The ongoing quest for rapid-aged spirits is nothing new.
Spirits that are typically barrel-aged for a decade or more are hardly cost effective for new distillers looking to grow their businesses quickly. In a sea of established brands, that long-held reliance on time as the key factor in flavor inspires many distillers to employ unorthodox aging methods.
Everything from undersized barrels to ultrasonic sound waves has been tested to accelerate the aging process. But for some savvy distillers, inspiration lurks not in the size of the barrel, but in the environment itself.
Matured in locales ranging from a Colorado mountain peak to the darkest depths of the Caribbean Sea, these spirits demonstrate the pioneering nature of today’s distillers. Even gravity can’t contain their imagination: Space-matured Scotch looms brazenly on the horizon. And the trusty barrel? That too may soon become outdated, by employing science to mimic the flavor of a barrel-aged spirit in a fraction of the time. If you’re curious about the future of aged spirits, make sure to pack your sense of adventure.
What happens to rum when it’s aged at 8,900 feet? Ask Karen Hoskin, the president and co-owner of Montanya Distillers, located in the mountain town of Crested Butte, Colorado. Hoskin has mastered the art of crafting high-altitude rum, a tradition that first took root in Guatemala and Colombia decades ago. In Colombia, rum has been aged in the Andes mountain range at elevations as high as 17,500 feet.
While the ingredients in Montanya’s Oro and Platino rums certainly matter—think pure mountain spring water, Louisiana sugarcane and local honey—it’s the extreme elevation that gives these rums their character. As Hoskin states, “Temperatures in the mountainous climates fluctuate daily and allow the flavors in the barrel to meld differently than they do at sea level.” The temperatures at Crested Butte fluctuate as much as 20 to 40 degrees in a day, falling dramatically at night. That means that Montanya’s fermentations can be chilled by the naturally cold water at the facility and the distillations boil at a lower temperature. This affords the distillery greater control over the temperature in the still, which ultimately produces a more flavorful product.
As the temperatures drop in the barrel room, the pores of each American oak barrel contract and expel the alcohol. The reverse occurs when the temperature rises, drawing new rum into the pores. Unlike rum produced in the islands, this frequent shift in temperature allows more of the rum to come in contact with the oak during its aging life. No need to introduce agitation or other unnatural solutions like sonics—Montanya rum owes its distinct flavor to its lofty mountain perch.
Imagine a bottle of bourbon resting on the bow of a ship, the brown liquid rocking back and forth with the motion of the waves. For Jefferson’s Bourbon founder Trey Zoeller, this simple observation launched an exploration into uncharted waters—specifically, what would bourbon taste like if it was aged on the ocean?
As a native Kentuckian, Zoeller was familiar with bourbon’s long history aboard boats. In the 1700s, Kentucky distillers harnessed the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to transport their spirits for trading. This time spent on the water most certainly affected the bourbon’s flavor, likely accelerating the aging process due to the constant motion and wood contact. To test this theory, Zoeller teamed up with a friend at OCEARCH, a nonprofit organization that promotes ocean research and education. Zoeller placed new-filled bourbon barrels aboard an OCEARCH research vessel and let the waves do the rest as the boat traveled 10,000 miles over the course of three and a half years.
The result? A four-year-old bourbon with such a dark brown hue that it surpassed the color of a 30-year-old bottle. As Zoeller discovered, aging the bourbon on the ocean allows the spirit “to soak up the elements of the sea. The result displays characteristics never seen before in bourbons of this age.” Thanks to the constant rocking, fluctuation in temperature and saline-rich air, the bourbon matures rapidly and takes on strong caramel flavors almost akin to a dark rum, as well as a distinct briny quality. Zoeller has continued his ocean-aged experiments with two more bottlings of Jefferson’s Ocean: Aged at Sea. The most recent release, Jefferson’s Ocean III, took matured Kentucky straight bourbon barrels and set sail around the world, stopping at five continents and crossing the equator four times.
Now that ships have shepherded bourbon above the seas, it’s time to dive deeper. Literally. Cayman Spirits Company’s Seven Fathoms Rum matures at a depth of 42 feet under the Caribbean Sea—also known as seven fathoms. A blend of one- to three-year-old rums, Seven Fathoms was inspired by tales of transoceanic voyages of wine and the effects that motion had upon its maturation. Merchants would ship wine on the ocean to faraway markets and recipients would detect a marked change in the flavor profile due to the constant motion and enhanced wood exposure.
