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Better Drinking Through Chemistry

This is a fascinating article about a guy who’s looking into the chemistry of aged spirits – rum, whiskey, cognac, and so on – and trying to find ways, as he puts it, to hack the process. I’m not a drinker myself, but I’ve watched with interest as the craft spirits movement has become popular. How, I wondered, could anyone start up a business in this area, when you need years in wooden barrels to make the stuff high-quality? Did someone have the idea back when Bill Clinton was running for office that there would be a market for small-volume distilled spirits, and plan accordingly?
Not at all. What happens is that the many of these tiny-label outfits buy their stuff from large-volume distilleries, sometimes doing the minimum possible to get their own brand on it. That might involve running some neutral spirits through another layer of charcoal to make your own “proprietary” vodka, or in the case of the aged liquors, it might just involve slapping a label on whatever showed up on the truck from Lawrenceburg, Indiana, which is where a lot of this stuff really comes from.
But that’s not the business model that this new piece is talking about. It’s been known for a long time that many of the flavor notes that come into aged spirits are products of extraction from the wood and often subsequent esterification. So do you have to wait twenty years for this to happen, or not?

The trick then is to encourage esterification in a short time period, and that’s the core science behind Davis’s Model 1 reactor. The reactor accomplishes this in three stages, taking white distillate and chunks of oak as inputs. The first stage forces the esterification of short-chained fatty acids in the white spirit, turning them into fruity, short-chained esters. Phase two literally splits apart big polymer molecules in the oak, extracting the compounds needed to complete the esterification process. This pulls out the aldehydes needed for the final step, but also some unpleasant medium-chained acids. In the final stage, those acids and phenolic compounds are forced to esterify, with simple esters being made to bind and combine into longer-chained esters that would normally be associated with a very mature spirit.
What comes out the other side is not necessarily an aged spirit, but rather one that bears the same chemical signature of an aged spirit. Davis uses mass spectrometry to compare old spirits with products put through his process. Spikes on the chromatogram correspond to compounds that appear in the highest concentrations in the spirits.

He’s planning to be completely up front about the process, not trying to sell the products as if they’ve been sitting around for decades, but just tasting as if they do. And it sounds like it could be a successful business, at the right price point. It also sounds like the sort of thing that could bring on a lot of irritated commentary from fans of the traditional methods, naturally. I would doubt that the two techniques produce identical results (and they’re not claimed to), but what if they produce equally desirable ones? Blind-taste-test style results? The traditional distillers will always have a market, because some customers will surely always want to pay for the time and effort that goes into making that product (or be seen paying for it, which amounts to the same thing, economically). But if this new technique catches on, they may well not have as large a market as they do now.
It’ll be interesting to watch this play out. The same points that get debated around industrially produced foods will surely be argued in this area, too, but the line between nasty, lowbrow “processed food” and high-end “molecular gastronomy” can get pretty blurry, especially if you need an LC/MS to distinguish them from each other, or from a classic preparation. And we’re going to see that debate played out in many other food and drink areas in the coming years, too. . .

32 comments on “Better Drinking Through Chemistry”

  1. Algirdas says:

    I’d bet good money that just like wine snobs, whiskey snobs will en up with a lot of egg on their faces in case of blind taste testing. But that is not the point of the exercise, is it? All you need to know about conspicuous consumption and related types of status display is that apparently there are over 1 million pre-orders for an apple watch…

  2. A Nonny Mouse says:

    Someone has done something similar with an oak bottle which you put a cheap wine into for a couple of days in order to get the oak flavour of a more expensive drop.
    Pretty mixed results from what I have read.

  3. Praxichys says:

    I wonder if this will “boil down” to what the soft drink industry does… All you’ll need is some vodka, add a spoonful of syrup – instant “aged” bourbon.

