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Aug 24, 2012 01:52 PM

NY Times on craft whiskey aging

The New York Times has a piece up about craft distillers utilizing small barrels and other, more sophisticated tricks to impart an aged flavor and complexity to young whiskeys:

The writer, Clay Risen, seems sort of skeptical of the whole idea, but it seems like this sort of thing may be the way of the future. Maybe traditionalists will never abandon their 15-year aged in the barrel whiskey, but I'm curious as to what distilling start-ups will be doing ten years from now.

Has anyone tried any of these faux-aged spirits? What did you think?

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  1. I've had quite a few and have yet to have a small barrel aged whiskey that I really cared for that much. They tend to be heavy on young wood notes, pine and such, without any of the mature oaky notes that I like in American whiskey. One distiller I know likened it to making tea with ten tea bags in a mug. What you get is ready much faster, but it won't be the same as properly steeped tea.

    1 Reply
    1. re: sku


      To echo what you've said, but from the WINE point-of-view, there is a HUGE difference between aging in wood, and flavoring from wood.

      A "normal" wine barrel is 225L (i.e.: close your eyes, think of a wine barrel -- that's the one that's 225L); that translates to 25 cases of wine, but more importantly is 59,4 U.S. gallons, roughly equal to the "normal" 60 gallon whisk(e)y barrel.

      Smaller barrels contribute more flavor faster, but do not AGE the wine in the same way. There will *always* be a noticeable difference between a "normally" aged wine, and one aged in a smaller vessel.

      So, too, will there *always* be a difference between AGING a wine (or spirit) in barrel, versus holding a wine in stainless and FLAVORING it with oak chips. Oak chips (the "making tea with ten tea bags in a mug" comment by the distiller) do nothing in terms of aging; they ONLY add flavor. Thus, in a whisk(e) equivalent, a newly distilled (white) whisk(e)y, held in stainless for 12 months but with oak chips added may have the color and oaky aroma of a whisk(e)y aged for years in oak, but it will still be an UNAGED whisk(e)y -- with oak flavoring added.

    2. One thing the article does mention is that all of the producers using these tactics to accelerate also have barrels stowed for long term aging. Thus they will down the road be able to tout their long barrel aged products

      1 Reply
      1. re: quazi

        That's true, and the state of things right now is clearly that normal barrel aging is superior to these other techniques. But even if start-up distilleries transition into traditional means of production as their businesses mature, the fact that it takes so long to bring traditional product to market means that start-ups also have incentive to continue to progress these new techniques. Perhaps in twenty years you won't be able to tell the difference between barrel aged and artificially aged whiskey. Or, as the article mentions, perhaps the craft distillers will use these new processes to create interesting and original spirits.

      2. I've had the Hudson brand of hootch. They all tasted green or off to me.Time is elastic, in warm climes you dont need the same amount of time, i.e. Kalavan from Taiwan is really nice and it's not 30 years old......

          1. As a professional artisanal distiller I have to agree about the problems of small barrels. If you distill the spirit the way you would for full size 53 gallon barrels and age in a small barrel (5,10, 15 gallon), the spirit is either fully flavored but not fully aged, or to get it fully aged it is then over wooded. This is because the spirit is distilled with some heads and tails, full of long chain compounds that require time and oxidation to break down into shorter chain, tasty compounds. Scottish whisky needs so much time in the barrel because it is distilled with even more heads and tails than American whiskey and so needs that extra time for aging/oxidation.

            But if you distill the spirit very conservatively, making huge cuts and only using the best of the heart of the distilling run, leaving out all the heads and tails, you have a spirit that is very smooth and is almost pure ethyl alcohol (the good stuff.). Done this way you can drink it immediately as a fine white whiskey, or age it in a small barrel. Basically it is getting flavor from the small barrel, but not really aging, but it doesn't need it because it didn't have huge amounts of the long chain compounds.

            Now it won't taste exactly like a regular whiskey, because it is a different way of making whiskey, but it will taste good.

