Rapid ageing: the ‘ultimate’ maturation control

28th October, 2016 by Amy Hopkins

Accelerated ageing has received a mixed reception from traditional spirits producers, but it has the potential to change the industry forever – whether they like it or not.

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So-called rapid ageing techniques have stepped into the mainstream spotlight in recent years

The old adage ‘time is money’ rings true for the vast majority of consumer goods industries – arguably none more so than whisky. In a sector where demand continues to outpace supply and distilleries regularly fail to turn a profit in their first few years of operation due to lengthy maturation processes, there can’t be a single brown spirits producer on earth which has never willed the clock to tick a little faster.

Now, a number of innovations have emerged that claim to do just that. So-called rapid ageing techniques are not new to the spirits industry, but they have stepped into the mainstream spotlight in recent years, boasting remarkably more advanced processes.

Just this year, Sazerac’s former UK sales and marketing manager, Roy Evans, co-founded Whiskey Thief – a Bourbon that undergoes “accelerated maturation” with the use of additional oak inserts in its barrels. According to Evans, Whiskey Thief’s increased contact with wood “doubles the age profile” of the typically three to five-year-old liquid in terms of both flavour and texture.

“I would love to say that we have multi million-pound investment that allows us to age whiskey for years and years, but we can’t,” he admits. “We have tried to create something that’s authentic, but have used some basic principles to assist Mother Nature in the ageing process.”

Evans says the brand has had a “respectful” response from established distilleries, but grumbles among traditional makers of whisky, rum, Tequila and Cognac with regards to the mere notion of rapid ageing are inevitable. Even the more avant garde distillers are dubious of such methods. Sazerac-owned Buffalo Trace has a vast experimental programme at its Kentucky distillery and warehousing complex, but says rapid ageing is the “opposite” of its focus.

“We do not believe that rapid ageing is a viable solution to the current shortages,” Mark Brown, CEO of Sazerac, and Harlen Wheatley, master distiller at Buffalo Trace Distillery, said in a joint statement to The Spirits Business. “We do not think that this approach will supplant age statements or aged whiskey in general.”
They continued: “As for damaging the category, we believe that the most important thing is continuing to deliver to the consumer really top quality and great tasting whiskeys – it remains to be seen whether or not ‘rapid ageing’ can meet this critically important criteria.”

The appliance of science:

The appliance of science: Lost Spirits’ Thea One reactor

However, Bryan Davis, co-founder of US-based Lost Spirits, believes his company has the ability to transform mainstream spirits maturation for good – and for the better. The most advanced innovation in the sphere of rapid spirits ageing, Lost Spirits’ Thea One reactor, doesn’t simply mirror the flavour of decades-old spirit – it forces a chemical composition within new make liquid which is near-identical to that of an aged variety.

As Davis says: “We haven’t made something approximating the flavour of an aged rum – we actually made an aged rum. Our technology is the only one that can stand up to forensic chemistry as there’s a big difference between just replacing parts of the process with creating a molecule-by-molecule map.”

So how does such a radical innovation work? An entire white paper has been published to answer this very question, but, in relatively simple terms, the process “encourages alcohols to bind with organic acids and phenols found in white spirits and/or generated through oak degradation”. When the system is correctly “tuned”, the results include the dense production of flavourful esters. In essence, the reactor forces the same chemical reactions that take place in a barrel over a number of years, in just a matter of days.

According to Davis, the reactor allows distillers to make “significant” financial savings as they could “respond to changes in the market quickly” and get their product to retail in an extremely short space of time. Furthermore, the angels’ share that evaporates during maturation would reduce from 2%-10% each year to 0%.

Davis says of the company’s genesis: “We looked at what it would take to launch a three-year-old whiskey in 2009 and it was crazy expensive. Craft distillers were killing themselves trying to get a really young product that stinks onto the market. They just crossed their fingers and threw whatever they had into a barrel and hoped it would work. That didn’t appeal to me.”

By mid-2010 Davis discovered how to catalyse the first part of the ageing process – esterification – and in 2015 produced a rum in his California laboratory that had a near-identical chemical signature to rum aged in a barrel for 20 years. The liquid was, in fact, just six days old.

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Using the Thea One Reactor also eliminates ‘angel’s share’ evaporation

Lost Spirits has research contracts with “most large spirits companies around the world”, while Davis tells SB a number of key drinks professionals sit on the board of Lost Spirits. Todd Martin, founder of investment firm Spirits Capital Partners and former Allied Domecq executive, leads the board, on which Chester Brandes, founding president of Imperial Brands, also sits. Clearly, the global drinks industry is paying close attention.

“I think it’s probably more like reluctant acceptance from the big guys,” admits Davis. Lost Spirits initially planned to lease its technology to distilleries under license, but the company recently announced a change of direction and will now partner with only select producers. This year, Lost Spirits relocated from its Silicon Valley headquarters to the Rational Spirits site in Charleston, South Carolina, creating products in collaboration with the distillery and also Rattleback Rye, an independent whiskey company.

Davis’s reasons for the move were two-fold. First, he cites a lack of professionalism within the craft community: “Because we could speed up the ageing process, they thought they could just chuck anything in a barrel,” he says. Second, he claims that large producers were determined to “change our business model” to ensure the balance of power was on their side.

“They basically said ‘if you keep going down the Uber path, we will squash you’,” says Davis. “Their attitude was ‘we don’t care if you build a million case brand, just don’t arm the little guys to change the entire financial structure of the industry’.”

However, Davis believes the move gives Lost Spirits more creative freedom – which was the reason behind the launch of its game-changing technology in the first place. “We can have more fun this way as opposed to simply being cheaper and faster,” he says. “Our technology gives us ultimate control over spirits maturation.

“We want to know what it’s like to create an elBulli distillery [the three Michelin-starred molecular gastronomy restaurant in Spain] and there’s probably a space to do that without going head-to-head with the traditional side of the industry. We don’t want to make cheap Pappy or creep into other’s people’s spaces – we want to create new spaces.”

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