Whisky takes time. Following distillation, you have to wait years until it is ready to drink. It’s a process that can’t be hurried… Or can it? Dr Nick Morgan takes a look at whisky’s Holy Grail – accelerated ageing.
Social media-savvy readers may well have recently spotted the appearance of the Whiskey Pump on various feeds. A handheld American-made device which forces spirit at pressure through small charred oak wooden discs, it promises to deliver “richer flavours equivalent to five years of barrel ageing”.
Meanwhile producers such as California’s Bespoken Spirits boast of a “consciously crafted” environmentally friendly mixture of “tradition and technology” that “delivers premium quality spirits full of nuance and flavour thanks to a pure and natural sourcing methodology”. Rather than using casks the company fills metal kegs with spirit and wood chips to produce rapidly matured liquids rich in vanilla flavours.
Accelerated ageing, whisky’s Holy Grail
They are not the only ones in search of this whisky producers’ Holy Grail. One CEO of a major British distiller complained that “not a week goes by, but someone comes to us with an idea for making new whisky old”. Another, exasperated, grumbled that “people are for ever coming here with rapid maturing schemes, they ask us for a gallon of our newest spirits and offer to bring it here within a week in such a state of perfection that you would not be able to distinguish it from a ten-year-old whisky”.
In case you’re wondering, the words are not from Diageo’s Ivan Menezes, or Chivas Brothers’ Jean-Etienne Gourgues. The first was Arthur Gilbey of the eponymous wine merchants and distillers, the second an unidentified spokesman for John Dewar & Co. In January 1902 they had both been asked to comment on a paper by London academic Professor J T Hewitt which described a process to reduce the aldehydes (flavour bearing compounds developed during fermentation and distillation) in new make spirit, with the result that distillers could produce “a fine mature, and most important of all, a wholesome whisky” for bottling in a couple of months. More importantly, as newspaper headlines trumpeted throughout the UK, it would mean “whisky at 2s a bottle”, almost half the then on-shelf price for a quality proprietary blend.
Professor Hewitt had patented his rapid maturation process in 1898, and set up a company to exploit it. However, despite a trial at Dewar’s Tullymet Distillery, where the professor “toiled week after week with his alembics and retorts” there were no clients to be found; only Ireland’s Tyrconnell Distillery took up the idea for any length of time. The distinguished chemist later recalled that “the direct pecuniary results were negligible”. Despite his failure, the temptations of massive profits that could result from the successful adoption of a patent by the large blending companies were difficult to resist. Despite the sceptical comments from last century’s industry veterans, Hewitt was by no means the first, nor the last, to grasp at this seductive chimaera.
Trawling the archives
Trawl through Victorian and Edwardian patent applications in the UK and the USA and among the thousands of better mouse traps you’ll find a significant number for ‘improving’ the maturation of whisky, or spirits more generally.
The patents tend to follow a small number of well-trodden paths. Hewitt’s approach was to add chemicals during the distillation process that would retain aldehydes in the pot stills after the new make spirit had been drawn off. Some applications involved heating up immature spirits in special copper vessels, others cool them down or freeze them, and yet more both. Agitating casks of one sort or another, like a rapid automated riddling process, sometimes using complex hydraulics (as it happens this was part of the now infamous Loch Dhu’s secret production method) was another.
Speeding up the delivery of wood extractives by draining whisky through troughs of wood chips (or sometimes other materials like corn cobs), or by introducing wood chips into vats or adding extra staves in casks (disingenuously described today by Compass Box as an ‘avant-garde method of oak-ageing’) were common approaches. When in doubt, sparky inventors prefer to pass some electricity through the liquid, or expose it to ultraviolet rays, and it shouldn’t be surprising that, when the process and effects of maturation and oxidisation were so misunderstood, so many patent applications pass air or oxygen through the spirit to effect rapid and beneficial change.
Among the first to attempt to commercialise this stream of inventiveness was the Spirit Ageing Company in Glasgow which in 1877 publicised their process, based on an earlier patent by W J Phibbs which had been first demonstrated in the city a few years earlier. A fifty-gallon copper vessel, filled with new make spirit and a tightly sealed top was heated under extreme pressure for a matter of hours, the result being whisky with “an incipient brandy flavour imparted to it, while it had all the harshness removed, and was rendered smooth and soft, and otherwise had the properties of age conferred upon it”. One chemist “of great experience on the science and art of distillation” asserted that the transformed whisky was “more wholesome as a beverage than that of equivalent age obtained in the ordinary way”.
The Brinn Oxygen Company (later the British Oxygen Company), with a French patent that allowed them to produce reasonably priced oxygen at scale for the first time, were equally keen to find a market for this new product. It was largely employed to make limelight to illuminate the stages of theatres around the country, and its meal-ticket, the oxyacetylene torch, was some years away from invention. Oxygen forced into spirits at high pressure and left for ten days or more could, claimed Brinn chemist Robert Thorne in 1888, mellow the spirit “to the extent of about three to five years” and significantly reduce its fusel oil content by as much as 94%. Ellis-Clark, Manager of the Brinn works in Horseferry Road, explained to the Pall Mall Gazette that “as fusel oil is the maddening and dangerous element in cheap spirits, the application of oxygen has sanitary as well as commercial advantages”.
