Speed-aging bourbon with the power of technology

When bourbon ages, what's actually happening is that daily fluctuations in temperature are changing the pressure in the barrel, forcing liquid in and out of pores in the oak. At NPR, Alan Greenblatt writes about an entrepreneur who has figured out how to mechanically recreate this process — speeding up the time it takes to age bourbon from months or years, to a matter of days. This may or may not be an appropriate use of technology, depending on your bourbon ideology.


  1. Can the pros taste the difference? Can the amateurs? I’d be happy to pay a tenth of the price to get a glimpse of the good stuff.

    1.  Since Bourbon is a by-product of the process of making barrels for Scotch, this may well have an effect. Whether it is for good or ill, we’ll have to wait and see.

      1. This is an absurd statement, and does not reflect an accurate understanding of whisk(e)y production. 
        Bourbon is whiskey made in America according to strict laws dictating barrel selection (ie, charred, new American oak). It is whiskey made for people who like the flavor bourbon – an enormous global audience.

        Scotch is whisky made in Scotland according to somewhat less rigorous standards. They can use almost any barrel they can get their hands on (whence sherry finishes, port finishes, etc.).

        Bourbon producers can’t re-use barrels (^^NEW American oak) so they sell them. To Scotland, mainly. But to call bourbon a “by-product” of Scotch barrel production is as preposterous as saying that Sauternes is a by-product of making barrels for Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or.

        1. Pretty sure that was tongue-in-cheek. IOW, YHBT. Scotch drinkers aren’t great at humor.

          1. Yep, and apparently I’m not great at reading comprehension before my morning coffee. :)

  2. I’d expect this approach to produce different results than even small barrel aging. Not necessarily worse, but different. There’s more going on in a barrel of spirits than just alcohol leaching in and out of wood. Evaporation and oxidation for example, both of which would have an effect on the finished product. But there’s also more to making good whiskey than just the barrel aging. In general though with booze I find that doing things quicker leads to a loss of complexity. So I’m sure they’re making a whiskey that’s at the very least a decent, general use, mid-shelf bourbon.

    1. There’s probably ways of speeding up many of the other complexifying processes, too. This is kind of like demystifying an art into a science (/ engineering discipline) and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

      1. Food chemistry has demystified the art of cooking to produce ready made meals consisting of bland tasting ingredients sprinkled with artificial flavor additives to produce exactly the required taste.

        That doesn’t mean a microwave meal has become comparable to a meal freshly cooked by somebody who can cook. It just means that instead of a microwave meal tasting goddamn awful, it became palatable.

        Just because you can aproximate an effect synthethically doesn’t mean the result can compete with the real thing. But it can make the mass product better than goddamn awful.

    2. You are correct. Though in my opinion barrel aging has become a crux for distillers, and a totally misunderstood selling point for drinkers. 

      It would be *very* difficult to get the complexity of a good bourbon without barrel aging. Personally I feel most of the benefit of barrel aging is driving off the the volatile alcohols while keeping the yummy spicy flavor stuff that comes off the still about the same time as the nasties. So the classic bourbon recipe is an imprecise pot still + a long time.  

      But a good, compound fractionating still and an organic chemist could, in principle, replicate it. And it will happen soon. It’s already happend with other whiskies. I had a delicious, 1 month old oat whiskey. And Rogue’s barley whiskies are very nice and only aged a few months.

  3. There’s more than just extracting compounds from the wood going on in proper barrel aging.  Oxygen gets in through the pores of the wood, oxidizing various alcohols and organic acids – lots of organic chemistry beyond just throwing wood into an alcohol-based solvent.  White spirits aged in slightly air-permeable glass vessels also undergo some of the changes in flavour that barrel-aged spirits do, purely via reactions with oxygen.
    If this fellow’s process really mimicked what happens over the course of years in a barrel, then it would be even more effective to simply grind the barrel wood right down to sawdust and filter the barrel-proof spirit through it, the moment it comes out of the still, on its way into the blending vat.

    1. “Lix uses pressure to speed this up. He pours distillate into a stainless steel vat and throws cut-up pieces of barrel in after it.”

    2. No, that doesn’t follow at all, since sawdust would result in orders of magnitude more interaction of wood surface and wood aromatics with the spirit being ‘aged,’ which does not occur in actual barrel aging at all.  But, it is relatively basic chemistry to determine what the aging process is doing, and finding ways to accelerate them, individually. This is not the same as emulating the entire aging process and making a desirable beverage, however.

  4. I’m ambivalent about this. On one hand, I enjoy a whisky’s provenance and back-story, but if I could drink Ardbeg 12-year-old for half the price, I would be delighted.

    1. To say nothing of 35-year-old  Caol Ila at half price — which would still be rather out of most of our price ranges :-(

  5. I’ve had Cleveland Whiskey, and compared it to a few other  brands. It’s definitely different. Noticeably so, if you’re familiar with bourbons. But to me, it was just different, not necessarily worse. If anything, what struck me was how one-dimensional the flavor was.

    It wasn’t good enough to justify the price, but I see that as a novelty price right now. We’ll see where it settles.