  4. johnnyboy says:

    I would second #1 above. The massive growth in the recent fortunes of Cognac, for instance, are due to rarity, marketing, and conspicuous consumption from the new Chinese market. Absent in these factors is the actual taste. If you can engineer a quicker, cheaper Cognac, congratulations – but that doesn’t mean you’ll make any money from it. Luxury liquors are like luxury perfume – if you tried to sell a 200$ perfume for the pennies it actually costs to make, no one would want to buy it. I think the only hope for such products is if they target the lower end of the market, eg. the people who would be happy to pay a couple of bucks less for a bottle of Jack Daniels-like stuff.

  5. great unknown says:

    One QD technique. A drop of vanilla extract in a bottle of inexpensive whiskey will improve the quality dramatically.

  6. Sigivald says:

    30 year old Scotch (indistinguishably, at least) for $30 a bottle?
    I’m sold.

  7. bottle in front of me says:

    While we’re on the subject of booze (finally), has anyone seen the story of Palcohol? It’s powdered ethanol. No it’s not finely ground NaOEt, it appears to be EtOH absorbed into some sort of porous starch-like powder. Should be interesting to a lot of folks on this board. I’m not quite sure what the advantage is, but that hasn’t stopped the Feds from moving to ban it.

  8. Sarah E says:

    Interesting. I’d say this idea falls under the category of so-called note-by-note cuisine, the new obsession of Herve This (one of the molecular gastronomy founders). He argues that the future of food is figuring out all the important taste and texture molecules and making your favorite dish from (chemical) scratch. Lots of people freaking out about this too, as you might expect. (What!? Food made of chemicals!?!) http://cen.acs.org/articles/90/i46/NoteNote-Cuisine.html

  9. Vaal says:

    I could see this being big for mixed drinks. If the taste isn’t noticeably worse or different, it could enable mixologists to experiment without wasting 20 years old bottles.

  10. Always Seeking Employment says:

    In before people start complaining “But there are chemicals in that, and I prefer mine naturally aged and artificial chemical free.”

  11. Doctor Memory says:

    I’m with #6. As a lover of aged spirits who’s been watching with dismay as the price for 15-30 year scotch and bourbon has shot up from “special occasion” to “sell the children” to “only if you were born to royalty” over the course of merely a decade, I’m delighted by this.
    If it works, it will be fascinating to see the long-term effect on the spirits industry. Like any luxury product it’s been prone to boom and bust cycles. Unlike most other luxury goods, the previously non-negotiable time scales of barrel aging have amplified those cycles ridiculously: today’s absurd market for scotch is the direct result of a huge contraction in scotland’s distilling and aging capacity from back in the 1980s. Outfits like MGP have provided a bootstrap method for would-be new distillers, but their supply (while large) is just as inelastic as Scotland’s — giving small distillers the ability to start producing “aged” product from scratch while laying in their own barrels (or skipping it entirely!) could be huge.

  12. I don’t see this as much different than what’s happened in the sparkling wine industry. A lot of technological approaches have been studied over the past 100+ years to reduce the amount of physical labor and time required to produce a bottle of sparkling wine. Some have worked well (Charmant process to make Prosecco or the transfer method) while others so-so (artificial carbonation used for ultra-cheap sparklers). Even things like encapsulated yeast beads for ease of bottle riddling & disgorging, or the addition of particular yeast cellular oligosaccharide fractions to simulate the flavors & mouthfeel obtained in traditional bottle fermentation processes.
    What’s been the result of all that experimentation? The traditional “methode champenoise” has become largely a marketing advantage for high-end luxury sparkling wines. Think: “Our sparkler is better than others because we take the time & effort to do it the traditional way (so of course you should pay more)”.
    Will be very interested to see how Mr. Davis’ invention pans out in the marketplace. His products first have to taste very good. We could very well see that the future of whiskey/rum/dark spirits is divided into 2 camps: high end products that are aged for 10-20 years to capture the marketing angle of the “traditional” approach and mid-range products that taste very good and require less production time to reach the market.

  13. whiskey richard says:

    Julian Van Winkle, head of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery back in the day famously once said “No chemists allowed” in reference to their purist methods for bourbon production. I think this statement may accurately capture the feelings connoisseurs might have towards this type of product and probably won’t be on board with the synthesized aged spirits, but who knows? The general public who just wants something to mix with coke probably couldn’t care less.
    Of course, marketing is going to be king. Look at all of the “small batch” producers buying from MGP and successfully marketing as its own. However, the Asian market is very large and values age stated spirits, with the older considered better regardless of taste.

