“We’re going against a very strong tide, which says the whole idea behind whiskey is time and patience and recipes produced by the great- great-grandfather of your great-great-grandfather,” says Tom Lix, chief executive of Cleveland Whiskey, an Ohio-based maker of rapid-aged whiskey.
Distillers have tried and failed to accelerate the aging process since at least the end of Prohibition, when stocks of aged whiskey dried up.
Rapid-aged whiskeys are now popping up in bars and liquor stores and have even started winning awards, fermenting divisions in this famously fusty industry. They’re using sound waves, computer-controlled cycles of pressure and heat, and a host of new technologies to mature whiskey more quickly.
“Some of it is flat-out chicanery. Some is well-meaning people who have an idea. I don’t think very many people have really produced anything of any consequence,” says Chuck Cowdery, author of “Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey.”
Despite skepticism, purveyors of quick whiskey say their new nips rival slower snifters.
Cleveland Whiskey—which matures its whiskey for just six months—says its modern methods produce flavors that ancient approaches can’t. Using steel tanks rather than oak barrels means drinkers can taste added staves of black cherry or long pieces of other wood, which would otherwise be overpowered by oak, said Mr. Lix. Speedy aging also lets the company innovate with less risk, since it isn’t sitting on barrels of mature whiskey, he added.
Earlier this year, Cleveland won a gold medal in the American Whiskey—Rye spirit category at a California spirits competition that had 163 entries.
Whiskey Thief, a rapid-aged bourbon for the U.K. market, also uses staves to speed up the aging process. Its slogan: “We made the clock tick a little faster.”
Lost Spirits, a Los Angeles-based rapid-ager, says it is “hacking the chemistry of barrel aging” by using high-intensity light and heat to trigger chemical reactions that typically take years. Its Abomination peated malt—aged in six days—ranked in the top 5% of over 4,600 whiskies rated by Jim Murray in the 2018 Whisky Bible, an annual guide.
Traditionalists worry the rush could put whiskey on the rocks.
“We don’t think you can cut corners,” says Bob Kunze-Concewitz, chief executive of Dacide Campari-Milano SpA, which owns Wild Turkey bourbon and Glen Grant scotch. “One scenario could be rapid-aging leads lots of people into the category and then it becomes a dogfight on pricing and you lose the mystique.”
The Scotch Whisky Association has sent cease-and-desist letters to some who challenge convention. In Europe, whisky by law must be aged at least three years in wooden casks. (Whiskey is distilled from fermented grains and has many varieties—including Irish, Scotch, Canadian, Japanese, rye and bourbon—each with its own criteria. Some varieties spell whiskey with an “e.”)
The trade body told Cleveland Whiskey its drink wasn’t whisky if it wasn’t at least three years old.
The distiller swapped “whiskey” for “bourbon” on its labels, arguing it met U.S. regulatory criteria—which doesn’t specify how long the liquid must be aged. Cleveland says that didn’t suffice and it still isn’t allowed to sell in the EU.
The SWA says it will “take action all over the world” to block products that try to compete with scotch but fail to meet legal requirements.
As entrepreneurs pile into whiskey, taking creative approaches to aging has become a way to stand out. Rock band Metallica last year launched a whiskey named after its song “Blackened” that it says is matured using low-frequency sound waves from the band’s music. Metallica says the music enhances molecular interactions and hence taste.
Some have tried to do away with aging altogether. Pabst Brewing Co., which makes Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, recently butted heads with the U.S. alcohol regulator when it tried to launch a whiskey that spent no time in oak barrels at all.
Bourbon regulations say the liquid must rest in charred new oak barrels, but don’t say for how long. Pabst now flows its whiskey through oak for five seconds. Matt Bruhn, Pabst’s general manager, says that tokenism has become a selling point and that aged whiskey should “get over its superiority complex.”
Even discerning scotch distillers—like Glasgow-based Macallan owner Edrington Group—are joining in. Edrington, some of whose upscale scotch is aged at least 50 years, launched a rapid-aged whiskey called Relativity. The brand claims to use science “to create the smoothness of an 18-year-old whiskey in just 40 minutes.” Its tagline is “a whiskey ahead of its time.”
Alexandra Mottern, 30, usually drinks scotch but liked the rapid-aged whiskey she tried in a blind taste test, preferring it to a five-year-old bourbon.
“It wasn’t too harsh, it wasn’t too bitter, it wasn’t too extreme in any way,” she said.
Ms. Mottern’s friends said they’d never try the quick stuff. “They think it’s cheating not going through proper steps,” said the Boston-based human-resources executive. “As long as the end result is good, what does it matter?”
To win over the doubters, Cleveland has held over 3,500 taste tests against Knob Creek, ordinarily aged for about nine years, and says it comes out on top 54% of the time.
Knob Creek owner Beam Suntory Inc., like many traditionalists, says some things shouldn’t be rushed. “We don’t believe we can cheat Father Time,” said Rob Mason, Beam’s vice president of North American whiskey.
Fears about negative perception stopped Berry Bros. & Rudd, a 321-year-old maker and seller of wine and spirits from dabbling in rapid-aged whisky. The London-based company sent some of its whisky to the U.S. to be rapid-aged so it could do taste tests against scotch but ultimately decided not to risk selling it.
“Right now American whiskey is so hot you could probably bottle dishwater and someone would buy it if you called it bourbon,” says Fred Minnick, who lives in Kentucky and wrote a bourbon-tasting guide. He doesn’t believe rapid-aged whiskey can be as good as the more-mature kind. “It’s like saying a high-school team is going to beat Man United in a game of football or soccer.”