            I have had very good results using this way of distilling with rum and brandy, and aging in 5 & 10 gallon barrels. I haven't made huge amounts of whiskey yet myself, but have had some very good artisanal whiskeys aged in small barrels. Although the majority were not so good. I remember judging almost all the artisanal American whiskeys two years ago, around 95 in all, and the majority were pretty bad. In many I could actually taste the acetone and other chemicals and congeners, because they had too much heads and tails left in and not enough aging for them to break down. But in the unaged whiskey class, around ten whiskeys, nine were very good. These had obviously been distilled specifically to be drunk unaged and had no heads and tails, just the heart of the distilling run.

            Some of the big distilleries are releasing unaged white whiskeys, and they are pretty harsh and hot, because they are just their regular whiskeys, not distilled specifically to be drunk unaged.

            11 Replies
            1. re: JMF

              Why do you think all these not-so-good whiskeys are emerging from small distilleries? Are they on a learning curve in plain sight of the public? Are they not so good at their chosen craft?

              I recall some issues of this type in the early days of craft-brewing. After a time, most of the perpetrators were gone. Today you have lots of experimentation, sometimes ill advised, but I would say that craft breweries are generally turning out product that is at least pretty good in a technical sense.

              Are craft distilleries following a similar path?

              1. re: Jim Dorsch

                Yes, very much the same path. I anticipate that 20-30% of new distilleries will fail in the next 4-5 years as the public becomes more discerning about artisanal spirits. As the public gets more picky, only the distillers that improve their product will stay open. A lot of distilleries that will fail are ones where the owners are financial types who don't actually want to be the distiller working 60-80 hour weeks, but hire a staff who don't have the personal investment.

                Also there are distillers who think it will be fun and don't realize that much of distilling is like watching paint dry, with the tedium of having to constantly check on what is happening and taking notes.

                Distilling is part science and part art. To make good stuff you need to have a good palate, have a solid background in tasting spirits, and learn how to anticipate (or make good solid guesses) as to what something will taste like after fermented and distilled and for aged spirits, what will happen in the barrel.

                1. re: JMF

                  The more interesting question for me regarding the wood chip technique is will MGP start to use similar techniques to mass produce lightly-aged distilled spirits with distinct flavors. As I understand it, MGP cannot keep up with demand now and they are bottlenecked by inability to source enough barrels. So it would be greatly appealing to discover a distilling technique that uses stainless steel barrels with smaller amounts of wood for flavoring.

                  Are these wood chip techniques going to get into mass production?

                  1. re: westes

                    There is a HUGE difference between barrels and chips.

                    Spirits (and wine) AGE in barrels.

                    To simplify things greatly, I would ask that you bear with me for a moment . . . think about making soup from scratch.

                    1) You fill a stock pot with water, slice and dice all the veggies, toss in the pasta noodles, put it on top of the stove, and leave it for a couple of hours . . . what happens? Absolutely NOTHING! (You forgot to turn the gas on.) Reach in and taste a piece of carrot -- it's still raw and crunchy. This is the equivalent, in broad general terms, of placing your spirit (or wine) in stainless steel.

                    2) OK, so you remember to turn the gas on, and leave it to simmer for a few hours. Reach in and taste a noodle; it's soft and cooked through. So, too, are the carrots and the rest of the vegetables. You have soup! THAT is (again, in broad general terms) of aging in wood.

                    3) But the soup tastes rather flat, dull. Why? You forget to add the herbs, the spices . . . the salt and pepper! This is equivalent to the aromatics and flavors the spirit/wine picks up from aging in wood.

                    In other words, a 100-year old cast iron stock pot is a perfectly good vessel for making soup; a 100-year old cask is perfectly good for aging the whiskey (or wine), but that wood is NEUTRAL, and contributes very little in the way or aromatics and flavors to the contents within. In comparison, NEW wood adds lots of aromatics and flavors; new, charred barrels (in the case of Bourbon) adds more/different flavors.