  14. The Aqueous Layer says:

    I’m with #6. As a lover of aged spirits who’s been watching with dismay as the price for 15-30 year scotch and bourbon has shot up from “special occasion” to “sell the children” to “only if you were born to royalty” over the course of merely a decade, I’m delighted by this.
    #11 wins this thread.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Why bother with the wood and complicated esterification process at at all? If you have to go through an analytical process to determine by GC whether the added chemicals in the new method compare in quantity and identity with the added chemicals in the traditional method, why not just add the desired chemicals via pipette instead?

  16. Derek Freyberg says:

    I seem to recall an Agatha Christie short story involving an aging machine for wine and spirits, though it was actually a matter of sleight of hand or some other fakery – substituting good wine/whisky/brandy for the cheap starting material. I think Hercule Poirot was the detective. Perhaps one of the readers will remember the title.
    From the comments in the Wired article, it seems that Mr. Davis’s own products are not cheap even though unaged. But even if he can’t turn White Dog into Courvoisier, if he can get rid of the off flavors that seem to be an inherent part of raw distilled spirit at a reasonable price, he should find a market.

  17. CMCguy says:

    Based on the scene in the old Henry Fonda movie “Mister Roberts” it doesn’t take a chemist to make a passable Scotch as used things like shoe polish, iodine and a couple other ingredients to flavor med-grade alcohol.
    Isn’t much of the success of US wine-industry, particularly in CA, partly due to applications of certain modern scientific approaches for monitoring and controls used to create profiles similar to expensive French wines? While they do retain much of the same classical methods in making the wines it is my understanding from touring various wineries there is considerable effort in variety/field selection and harvest timing, then the processing and aging techniques to obtain greater consistency and overall quality that involves both human (master vintners) assessments and following lab results.

  18. Derek Freyberg says:

    @15:
    I think it’s not just a matter of adding some flavors, it’s also a matter of removing others – esterifying butyric acid to ethyl butyrate is the example given. Merely adding ethyl butyrate alone would not have the same effect.
    Even if Mr. Davis’s process works as well as he would like, I think there will still be two parts to the general market: those who like decent stuff at a low price and those who want the cachet of price and age – kind of like watches, there are those who are happy with the Timex/Seiko/Casio quartz that keeps great time for 10 years on one battery, and those who want a Patek Philippe or whatever that needs to be wound every night and cleaned every year or so to keep time. In the alcohol market, there’s also the Thuderbird or Mogen David 20/20 crowd; but I don’t think that analogy carries through to watches.

  19. J. Peterson says:

    How much “craft” needs to be applied to the creation of a product where the judgement of the consumer fades with every sip?

  20. Ben Hunt says:

    Distiller here, this kind of work is interesting but a bit out of context. The current standard for craft whiskey is aging six months in small barrels, the commercial proof being Hudson and other products put out by Tuthilltown for the last ten years.
    Interesting chemical work in spirits is rare, some, like Ted Breaux, have done excellent work, however, many others have made spirits a homebrewer wouldn’t touch.
    In the end its down to taste, so batch stills in small batches can still beat out an engineering consultant by just making sure the process is controlled by a human palate.

  21. Newbie says:

    As an LC-MS practitioner, I’m been fascinated by the applications to wine and cheese. Here I am working with these nasty body fluids…
    The only problem is that I’ve been to more honest talks where for complex flavors, a few really subtle tastes don’t reduce easily to one or a handful of compounds. Sometimes its a spectrum (in the non-analytical sense of the word) of degradation products that makes the flavor. Food science is astounding in it’s capacity to grow, so even if these guys don’t quite make it, 5 yrs down the road, someone else might.

