This week Ian Buxton applies his boozy magnifying glass on maturation and asks if it can ever be manipulated or accelerated to produce a quality spirit.
I found myself recently considering the question of ageing. Probably because it was my birthday (yes, fine, thanks for asking) but it did bring a few things into focus. For example, will the challenge of accelerated maturation in spirits ever be fully cracked – and, if so, will the consumer accept it? Speeding up the ageing process in spirits (unlike in writers, where it seems to accelerate naturally) has long been something of the Holy Grail for some drinks companies.
After all, if you could manufacture the same taste profile from a six-month-old spirit as one that has spent ten years waiting in cask there would be undoubted benefits. Just think of the saving in casks and warehouses. Imagine the additional profits. Why you might even be able to offer lower retail prices (now things are getting fanciful).
But people have been trying for over a hundred years or more. Shortly before the Tullymet distillery in Perthshire was closed in 1911, the owners John Dewar & Sons, then independent and family-owned, engaged “an eminent analytical chemist” to experiment with artificial maturation. It was reported that “he brought elaborate appliances from London and with our permission and the sanction of the Excise he toiled week after week with his alembics and retorts”.
However, the trials ended in failure: though the boffin “brought his sample in triumph” to Dewar’s Perth HQ the company found it “nothing but an anaemic and emasculated fluid, with a taste resembling Chinese samshoo”. Perhaps they should have stuck at it, as today baijiu distiller Kweichow Moutai is the world’s most valuable drinks company, far exceeding the stock market worth of Diageo.
More recently, there have been other efforts. In the USA, hip bourbon distillers Hudson trailed blasting rap music at selected casks to promote ‘sonic ageing’, the theory being that vibration increases the wood/spirit interaction. In July 2008 it was reported that Diageo was wrapping casks in plastic film. A spokesman responded drily that “At this stage, the technologies under trial are not proven and we are continuing our research.” Since then, whatever they were up to (and reports vary) it evidently didn’t work or demonstrated what it was they wanted to show. Either way, the trials have been quietly dropped.
Elsewhere, distillers have experimented with the freeze distillation of spirit, though this appears to have been more about getting very old casks that had fallen below 40% ABV, and thus couldn’t be sold as Scotch whisky, back up to a legal strength. The value that might have been recovered is extraordinary given today’s price of really old whisky but whether or not this perfectly scientifically-sound technique would have met the SWA’s ‘traditional production methods’ standard might have been an interesting debate.
Over in California, the folks at the Lost Spirits ‘skunkworks’ in Los Angeles has employed its THEA One Reactor (Targeted Hyper-Esterification Ageing) to create remarkable peated whiskies and navy-style rums. I’ve tasted these and in my book 101 Rums to Try Before You Die concluded that “though logic tells you that six days in a Star Trek-style ‘reactor’ cannot possibly deliver the flavours of traditional ageing, your nose and palate tell you otherwise”. So, good then.
‘which they suggest may be compared to a leading’
Now yet another group are addressing this timeless challenge with what they are terming ‘accelerated beverage maturation technology’. The little-known and curiously anonymous NobleAB has produced samples of a ‘peated Speyside’, which the company perhaps optimistically suggests can be compared to a leading 10 years old Islay single malt, and a Lowland and an Indian Spirit, all oak matured with its ‘unique’ process. This its describes as “a substantial amount of wood science with specially prepared oaks for targeted maturation”.
I know little more. Though there is a domain name for NobleAB dating from August 2017 there is no active web site and the CEO’s business card does not carry a physical address. He’s one Stefan Laux. According to his LinkedIn profile, he spent some seven years with Rémy Cointreau leaving in 2004 (long before they acquired the Bruichladdich and Westland distilleries, and many years after they had sold Glenturret). Subsequently, Laux has moved quickly through a bewildering number of posts: we find him variously in Italy, Poland (in several roles), Tunisia, the USA, Switzerland and Hungary.
It’s all very mystifying. Will this prove a crock of gold, or a crock of something less pleasant? Some samples have reached me by a strange and circuitous route and I may return to this topic if I have news. But I’m interested in your views – feel free to comment below with your thoughts on fast-forwarded whisky.