New technology that accelerates the aging of whisky shows us that just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should, writes Jack Croxford-Scott
Understandably, whisky rarely makes the headlines in any meaningful way. There’s bigger things happening in the world, right? When it does, it is often to announce the breaking of yet another record for the amount spent on a bottle, as collectors and investors the world over commit to a whisky fuelled arms race with seemingly no end.
That said, a rather curious headline of an altogether different tack recently made the rounds: ‘Silicon-Valley start-up launches “Nespresso machine” for whisky.‘
It told the story of Bespoken Spirits, who produce matured spirits (think whisky, rum and brandy) using accelerated aging technology that supposedly replicates decades of traditional maturation from wood in just a few days.
The precise molecular science behind it is beyond us, but, in essence, raw spirit is pressure-aged by exposure to wood chippings from oak barrels. Different wood types can be used in pursuit of particular flavours and aromas to ‘design’ a spirit of a certain profile without waiting several years for it to mature in the time-honoured way.
The whole mad scientist approach to production is not entirely novel. Fellow U.S outfit Lost Spirits has beaten countless well-aged whiskies for top awards with their rapidly aged spirits, some of which were initially matured the traditional way before being introduced to a ‘reactor’ back at the lab.
Unsurprisingly, the proponents of accelerated aging are quick to point to the economics of their so-called solution. Or as Martin Janousek, co-founder of Bespoken Spirits, put it: ‘The traditional spirits production process is outdated, imprecise, unpredictable, unsustainable and inefficient.’
After all, crafting whisky the old way takes time – a lot of it.
That equates to higher costs; barrels slumbering away in storage are not paying their way. Likewise, maturing whisky the allegedly ‘outdated’ way has its inefficiencies; spirit evaporates through porous oak barrels, a phenomenon known as the ‘angels share’.
So are the Californian techies onto something? Is time running out for those holding on to the seemingly antiquated ways of crafting whisky?
We wonder whether they require a not so gentle reminder of whisky’s past before they lay claim to its future. For all of the record-breaking price tags and reverence, whisky is a rather humble and simple drink, really. Barley, water, yeast. That’s all. At its heart, it’s a farmer’s pursuit. Scottish and Irish crofters crafted surplus homegrown grains into a fiery spirit that no doubt staved off the harshness of winter.
Some of that spirit, let’s admit, would have been almost undrinkable. Imprecise ‘cutting’ of the spirit as it flowed from ramshackle stills and little to no aging would have conceived a rough and ready distillate (thankfully) worlds away from the whiskies of today. Quite frankly, it would have been vile. But it would have been honest. And it would have been reflective of the rugged land in which it was birthed and the hardy folks who distilled it.
Those who continue to craft Scotland’s national spirit are charged with what the late writer George Thompson described as a ‘sacred, almost priestly responsibility’ to do it properly. The third and fourth-generation distillers, coopers and warehousemen who choose the right way over cutting corners are discharging that duty. This isn’t romanticism. It really isn’t. It’s rural employment, it’s the preservation of generational crafts and it’s the heritage of one proud country.
And what nexus to the land can our innovators claim? Sure, one can deploy one of these machines to ‘design’ whichever spirit he pleases but the results will not be evocative of any earthly place other than the white-walled lab in which it was regrettably birthed.
And what of time? After all, that’s apparently the very triumph of the innovation on trial. The cost savings. The efficiencies. Isn’t it time that makes greatly aged whiskies from bygone eras so sought after? That they are the remaining drops of a certain moment that can never be experienced again?
Take those pre-war Macallans that fetch unfathomable sums at auction, for example. Those casks were laid down in a world that no longer exists, by a craftsman long departed who was only ever a custodian of spirit he would never see bottled.
Our lab dwellers, however, cannot replicate that point in time, nor any time for that matter. Instead, they offer us instant gratification. An Instagram-ready drink, so to speak.
Now, we should perhaps cut them some slack. Whisky shouldn’t be closed to new ideas nor smarter ways of doing things. It is a commercial endeavour, after all.
But we can’t help thinking that, ironically, this is a step backwards. We mean, is it technologically impressive? Original and clever? Indisputably. But then again, only because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should.