25 January 2012
Is This The End for Oak Aged Whisky?
Machine Aged Chris Buzelli
Though the title of the post may be slightly over-dramatic, and yes it might be a way of grabbing your attention in the overcrowded land that is twitter and Facebook, if you really think about it after watching the video and reading the article it may lay hold to some truth.
Whisky ageing is an essential part of any Whisky distillery. The ageing is responsible for the vast majority of a whiskies character. More than just character though, it is a whiskies identity. Smell, texture, taste are products of many many years of meticulous distilling and ageing that have rich histories, whether it be in Scotland, America, Ireland, or Japan. Each has subtle, or more obvious difference that are easily recognised to a trained pallet.
Whisky, specifically Johnnie Walker, is the 4th biggest selling spirit in the world ,and in the UK alone, sale of bourbon have increased 20% 2009-2011. The demand for whisky is not going away. This does ask an interesting question though. How much would the distiller stand to make if they didn't have to go through that long and arduous process of waiting for their whiskies to fully mature. What if whisky production was as quick as vodka or any other clear spirit.
Well potentially this question could be one crossing a few people minds with the news that retired chemist Orville Tyler has found a way to do 6 months work in only a few hours. Before we get ahead of ourselves, bear in mind the process at the moment is more of a "make young, unaged, bad whisky taste like older whisky and actually make it taste a lot better" rather than "lets get a 16 year Laphroig aged in a day." The potential is certainly there though, especially considering the research only began in 1999, 13 very short years ago.
Currently there aren't really any viable substitutes to the ageing process. Some distilleries use smaller barrels, which increases the ratio of surface area to volume exposing more of the liquid to the effects of the oak. This process is more of a mask than anything. It sweetens, adds colour, and mellows slightly but does not go as far as eliminating the unwanted flavour of a young spirit. Whiskies need time to react within a barrel and create esters, which are the main source of whiskies flavour.
Orville argues, the way distillers spirits are treated is so inefficient that him and his team decided to see if they could come up with something different. They found that they can pump whisky (or any other spirit) through oxygenated chambers which subjects it to "high intensity ultrasonic energy" which then trigger esterification. Orville says that "in six hours you have every reaction you need for vodka, and in 12 hours every reaction you need for darker spirits". The team were sent a young whisky to age"They are already creating bespoke branded spirits for shops, restaurant and hotels having around 50 clients
Now back to my initial statement. There is currently not a lot of information of how much the process can be controlled or if experiments have been carried out to see if you could take a young whisky or rum, and put it through the process to reach the same result as if it was aged traditionally. One immediate important point is the the process has no effect on the colour of the spirit, so potentially an "aged" whisky would look exactly the same as a young whisky.
The research and process does raise some interesting questions for the future. The fact that they have made such headway and refined the process in such a short time begs the question where will they be in 30 years. Could distillers have embraced this as a step of the ageing process, as after all it achieves the same results.
Could it lead to a new system, the next lever of premium and super premium spirits. Whiskies would be aged for hundreds of years with a super super premium stamp being available on some. Potentially barrel aged whiskies would be produced in such tiny quantities their price would be reserved for a select few and maybe go the route of the super car and be made bespoke for the most willing bidder, while 10 year whiskies are created in a few days.