Perhaps one of the most straightforward ways to describe a whiskey is its age: for many whiskey lovers, quality is a product of time. Even though creative experimentation is at an all-time high in the whiskey world, a demand for well-aged whiskey dictates that the fruits of these craft distilleries will not be enjoyed for years to come. Some whiskeys are meant to be enjoyed sooner than others, but most whiskeys need to spend quite a bit of time in the barrel before they are ready to meet the world. Fortunately, a new chemistry study claims to have found a way to age whiskey many years in just a few days, a breakthrough that could change the whiskey world forever.
To understand how this is possible, we need to understand how whisky is made. For example, Scotch is made from malted barley, which has starches that will later turn into sugars once extracted by water. The mash created by mixing barley with water eventually ferments, turning these sugars into alcohol. This mixture is distilled in copper stills, a process that separates the concoction into three fractions depending on volatility; the high and low volatility fractions are removed from the spirit fraction.
The spirit is put into a wooden cask, which contains chemicals that mix with the whisky over time to give it its unique flavoring. After aging, the whiskey is diluted and bottled. Different whiskies with unique qualities are created by slightly varying different parts of this process. However, not all of these changes always work out for the better, and it often takes a lengthy time commitment to find out what works and what doesn't.
A shortening of this aging process would make experimentation easier and less costly, and may now be possible according to Spanish research on Brandy, which is made from distilling wine. They mixed the wine with American oak chips in the barrel, then blasted it with ultrasound waves, which cause plant tissues to rupture. This draws out the chemicals in the wood far more quickly than the traditional aging process.
According to professional tasters, the result was every bit as good as traditionally aged brandy. However, these whiskies still aren't technically Scotch or Brandy. By definition, Brandy must be matured through aging, and Scotch must be aged in a barrel for a minimum of three years.
Despite semantics, this study is still an exciting breakthrough for the world of craft spirits. Trial runs of new distillation variations could become less costly, making it easier for distillers to get the best versions of their ideas on shelves faster. When utilized properly, this new aging method presents an exciting array of new possibilities for enterprising distillers unafraid of unexplored territories.
Adapted from Quartz