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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

                3. What is the difference between a whiskey treated this way and vodka or pure grain alcohol?

                  Couldn't you buy vodka put it in stainless, throw in wood chips and then have whiskey?

                  28 Replies
                  1. re: redfish62

                    No. Even if the grain used to distill the vodka were the same as, say, a Rye Whiskey, vodka is distilled at a higher proof. It will always taste differently than even an unaged "white" whiskey.

                    1. re: redfish62

                      Vodka is distilled until basically tasteless. When whiskey is distilled, even very clean, it still has tons of flavor.

                      There are some aged vodkas on the market. They pick up some vanilla and tannins from the wood, but don't taste like whiskey.

                      I've done tests aging neutral grain spirit and neutral cane spirit, and they don't taste like whiskey or rum, because you are starting with a flavorless "neutral" spirit.

                      I also did a test with a cane spirit that was distilled very pure, just the hearts, and it had a very light clean super light rum flavor unaged, even then it picked up tons of rum character during the aging process. I aged two gallons in a three gallon new charred barrel, and took out 4 oz. samples every few weeks and saved them, and took out samples over around two years from the start. Early on it tasted like a very elegant aged rum, then it became a beautiful powerhouse of an aged rum. Finally it started to get over wooded at around 8 months. Tomorrow will be thirteen months and I have to pull off another sample and see how it is doing. By the time the barrel is drained from samples I will have a great vertical sample of barrel aging an almost neutral cane spirit in new very small barrels.

                      1. re: JMF

                        Do you find the balance of the flavor compounds extracted from the wood to be very different using small barrels/shorter time vs larger barrels/longer time? If so is the balance "tweakable" to be able to approximate the larger barrel/longer aging time or is it non tweakable such that expectations should be that the small barrel aged hearts can be very "good but different"?

                        Going from my experience with coffee and tea (as others have also described), mainly experimenting with coffee using different dosages/different temperatures/different extraction times/dissolved solids, etc.), I am inclined to think that end results may be "good but different" and not really "the same".

                        1. re: khuzdul

                          Yes to "good but different". In my opinion you can't "tweak" the flavor profile to get something aged in a small barrel to be like something aged in a large barrel. Since the chemical compounds in the unaged spirit break down over time, oxidize, change structure, etc. they dissolve different compounds out of the wood.

                          Unless you do a lot of pretty severe "tweaking." Some distillers bubble oxygen through spirit for a week or two to promote oxidation. This can make a slightly rough spirit smoother. Also I've noticed that if a barrel is left with a small amount of air/head space in it when filled, aging/maturation happens faster. But barrels are expensive, actually more so than the raw spirit put in them, so a barrel that isn't filled is wasting money and production costs go up.

                          I just want to add to all I am saying here in this thread, that this is my opinion, based on my observations, experiments, etc. There may be others with differing views, based on their experiences.

                          1. re: JMF

                            JMF: "But barrels are expensive, actually more so than the raw spirit put in them"


                            1. re: EvergreenDan

                              Yeah... I'll toss around some numbers. Now this is doing everything at retail prices using new barrels. But buying in bulk the numbers stay in around the same ratios. Small barrel prices from one of the three cooperages in the US that make them. 5 gl. $165, 10 gl. $180, 30 gl. $260, full size 53 gl. $220. Yes, 53 gl. barrel is cheaper than a 30 gl. barrel. These prices are for single barrels without shipping. Figure shipping adds 5-10% on to the price, but I'll leave that out.

                              Lets say I was going to make five gallons of rum. I would make 50 gallons of rum wash, using 10 gl. of blackstrap mollasses and 40 gl. water. I have seen prices as low as $20 for a five gl. bucket. So $40 molasses, a few dollars of yeast. So $45 to make five gl. rum, but $165 for the barrel.

                              Costs drop as you go up in barrel size. For a 30 gl. barrel you need $120 of molasses, $20 yeast and $165 for the barrel.

                              53 gl. barrel size is when costs even out. $200 molasses, $20 yeast.

                              Of course when you include shipping it tips it back again to the barrel being more expensive that the spirit in it.

                              If you look at the total numbers, it costs only twice as much to make 10 times the amount of spirit using the large barrels. But also 10 times as long to get the final spirit, but it tastes so much better.

