking. It is not inconceivable that people like you and those with some knowledge are going to get frustrated with the dark-ages mentality of aging beverage alcohol.
In any other industry if you want an extraction, oxidation, and chemical reaction to occur in a set period of time, then you design a machine or series of reaction vessels to do it. Something along these line is going to happen in our industry in the next 10 years and those clinging to tradition and false logic are going to be sunk while those who adopt the change might be able to ride out where the industry is going to wind up.
Keep looking, keep thinking.
I completely agree that the aging method of barrel-and-wait will one day be considered archaic. However, whoever breaks the code will have both a scientific and a marketing hurdle to clear.
You can facilitate virtually any chemical change by altering process , heat, pressure, movement, adding or subtracting compounds to meet an end goal. It's called an "ends well".
However any inference that this will or should be called "aged" on the label is never going to happen. Maybe a new word like "chaged" would be appropriate.
I'll bet in 10 years there will be changes in the industry. But one thing is for sure, somebody making a bottle of bourbon today is going to be able to sell that bottle 10 years from now without chemical or process interference at an absolute premium to a later produced process altered state bourbon. Plus the classic product will not encounter excess capital equipment expense or process to make.
Let's see: more money for the classic product, plus minimal capital expenditures to produce....... I think I'll stay with old school.
For me, it is something that Liebmann and Scherl wrote in their 1949 paper "Changes in Whiskey while Maturing" that says it all:
"The practice of so-called quick-aging was of some importance during the period immediately following the prohibition period, which brought about an almost complete exhaustion of aged whisky.
"The special treatments then applied have since been completely abandoned by practically all distillers."
So not only did modern distilleries, in the hayday of scientific research and discovery, successfully apply themselves to determining the best possible methods for "quick-aging" of whiskey, but they also later abandoned these practices in favor of traditional aging.
Of course I would look forward to tasting someone's "quick-aged" whiskey attempt, but I would be rather surprised if it could measure up to a traditionally produced whiskey.
I think we're boxing ourselves in when we say "quick". I'm not pictuing a method to instantly make a high end bourbon, but I think the ability to condense 15 years into 3-4 is what will one day be solved. Some say simply cycling the warehouse temperature does this to an extent.
Interesting topic because I was just talking to someone the other day about some other equipment when he mentioned a new piece of equipment he was coming out with to speed up the aging process.
Another distiller shared this with me today, topical considering this thread.
Do you know of any distillers who have taken standard aging techniques and applied them to ultrasonic cleaned products mentioned in this article?
I've seen some work done with resonant mixing, not ultrasonic. Overall, the issue isn't ultrasonics, pressure, heat, or other direct manipulated physical "work" that can be done....the overall issue is establishing a proper REDOX cycle in the presence of the proper catalyst. Once that REDOX cycle is in place, then physical manipulation of the aging process can assist in more rapidly maturing the product.