  22. Kazoochemist says:

    This is very old technology. Don’t you remember “Robby The Robot” in the classic movie “Forbidden Planet”? The cook wanted some more Kentucky Bourbon and gave Robby a sample. He later returned to a huge pile of bottles of the “good stuff”. That was 1956.

  23. milkshake says:

    A freshly distilled alcohol has a bite to it, and aging (even without wood) will “smooth” it out, and so does charcoal filtration, and repeated distillation also helps – even with a crude distillation setup. So I wonder if removal of short aldehydes plays a role – the culprit of bad harsh taste has to be something greasy which is also fairly reactive. It would be quite easy to add some nonvolatile aldehyde scavenger – semicabazide, purpald, resin-bound hydroxylamine etc, into the crude distillate before second redistillation
    @5 mentioned a drop of vanilla extract. Another good one to try is maltol. (Again, less is better). Then there is methyl ethyl ketone for buttery note, and fusel oil (Aldrich sells Kosher stuff) for bourbon corn note, and there is whiskey lactone (also available from Aldrich) for oaky flavor and furfural for a rye note. Basil Hayden uses a tiny bit of peppermint or spearmint in their overpriced bourbon. The more there is something interesting going on in the backgrount “but I cant quite put my finger on it”, the more you can charge for your semisynthetic swil.
    By the way, I drunk some rye whisky from a company claiming to possess “accelerated aging process” that uses oak chips, and it was only so-so/

  24. hn says:

    We should put together a Pipeline Blend to support the blog!

  25. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    If somebody figured out how to make instant fine wine, would that be the Cana Protocol?

  26. Tom Womack says:

    @milkshake: I thought it was from you that I learned about the Soviet habit of adding a crystal of KMnO4 to moonshine to oxidise the nastier aldehydes.

  27. Homo-Lumo says:

    @18
    You’re right about removing flavors from wood extract, but if you start from pure EtOH there’s no butyric acid to begin with.
    The NMR machines at Cambridge used to be named after whiskies with an NMR of said whisky on the door. They’re complex, but my fallback plan remains the approach suggested by #15.

  28. ThirdWind says:

    This is a relevant reference:
    Peter Norvig’s Keynote Address at the U.C. Berkeley Computer Science Commencement (School of Letters & Science) on 21 May 2006. From norvig.com
    (Yes it is about whiskey aging technology, in part)

  29. Derek Freyberg says:

    @27:
    Agreed – IF you start with pure EtOH, all you need to do is add flavorings. But the problem is getting to the pure EtOH.
    If you distil fermentation mash/wash, what you end up with in the receiver after a couple of cycles of pot distillation is a mix that is mostly ethanol (70-75% or so), water (most of the rest), and a complex mix of small aldehyde, carboxylic acid, and ester fermentation products which co-distil with the ethanol/water mix. Aging ethanol and water won’t do much to them; but aging the co-distillate products in the presence of ethanol and water changes things a lot.
    It’d be one thing to take absolute ethanol (or even Everclear, though I don’t know how clean that is chemically), dilute it appropriately and add flavorings and colorants, but it’s another to start with mash distillate.

  30. Anonymous says:

    Don’t tell all the health bloggers about this– they’ll want it banned because it contains manufactured chemicals!

  31. Richard H says:

    #16 Derek Freyberg:
    “I seem to recall an Agatha Christie short story involving an aging machine for wine and spirits…”
    Margery Allingham, actually,in a short story called “The Widow” from “Mr Campion and Others”.
    Solved not by chemistry but lateral thinking: the villains advertise for a “children’s entertainer” but Campion realises which branch of the profession is really needed to switch the liquor.
    Leslie Charteris wrote a Saint story on similar lines, albeit reversed, involving a fake desalinating machine. This mystery is soled by both chemistry and physics: the Saint smells a rat when he notices the output pressure is higher than the input, and his sophisticated palate detects the tap-water chlorine in the output.

  32. biochem says:

    @23, Milkshake:
    Anecdotal evidence does indicate that filtration can improve the taste of cheap spirits. See the amusing efforts of amateur “scienticians” to adapt consumer filtration technology to the enhancement of bad vodka via the link of my handle.

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