The same concept of barrel agitation is used today by many distillers. But unlike other rum manufacturers, Seven Fathoms ages its spirit underwater, at a top secret location. Walker Romanica, Cayman Spirits’ co-founder, believes this to be rum’s ideal setting: The ocean’s distinct levels of pressure and humidity are unmatchable on land and the constant motion of the tides forces the rum in and out of the wood, contributing to its complexity.
Why the secret location? Because no one else on earth is aging rum this way. The sweet spot of this depth allows gentle currents to rock each barrel of Seven Fathoms Rum to full-bodied flavor. The solera-blended final spirit that emerges is smooth and dry with citrus and oaky vanilla notes. No wonder this rum is meant for leisurely sipping, backed by the steady rhythm of the tides.
Few can claim that they’ve experienced the joys of space travel. In reality, it’s more likely that your Scotch—not you—will embark on an astronaut’s adventure. The days of space-bound spirits have arrived, led by Ardbeg Islay Malt Whisky and its Director of Distilling, Dr. Bill Lumsden. Known as the peatiest of all the Islay malts, Ardbeg is the very first whisky brand that’s made it into orbit. The galactic goal? To determine the impact gravity has on the maturation process.
Ardbeg’s space experiment began in 2011 when a vial of Ardbeg-crafted molecules was launched into space. The experiment was a partnership with the US space research company NanoRacks, which used samples from the inside of a new American oak barrel, along with samples of a liquid containing Ardbeg-crafted molecules such as terpenes, aldehydes and fatty acid esters. The vial orbited earth for three years, circling the planet at 17,227 miles per hour, 15 times a day aboard the International Space Station.
In September 2014, the vial safely returned to Earth, touching down in Kazakhstan. After being rushed to a lab in Houston, the team started unlocking the mystery of maturation through the study of interaction between Ardbeg-crafted molecules and charred oak, both in microgravity and normal gravity. No one knows the results of the experiment yet, as the exhaustive study is still in progress at the Ardbeg distillery in Scotland. Once the secrets of this maturation experiment are understood, Dr. Lumsden will reveal them sometime later this year in a white paper, an essay that provides all facts necessary to understand how the experiment works. Until then, ponder the possibilities of interstellar aging with a glass of Ardbeg Supernova 2014, the limited-edition malt that was released to commemorate the return of the Ardbeg vial from space.
Land, sea and space: All have made their mark on aged spirits in different ways. But what about harnessing the power of science? At Lost Spirits Distillery in Monterey, California, Bryan Davis has dedicated years to mapping the chemistry of barrel-aged spirits and learning to control that process. Earlier this month at the American Distilling Institute conference, Davis announced his greatest breakthrough to date: the Model 1, a patented, portable chemical reactor that produces the equivalent of 20 years of barrel aging in just six days. No barrels required.
According to the white paper David released, “When charged with oak blocks and freshly-distilled spirits, the reactor uses energy in various forms to trigger the chemical reactions that take place in a barrel as spirits age.” It might seem hard to believe, but this new technology could have an unprecedented effect on the spirits market, as craft distilling has—up until now—always relied on time as a key component of flavor. With the maturation period reduced to a matter of days, David posits that the industry will experience a simultaneous increase in quality along with plummeting prices.
How does it work? Traditional barrel-aging doesn’t just imbue oakiness. The wood contributes organic compounds to the liquor and transforms acids into esters, which give spirits their unique flavor. The longer a spirit is aged in a barrel, the greater the number of complicated esters that can emerge.
Lost Spirits is the first to achieve a nearly identical chemical signature to a product aged for years in a barrel. The groundbreaking reactor uses gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy to clone the same chemical compounds that give an aged spirit its essence—producing a spirit that tastes decades old in mere days. First tested on Lost Spirits’ Colonial American Inspired Rum, the reactor can be used to create any type of matured spirit. Davis’ goal is to produce high-quality spirits while saving distillers time and money on barrels. The reactor allows for endless experimentation with nearly immediate results, and can even help resurrect long-lost spirits that are no longer available by cloning the spirits’ chemical signatures.
For now, five beta-test Model 1 reactors will be released to outside distilleries this summer—and Davis has even more testers lined up on a waiting list. If the cloud-based reactors become widely available in 2016 as David plans, expect to witness a radical change in the aged spirits business as you know it. Get ready to say goodbye to the barrel.