                              Of course this is generalized and over simplified and there are a million other factors.

                              1. re: JMF

                                Ah, I see. You are pricing the raw spirit at the price of the raw materials that are fermented, rather than including the costs overhead, labor, and amortized costs of fermentation and distillation. If you were to price that raw spirit at something like wholesale price (say the price you'd sell it to someone who was going to age and bottle it), then the ratio to cask cost would be quite different.

                                I can't help but wonder if technology couldn't replace the barrel. Barrels have to be made of clear straight-grained wood, laboriously shaped and fabricated, in order to be watertight. If the same chemical process of barrel aging could be reproduced with, say, a combination of a stainless steel tank, scrap wood (charred if needed), and controlled oxygenation / evaporation (to simulate the permeability of the wood), then costs could come down dramatically. Once you've bought the apparatus, you'd only need to replace the wood for each batch.

                                www.kindredcocktails.com | Craft + Collect + Concoct + Categorize + Community

                                1. re: EvergreenDan

                                  Yes, I was just doing a simple calculation. Just too many other things involved. But with the small barrels it still comes out that the spirit is cheaper than the barrel including all costs. (Except bottle and label cost. I know of one company whose bottle, label, and adornments come out to $14 each. And that's in huge bulk. That's for a gin that retails at $37 in NYC)

                                  There are tons of people playing with techniques and ideas like you mention. The laws say that a American whiskey has to be store in new charred oak containers. It doesn't say what shape those containers are, or how long the spirit needs to be stored in them. Some laws cover how old the whiskey has to be for different categories, but it doesn't have to be stored in those wood containers for that period of time. But the traditional barrel continues to be used because it is so good at what it does.

                                  1. re: JMF

                                    So, any whiskey produced in the US must be stored in a new, charred oak barrel? Say you wanted to produce something more along the lines of a Scotch or Irish whisky. Would you still have to put it up in charred oak?

                                    Thanks for all the information you've shared, by the way.

                                    1. re: Jim Dorsch

                                      I'm going to give you a lot more info than you asked for, to show a basis for my answer.

                                      If you want to call it whiskey, bourbon, rye, etc. it must be stored in a new charred oak container, not necessarily a barrel. For example the legal definition of bourbon is: "Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers."

                                      An exception is Corn Whiskey: "Whisky produced at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 80 percent
                                      corn and if stored in oak containers stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in used or uncharred new oak containers and not subjected in any manner to treatment with charred wood."

                                      If the term "Straight" is used the definition is: · "Bourbon whisky stored in charred new oak containers for 2 years or more." · “Straight Bourbon Whisky” may include mixtures of two or more straight bourbon whiskies provided all of the whiskies are produced in the same state"

                                      In addition if the straight whiskey spent less than four years on the oak container there needs to be an age statement on the label.

                                      If the whiskey says "Blended" it just has to be 51% whiskey and the rest can be neutral spirit, and coloring and flavoring can be added.

                                      Now if you wanted to make something along the lines of an Irish or Scotch whiskey. First you couldn't call it that since to have those names they had to be made in those countries, and according to those countries rules. But if made in the US, you would have to call it, literally, "Whiskey Distilled From Malt Mash" on the bottle label, and it would have to be aged in used oak containers. Legal definition: "Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent malted barley and stored in used oak containers."

                                      (Jim, I know you will understand this as you are a beer writer)

                                      But you notice how in the definition it says "Mash." In the US traditionally the grain is finely ground and is mashed (water added and brought up to temperature for starches to be converted to sugars by enzyme action) then the mash is fermented, then put directly in the still and distilled.

                                      In Ireland and Scotland the grain is mashed, but with a lot more water, then is lautered (filtered through itself) in a "wash" or "wort" as if you were making beer, then fermented, then distilled.

                                      Now there are whiskeys being made in the US as a wash, but not many since the equipment to make the wash is expensive enough that 95% of the artisanal places don't bother, and none of the big companies.

                                      On a legal/technical level the US government TTB (Tobacco and Alcohol Tax & Trade Bureau) considers a mash and a wash to be the same, but only uses the term mash.

