Decent spirits will take days, rather than years, to make.
It’s hard to imagine a manufacturing process more sluggish than making whisky.
The most revered blends age for between 10 and 20 years. Innovation on the subject has also been slow. The last big breakthrough, patented in 1830, was a more efficient still. Barrel-aging, which takes place after distillation, has been around for centuries. Without it, the liquid has no color and is unpalatable. Nor can it be called whiskey under Scottish law.
Developing new recipes can also take decades. Any distillery wishing to try a new flavor or process has a long wait to sample the results. Often it is not very good. If it is, there will be another long wait to make more.
Cumbersome business models like this are catnip for companies seeking to shake up an industry. Endless West, based in San Francisco, is one such firm. It has done away with barrel aging entirely. Using a gas chromatograph, which separates a mixture into its constituent parts and then produces an analysis of that mixture’s make up, the company’s researchers claim to have identified the molecules which give different whiskies their flavors.
Endless West is the only company so far to eliminate aging entirely, but at least seven others are speeding up the process. Los Angeles-based Lost Spirits, for example, inserts heated barrel wood into the distilled spirit and blasts it in a reactor to quicken the process. This takes six days, and produces a drink the firm has christened Abomination: Sayers of the Law.
Lost Spirits’ founder, Bryan Davis, says this tiny lead time means manufacturers could use his machines to experiment rapidly with all sorts of new flavors. For mass production, the cost of the process is unlikely to compete with the economies of scale found at the low end of the market. But he sees a benefit at the high end, and reckons he can produce, for around $50, bottles that would cost around $250 if they were made conventionally.
All this will count for little if age-defying whiskies taste bad and people will not buy them. The Scotch Whisky Association, a trade body which represents Scotland’s whiskey industry, bristles at the idea that production can be rushed or replicated. What happens over years spent in a barrel “is part of the wonderful mystery of whisky”, they say.
Special note: The Scots spell it whisky and the Irish spell it whiskey, with an extra ‘e’. This difference in the spelling comes from the translations of the word from the Scottish and Irish Gaelic forms. Whiskey with the extra ‘e’ is also used when referring to American whiskies. This ‘e’ was taken to the United States by the Irish immigrants in the 1700s and has been used ever since. Scotland, Ireland and America all have a rich heritage in the whisky industry.