What I learned
It’s possible to make whiskey taste as though it’s been aged for years without actually aging it for years, and it does not require possession of a TARDIS.
In the interest of transparency, the possibility itself isn’t something I learned of on this exact day. I’m a big fan of Cleveland Whiskey, which uses a proprietary “aging” process that involves actually aging the spirit for six months, then putting the whiskey in a big, stainless-steel tank along with the chopped-up barrel in which it was originally aging. Once it’s in there, the contents are “agitated,” and various pressure changes and things force the spirit in and out of the wood’s pores. After about a week, out comes whiskey that tastes like it’s been aged much longer. (The process also allows Cleveland to use more unusual woods, including black cherry wood, which results in an insanely tasty spirit, but that’s another story.)
What I did learn today, and probably should have suspected, is that other people are doing it, too—and one of them works at a bar, not a distillery. At Quadrant Bar & Lounge in Washington, D.C., lead mixologist Chris Mendenhall has come up with his own system, and it also involves wood chips. Mendenhall soaks chips of new American oak in a nine-year, 120-proof bourbon (he won’t say which). He then takes those chips out and soaks them in another vat of the 120-proof nine-year, and hits that vat with sound waves. What?!
The technique is somewhat cagily detailed (Mendenhall is understandably guarded about his precise whiskey-hacking process) in this piece from Forbes, which captures the process thus:
After removing the chips, they place them in a fresh vat of the same whiskey and “hit it with sound waves” for “about as long as you’d watch a TV show,” explains Mendenhall… He says the resulting whiskey tastes like it had been aged around 20 years instead of nine.
However, he says, “We’re not necessarily about saying, ‘This is a 20-year-old bourbon.’ This shows you characteristics of time. We can’t clone Father Time. There’s no replacement.”
There’s something delightfully American about people being so impatient for aged whiskey that they invent ways to fake time. I can’t speak to the quality of the Quadrant’s work, but Cleveland’s spirits are tasty indeed.
The whole piece is worth a read. It also mentions an east coast company that claims to hold a patent on sound-aging spirits, and gets a few quotes from skeptical whiskey expert Lew Bryson:
“[I]t might taste interesting, or different. But so does the next bottle on the shelf, and it was made without using a sonic screwdriver… I believe whiskey has returned to popularity because it has a great, authentic story, and part of that is slow aging in big oak barrels. It’s like a whiskey-aging app: thanks, I’d rather have whiskey.”