                                    2. re: JMF

                                      Your right. The law doesn't say how long it needs to be in those charred barrels. A direct pass through is enough to satisfy the law. That's why JD White Whiskey can be called whiskey

                                      1. re: scubadoo97

                                        Actually JD White isn't legally a whiskey, and the label doesn't say whiskey on it. It says "Neutral Spirit" as the "Class" and "Rye Mash" as the "Type." So it's an un-aged neutral spirit made from a rye mash. Or as the industry would call it a "Rye White Dog" (White Dog being a name commonly used for un-aged spirit.) The JD White does get the Lincoln County Process charcoal filtering, just like JD Tennessee whiskey does.

                                        On a side note: it will be retailing at a MSR of $49.99. And JD will be laughing all the way to the back charging that much for an un-aged spirit. No barrel cost, and no time spent in storage in rickhouses, and no loss to evaporation from the barrels "Anger Share."

                                        1. re: JMF

                                          I had to take a look at the JD label on line. Sure enough it's labeled as neutral spirit.

                                          I was talking to a distiller recently who was making a white whiskey and said they just pass it through a barrel on it's way to bottling to call it whiskey. Maybe he was talking corn whiskey?

                                          1. re: scubadoo97

                                            Most probably a corn whiskey.

                                            As for passing it through a barrel, I wonder what that exactly means. To be a whiskey it has to be stored in a new barrel. Five seconds in the barrel is storing it, but then afterwards the barrel isn't new and can't be used for calling a product whiskey. A corn whiskey could be poured into a used or new uncharred barrel and right out again and fit the legal definition. Could use the same barrel forever.

                                            There are a lot of distilleries who get labels passed that aren't technically correct. It all depends upon the agent approving the label.

                                            1. re: JMF

                                              Yes, label approval is always an interesting process (i.e., a crap shoot).

                                              1. re: Jim Dorsch

                                                Indeed! Whenever our labels would get bounced, we wouldn't change a thing -- just send 'em back. Got approved EVERY time!

                                          2. re: JMF

                                            "Anger Share" sounds like a new brand name, akin to Devil's Cut. ;) Probably flavored with cinnamon oil or something.

                                            1. re: JMF

                                              weird typo, meant Angels Share.

                                              1. re: JMF

                                                Funny, Angel's Share cask strength going for $150 is what you call Anger"s Share

                                                1. re: scubadoo97

                                                  Angel's share is a vapor, so presumably it comes in a gas canister. ;)

                                          3. re: JMF

                                            JMF - just out of curiosity, which gin is it with the $14 bottle? Hendrick's?

                                            1. re: ncyankee101

                                              No, it's a small but rapidly growing artisanal brand. I can't say which, sorry.

                                              1. re: ncyankee101

                                                The Hendrick's bottle is not ornamented at all, especially compared to say the Brooklyn Gin (company in Florida, product distilled in update NY) bottle.

                                                1. re: khuzdul

                                                  I wouldn't call Warwick Valley where the excellent Brooklyn Gin is made upstate NY. Many folks commute from there to NYC to work. oh, and the comnpany is registered in Florida, but the maker/owners live in Brooklyn. They use Warwick Winery/Distillery to make the gin. They actually source and prep all the botanicals and distill it themselves on Warwicks equipment.

                                                  1. re: JMF

                                                    Some NYC people call Yonkers upstate! Their gin is pretty tasty neat and straight up. I'm not a huge gin connoisseur, but I thought that the contents of the bottle was worth the price, and that I will be happy to replace it with another of the same when I finish it.

                                            2. re: EvergreenDan

                                              That sounds a lot like the steel vat and wood chip/stave method of aging that used to be outlawed in the EU for wine prior to 2006. I only know about it from a brief flirtation with the idea back in 2006 of buying the original 100 liter announced version of the winepods vs the 75 liter one they finally were able to sell. I had thought about trying to age tequila in it in addition to making wine. Might be a better fit since tequila rest times are shorter than whisky?

                                              FWIW, I really liked this Jack Daniels video of barrel making:

                                              Also an older Jim Bean barrel making video:

                                  2. re: redfish62

                                    Vodka has to be distilled to 95% alcohol

                                    1. re: redfish62

                                      This thread has been very educational, if I ever decide to give distilling a try I'm just going to label it "Hooch"