  6. I thought that non-premium or non-varietal brands had been doing this for ages, that is using sawdust or wood chips. Maybe this guy has agitation or pressure cycling methods that make his approach different.

    Does anybody know how long Budweiser has been “beechwood aged” with beechwood chips?

  7. Something like exposing musical instruments to high-amplification tones, to artificially “age” them into better instruments -?

  8. He pours distillate into a stainless steel vat and throws cut-up pieces of barrel in after it.

    Not sure how he gets to call this “bourbon.” Federal law says it has to be aged in new charred oak barrels, not steel barrels with oak chips.

    1. He could still age it the minimum duration in barrels – but get (theoretically, maybe) the profile of a much older whiskey by doing this first.

      1. There is no minimum duration unless you want to prepend “straight” to the name, then it’s two years.

        I dunno, it sounds like bullshit to me. Even if his washing machine process works, why bourbon, a whiskey that doesn’t improve with aging after about six years, instead of one that’s worth waiting three times as long for? Probably because bourbon (and rye) are trendy at the moment and there are a lot of suckers that don’t know anything about it. I still hear people who think it has to be from Kentucky (not true) and that the reason Jack Daniels (ptui) isn’t called bourbon is because it’s from Tennessee. (It’s because they filter it through charcoal before bottling. (And dead rats, by the taste of it.))

        1. To clarify (i had to look it up), that’s just Jack Daniels’ excuse for not calling their stuff bourbon. You can filter bourbon and still call it bourbon.

          And, yeah, their stuff is wretched. My black label is Evan Williams.

        2. why bourbon, a whiskey that doesn’t improve with aging after about six years,

          I think there are a lot of folks who would disagree with this statement.   I’ve had some very good bourbons that were 12, 15, even 18 years old.  Spectacular ones, in fact.

          And of course there’s Pappy, at up to 23 years – an exception to be sure, but still a shining counterexample.

          You’re utterly correct about JD though. I will say their Single Barrel stuff is decent, though. Gentleman Jack is okay too, for what it is.

  9. There are good things to be said for delayed gratification.  Much as I’d love to afford to drink 18-year-old Macallan’s more often, saving up and buying a $150 bottle — sloooooowly —  is still pretty satisfying.

  10. The folks at Ideas in Food have quick-aged fish sauce and booze (separately, not together). They used the ultrasonic homogenizer from Polyscience: http://www.cuisinetechnology.com/sonicprep.php

  11. As a Scot living in the US, I’m pretty skeptical about this.

    The reason that Scotch ages more slowly than Bourbon or other US whiskies is that the temperature extremes somewhere like Islay are much narrower than in the very hot summers and very cold winters of Kentucky. So Bourbon already has a time advantage in ageing. But guess what? Most people think a Scotch that has aged through gradual evaporation and the opening and closing in gaps of the barrel over 10 years is a subtler, finer thing than a Bourbon that’s had as much evaporation and opening and closing of the barrel over five years.

    I very much like some Bourbons – but I’ve never drunk one as fine and subtle as Ardbeg, Bowmore, The Macallan or other really top Scotch whiskies. Will faster ageing produce as good a Bourbon (which, as a commenter above rightly points out, wouldn’t be Bourbon under this method) as the current method? It’s very hard to imagine.

    1. Most people? I think perhaps your view as a Scotsman may be influencing your perception of reality.

      There are many, many, many people including yours truly that would rather drinks a fine bottle of Bourbon or Rye over Scotch. A bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle 15 year has all the complexity of a Ardbeg. A Weller 19 year will have you humming the national anthem. If you are ever blessed enough to try Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23 year, you may find yourself revoking your Scottish citizenship and adopting a Kentucky accent.

      1. You’re not exactly comparing apples to apples here are you,
        Aloisius?  Drinking bourbon and scotch
        are two very different drinking experiences, held together by a fork in a
        country road.  It’s at the low end of the
        cost spectrum, that initial stage for most of us, we begin to find our voices and
        wax poetic (and patriotic) regarding our distillation of choice.  ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the
        one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.’ 

        Someone stuck a shot of Wild Turkey in my hand while I was
        in my twenties and pronounced it ‘mighty fine’. 
        I didn’t try bourbon again for many years, assuming all bourbons were
        the same, growing more complex in their vileness as the price went up —  great for flavoring bourbon balls and BBQ
        sauces… just not at my house.   These
        days you’ll find a nice bottle of Maker’s Mark in our liquor cabinet.  I don’t aspire to anything finer although
        many exist, for the sins committed on my palate by some pointy-earred,
        backwoods, buck-toothed, barefoot third cousin of a bourbon that never writes or
        calls and whose baggy britches smell of urine, from a branch of bourbons we’d
        all just as soon forget about, but they’re *family* so we gotta love ‘em.  The Wild and Wonderful Bourbons.