                    Putting chips -- essentially fine particles of wool within a very large, porous sack (think of a giant tea bag) -- into a stainless steel tank is like putting tea into that stock pot with no heat underneath. It flavors the spirit (or wine), but doesn't age it.

                    1. re: zin1953

                      I understand that wood chips do not age distilled spirits. Wood chips are in no way a substitute product. But wood chips can produce a tasty distilled beverage, albeit one that cannot be called whiskey.

                      That said, MGP is near the limit of what they can produce, because there is a shortage of oak barrels. So presumably they will continue to produce a decent rye whiskey and many variants using the traditional oak barrel.

                      My question is whether MGP could introduce new beverages based on alternative distilling techniques, to produce flavorful whiskey-like beverages. Alternately, they could create new products based on smaller barrels. Or perhaps they could use larger steel barrels and introduce oak plants into that barrel with sufficient surface area exposure to create the desired aging for the new product.

                      All of this would represent new products, new production, and it is incremental to whatever they already do.

                      To the extent that you have craft brewers like user JMF in this discussion, and smaller distillers, pursuing similar ideas, couldn't this be scaled up and done in a factory setting?

                      1. re: westes

                        >>> I understand that wood chips do not age distilled spirits. Wood chips are in no way a substitute product. But wood chips can produce a tasty distilled beverage . . . . <<<

                        Hmmm. Well, we each have our own taste. I disagree with the concept that wood chips result in a tasty beverage. It's a flavor addition, that's all.

                        The wine industry has been using chips for some 30+ years. They have used Innerstave® placed inside stainless steel, wood chips placed inside stainless steel, Innerstave® placed inside wooden barrels! The result is loads of oak flavor, but it's raw and coarse, lacking in complexity and any sort of richness or layering. I see no reason to suspect these "tricks" will behave any differently with distillates than in wine.

                        Small barrels tend to have too high a ratio of surface area to volume, and thus contribute an excess level of oak aroma and flavor to both the wine and the distillate -- the resulting beverage (wine and distillate alike) lacks the mellowness and the quality of aging in large (i.e.: regular) size oak barrels, where the aging happens more slowly.

                        I know of no "formula" one could use (as an example, 12 months in a 9L barrel is equivalent to 6 years in 225L barrel) to SUCCESSFULLY speed up the aging process. I've never met a distiller or a winemaker who has been happy with the results -- only home distillers or the sort of folks who purchase (e.g.) 9.0L of distillate and a small cask in which to "age" it.


                      2. re: zin1953

                        Here is an interesting article talking about some of the alternative production techniques we are discussing here:

                        In that article is one remarkable claim (probably exaggerated): "Later this year Tom Lix, the founder of Cleveland Whiskey, will introduce a whiskey made in a device akin to an oversize pressure cooker. Inside it he places unaged whiskey and oak staves, then alternates high and low pressure over several days. 'In a matter of weeks, if not less, we have product coming out that rivals 10- to 12-year-olds,' he said."

                        1. re: westes

                          And I have a bridge I'd like to sell you . . .

                          1. re: zin1953

                            The point is that when the industry develops an inventory shortage of real 12 year old whiskey, people will try to innovate. None of those innovations exactly replicate the original product, but some of those innovations produce a beverage that some large number of drinkers will enjoy.

                            1. re: westes

                              As a wise man once said, "If you distill the spirit the way you would for full size 53 gallon barrels and age in a small barrel (5, 10, 15 gallon), the spirit is either fully flavored but not fully aged, or to get it fully aged it is then over wooded."


                              We can certainly agree to disagree, but I suspect that the word "enjoyment" is relative. If I enjoy _______________ 12-Year Rye, I'll probably like their 10-year old . . . but I seriously doubt I've going to enjoy their three-month old . . . .

                2. re: JMF

                  White whiskeys are popular at the moment and distillers could'nt be happier. Instant profit and no $ in storage