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The Growing Category of Water-Aged Spirits

Does water plus wood equal a better-aged booze?

Bottle in water
Image: / Laura Sant

Adding a splash of water is one common way to enjoy a spirit. But a growing crop of spirits producers have begun to use water in a different way: as a key part of the aging process. Some are aging their spirits near water to take advantage of the humid seaside air and temperature fluctuations, whereas others are making use of floating warehouses for the effect of the water’s motion.

Near the Water

For some producers, it’s about maximizing the impact of humid air carried from a body of water to barrels holding spirits. Scotland’s islands, particularly Islay, are noted for embracing the impact of salty sea air to enhance Scotch whisky. France also is noted for aging cognac on the Ile de Ré, where aging caves by the water add maritime complexity to France’s famed brandy.

Meanwhile, American distilleries have put their own spin on waterside aging techniques. For example, along the Oregon coast, Rogue Ales & Spirits has an "ocean aging room," where about 1,000 barrels are set to absorb the Pacific Ocean air for months or years. In 2013, the Newport distillery and brewery built the aging room about 500 yards from the water, says Jake Holshue, Rogue’s head distiller and “spirits wizard.” 

“Our claim is about the air,” says Holshue. “Barrels breathe in and out every single day. As a barrel breathes, as it swells because of the ambient air increase, the wood swells, and like an accordion, it collapses each day.” 

That expansive “breathing” of the barrels means increased contact between the spirit and the barrel. In turn, that results in slightly faster barrel-aging time. “It changes the amount of oak contribution to the spirit,” says Holshue, though he characterizes it as a “low, mellow” influence that evolves over time.

Further, the sea air adds “briny, salty, umami” notes, particularly to longer-aged spirits, says Holshue. “It adds a lot of depth and character of spirit you would not get aging anywhere else.” 

On the East Coast, distilleries experimenting with waterside aging includeTriple Eight, which ages its Notch single malts on Massachusetts’s Nantucket island, and Newport, Rhode Island’s Newport Distilling, which makes rum as well as Sea Fog American whiskey, a peated single malt.

On the Water

Going beyond the fluctuations in temperature, humidity and barometric pressure in waterfront aging rooms, floating warehouses add the impact of the water’s motion. The up-and-down or back-and-forth sloshing in the barrel further increases contact between the spirit and barrel, a technique known as “dynamic aging.”

This isn’t entirely new, of course. The true OG here is Linie Aquavit, which in the 1800s began sailing its aquavit from Norway across the equator (the line, or linie) to the East Indies and back. It continues to do so today, giving the clear spirit time to age in its barrel, accelerated by the rocking of the boat. And in the last few years, Jefferson's Bourbon has replicated that experience with its Jefferson’s Ocean line, sailing its barreled bourbon to various ports of call.

A pair of new floating warehouses aren’t going anywhere. Last year, Kentucky’s O.H. Ingram launched a River Aged series of bourbon and ryes, all aged in a floating rickhouse at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

Similarly, in November 2020, France’s Maison Ferrand announced a floating aging cellar on a restored 1948 barge, which will drop anchor in France's Seine River and house cognac and rum. This was inspired by Islay’s Kilchoman whisky, says Alexandre Gabriel, the founder of Maison Ferrand, as well as by Ferrand’s previous experiences with dynamic aging, namely shipping rums from Caribbean origins to European ports, and England’s tradition of “landed cognacs,” in which the French brandies were shipped to England to age.

“Instead of the Thames, it’s the Seine,” says Gabriel. “It’s going to be extreme humidity; it’s a floating cellar.” Equipped to hold 1,500 30-liter barrels, the barge will have a level of humidity anticipated to lessen evaporation of the so-called angel’s share, creating “soft, mellow” spirits.

The barge is still undergoing renovation, with barrels anticipated to arrive in fall 2021, so results aren’t yet available. Some of those barrels will be earmarked for research, including comparisons of those on board versus barrels stored on land, while others will be available as private casks. “This is an experiment,” says Gabriel.

O.H. Ingram’s river warehouse also began as an experiment. Hank Ingram, the CEO of Brown Water Spirits, the parent company of the O.H. Ingram whiskey brand, drew on family history in the barge business. “I had preexisting knowledge of the river,” says Ingram. “I stumbled upon the story of bourbon in its early days. Farmers would send their wares down the river; it was the nation’s highway at the time. I fell in love with the idea of sending barrels down the river.”

The only catch: A floating warehouse wasn’t legal (Ingram sums up regulators’ objections thus: “You can sail away and not pay taxes”), but he obtained an experimental permit. “We had to show that there was a change and have a control,” he says. Based on his findings, a full operational permit was granted; overall, the permitting process took three years. “Now it’s the first permitted operational floating rickhouse in the world,” he says.

Today, whiskey made at Kentucky’s Owensboro Distilling is loaded on a barge that holds 2,000 barrels. Anchored at a section of the Mississippi River where Ingram describes the not-so-serene flow as wildwater, the sometimes-vertical motion of the water causes the whiskey to churn within the barrels, while layering in significant temperature fluctuations and high humidity. By design, “we’re exposed to different elements,” says Ingram. “We’re just trying to see what happens when you bring the river back into the process again.”

Ingram is planning on adding a second barge, which may have larger capacity. In late 2020, the first River Aged expressions were launched—a three-year-old straight whiskey and a straight rye. The first release of Flagship, a small-lot bottling that’s anticipated to become an annual release, is slated for this summer, to be followed by a bourbon in the fall.

How does the barge affect the liquid? “It’s making the whiskey work harder in the barrel,” says Ingram. “We’re getting deep penetration inside the wood, and it’s pulling out deeper whiskey notes at a younger age.” In addition, as the whiskey splashes repeatedly against the charred interior of the barrel, it creates an effect he likens to charcoal filtration, which he says yields a smoother finish.

But Does It Work?

It seems clear that marketing appeal is one reason behind the growth in brands touting water-aged spirits. It may be one of the ultimate plays on terroir and tells a story that consumers can relate to and appreciate. 

It also appeals to the inquisitive nature of some producers. “It’s just experimentation,” says Ingram. But that experimentation wouldn’t be worth much if it didn’t yield results, he adds. “I think you’re seeing [this technique] grow because it works,” he says. “If it were purely a marketing shtick, people would stop doing it.” All the producers interviewed say that their water-aging techniques yield some degree of influence on their finished spirits, though some note the effect is subtle.

Other experts, such as Richard Seale, the master distiller at Foursquare rum distillery in Barbados, say these methods, and dynamic aging in particular, may offer minimal impact at best. Seale offers an analysis of a project he worked on with cognac-maker Camus in which cognac in oak casks was shipped from France to Barbados, a journey that took 45 days at sea. Then the cognac spent one year in Foursquare’s Barbados warehouse. 

A chemical analysis recorded immediately after sailing showed changes to the cognac were “negligible,” says Seale. “Virtually all of the analytical change recorded came after the one year” in Barbados, illustrating that the island’s warm climate had a greater effect on the cognac than its time spent onboard a sailing ship. 

That said, even analytical minds remain susceptible to the allure of a sea journey. “When we tasted the cognac on arrival in Barbados, it seemed different than when it was tasted before the journey back in Cognac, even if analytically it was almost identical,” says Seale. “Maybe it was psychological.”

So were the briny notes in your favorite bottle really caused by access to the sea? It’s plausible, concludes Seale. “I think you have to consider it case by case, but for the most part, it will be just a fun story.”