        I tried scotch in my forties and was fortunate in that it
        was a cheap Glenlivet, a fairly pedestrian scotch by today’s standards, and I’ve
        been a fan ever since.  Fifteen years
        later and quite a few fifths, I’ll happily peel off some Ben Franklins for fine
        sippin’ scotch.  There are those who
        would claim that the Scots are just Great Britain’s hillbillies, but you’re
        more likely to find there actual descendants of royal blood, tracing their
        family trees back several generations and including those who immigrated to
        America and settled in the Appalachia of the U. S. of A..  Hmmmm… wonder if any of them went to work in
        the business of distilling bourbon?  How
        many clans could we identify when looking at a roster of employee’s last names?

        1. Tastes vary widely.  I prefer old Scots whisky that comes from islands with very bad weather, but for bourbon, I tend to prefer cheap rotgut, harsh enough to make you slow down and sip it.  Better bourbon’s ok, but even the cheap stuff has the Bourbon Nature to it.

        2.  “You’re not exactly comparing apples to apples here are you…”

          Well, to be fair, he was replying to someone who set things in terms of such inter-fruit comparisons in the first place. It’s clearly Mr. Wright who’s truly in need of the reminder that “Drinking bourbon and scotch are two very different drinking experiences.”

          I’m afraid I found the digression into stuff about royal blood, etc. to veer right into incoherence, though. What bearing does that have on, well, anything?

      2. I think you missed the point – Robert Wright said that most people prefer a Scotch aged for 10 years to a Bourbon aged for half as long. Hence, slow aging has value, even if you can reproduce some of the effects with temperature change. Bringing up a bunch of Bourbons aged for very long times is hardly a counterargument, or even relevant.

  12. On a recent visit to Cleveland, I tasted it. A fairly reasonable facsimile — but a bouquet like what doctors used to keep their thermometers in. And bouquet is essential to the experience of bourbon. 

    If you were nearing Jupiter on Discovery One and asked HAL to fabricate some bourbon to brace you for the Star Gate,  you’d be quite satisfied if it were as close to bourbon as this. But here on earth, luckily, we’ve got the real thing. 

    (Tried another bourbon by Alltech, a Kentucky company better known for producing livestock feed, and it had no smell whatsoever. Dunno how they did it, but I poured it down the drain.)

  13. The aging of spirits has two components, only one of which is the solvation of phenolic compounds from the wood. 

    It is important to understand that alcohol is created in an anaerobic environment, ethanol is only created by yeast after it has totally run out of oxygen. After the bacterial catalysts are removed and the spirit is left to age, these compounds will spontaneously react with oxygen, but many of them will react over a very very long time. 

    This is why aged spirits are recognizably different from the unaged. Tuthilltown and many other new brands have been cutting down the aging time to closer to 6 mos – year by using smaller barrels (more surface area). This is enough for 90% of those flavors, but instant aging is not aging. It’s more akin to wood flavoring, which you can already get, for a much lower price, in a bottle of Ten High.

  14. In my opinion the aging process for a whisky like bourbon is very much different than for a clean whisky such as a barley scotch. 

    Bourbons are spicy, yummy, peppery whiskys. As I’ve learned recently, those flavors tend to come from the beginning and the ends of a still run. Mostly the beginning.

    Now, if you want a really clean whisky, through away the heads and tails and you’re almost there. Let it sit around for a bit and the nasties will go away, and you’ll get a tasty, drinkable spirit with minimal or no wood. 

    But let’s say you want something spicier. Tough to get those flavors in the product without also getting the nasties from the heads and tails. At least with the traditional pot still (using a compound fractionating still, though. . .). So what you do is make a super gross product then put it in a barrel for ever. Most of the nasties go away, most of the yummies stay, and voila. 

    This is simplistic, but this fundamental dynamic, for things like bourbon, is *way* more important for the outcome than high-falutin talk of barrel chemistry. It’s evaporation, really.

    High West makes a delicious white unaged oat whisky. Stranahans makes an amazing, super flavorful barley whisky with an average age of about 3 years. 

    The whisky world is changing, fast, and these old rules are getting blown away as a new generation innovates.

  15. Technological considerations aside, I think “bourbon ideology” may be my new favorite phrase.

  16. Home distillers have been practicing accelerated aging for many years.  We add smaller pieces of toasted oak, and we oxidize our whisky by exposing it to much more air than they would see inside a barrel.  Using smaller pieces of toasted oak provides a problem that must be balanced.  Since the oak pieces offer a much higher surface area, the extraction occurs much faster.  In fact, the best-tasting components come out within the first 20 minutes of contact.  We have to limit the exposure to oak to avoid extracting tannins, which give the whiskey an astringent effect.  I estimate the speed of accelerated aging at around 1 week = 1 year of traditional barrel aging.  No, you’re not going to end up with a whiskey that could be mistaken for a proper barrel-aged whiskey, but you can end up with a tasty product that many will compare favorably against commercial products.  Most importantly, you can drink your whiskey yourself, instead of having to pass it down to your heirs.  Like any hobby worth one’s time, distilling is easy to start, difficult to master.

  17. Makes sense two use music. The anisotropy in vibrational properties was found to vary between two species http://www.treesearch.fs.fed.us/pubs/39501 
    Music has charms to soothe the savage breast; To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.”- William Congreve, English dramatist (1637–1708) 

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