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. . .