Experts were sceptical about the real benefits of such processes; while they acknowledged the treated spirits had changed, it wasn’t necessarily for the better. Giving evidence to the 1891 Select Committee on British and Foreign Spirits analyst and chemist W Cobden Samuel explained that while the processed samples he had tasted had altered significantly in character from the original, they “seemed to have lost something, but not to have obtained the mellowness” expected of a mature whisky. To use current whisky maturation terminology, it was as if there had been a very intense subtractive effect, but little or no additive, let alone interactive effect. He concluded that he did not think that “the palate or the nose of a connoisseur would recognise [the change] as age or mellowness”.
Salt Regal – a whirlwind of costly national advertising
Nonetheless entrepreneurs were not to be deterred from the pursuit of the distillers’ gold. Richard Clarkson Scott was a Liverpool shipping agent who had a successful patent for a stepladder, designed to allow dockers to safely enter and leave ships’ holds while overhead cranes and winches were in operation. He had also developed and patented a health drink called ‘Salt Regal’ which was launched with a whirlwind of costly national advertising in 1889. At the same time he patented, trademarked and launched a hygiene product ‘Gnu Soap’ on an unsuspecting and largely unappreciative world. As these two ventures lurched into bankruptcy Scott turned to whisky, and in 1892 he was granted a patent for “improvements in ageing spirits”, developed after “considerable personal study and cost”. In 1899 he formed the British Spirit Process Company, to exploit the patent.
Scott’s process, which “received the approval of some of the best analysts in the kingdom”, involved cooling the spirit to below freezing point and then passing equally cold air through it, which, apparently, carried many of the impurities in the new make whisky away, with “the character of the whisky as whisky being perfectly retained”. The two-hour process delivered the equivalent of two or more years of maturation in a cask. Nonetheless, said its many scientific advocates, it was more of a cleaning than an ageing process, and would be most effective when used in conjunction with some traditional cask maturation. For all the praise Scott’s process received, distillers and blenders steadfastly ignored it, and the British Spirit Process Company went the way of his other failed business ventures.
Hewitt’s experiments had also received praise from leading whisky scientists such as Philip Schidrowitz, but only scorn from the Scotch whisky industry. Of course many of these experts were by no means temperance supporters and were indeed frequently consultants or expert witnesses for whisky interests. They adduced moral or social reasons for supporting such innovations. Well-aged proprietary brands such as Dewar’s and Johnnie Walker were the preserve of the middle classes with ever-increasing disposable incomes.
‘Working man’s whisky’, tap ‘Scotch’ whiskies sold in pubs, were often of uncertain origin, quite possibly adulterated, and certainly not long from the still. They were rich in those impurities which it was believed led the way to madness and immorality. Nonetheless a successful method of accelerating ageing, or producing a liquid equivalent to a five or six-year-old whisky in a matter of days, if not hours, was anathema to the vested interests of the large blenders and distillers. Just think of the famous Ealing Comedy The Man in the White Suit.
The value of maturing stocks of whisky would plummet overnight. Millions of pounds worth of investment over many years lost at a stroke. Widespread job losses. The whole economy of whisky production would be turned on its head. Any ‘whisky at 2s a bottle’, of whatever quality, emasculated the business model and profits of both distillers and blenders. ‘We firmly believe’, said Dewar’s, ‘that there is only one way of maturing whisky, and that is by age’. ‘The best whisky’ said Arthur Gilbey, ‘is stored in sherry casks … for six, seven, or eight years’. These vested interests were far happier to accept the three-year minimum bonding period introduced during the First World War (as a result of the successful political machinations of Walker’s Sir James Stevenson) than any technical innovation as a solution to the social problems believed to result from the consumption of young whisky.
Fast forward to the early 1950s when A J Menzies, manager director of Fettercairn distillery, claimed to have a patent process that reduced maturation to a matter of hours. This time it was the Board of Trade (whose desire to exploit Scotch whisky exports as a means of earning foreign currency had led to a highly interventionist relationship with the industry) who feared the impact that such an invention could have on the value of stocks, prices, the structure of the market and the long term reputation and integrity of Scotch.
The Whisky Murders
Richard Grayson (a pseudonym for Richard Grindal, a Scotch Whisky Association PR veteran) put a process for the rapid maturation of Scotch (‘the philosopher’s stone of whisky’) at the heart of his 1984 novel The Whisky Murders. Needless to say, its creator was the first to fall foul of the murderer’s bullet. Now, with a three year minimum age for whisky as the bedrock of the Scotch Whisky Regulations, and also enshrined in European law, it’s hard to see any place for such an innovation, let alone homicide, in Scotch today.
Careful cask management and the cynical deployment of a range of marketing tropes seem to have enabled new distillers with hungry investors (not just in Scotland) to persuade self-styled connoisseurs to pay well over the odds for their juvenile whiskies, albeit mostly for collecting rather than consumption. American distillers, less constrained by regulations, can legally increase wood extractives in younger spirits in several ways, but it remains to be seen if regular American whisky drinkers are ready to adopt the consumption of artfully treated spirits only a matter of months old. Over a century and a half of failures would suggest it will never work.