Ever since distillers discovered the benefits of aging whiskey in oak, it was inevitable that someone would try to speed up the process. This experimentation took many forms over the years and has met with mixed results. I thought it would be a good idea to look at some of these processes from the past.
The first method to speed aging (or at least to mimic aged whiskey) to be developed was rectification using other substances to mimic aged whiskey. Color was added to un-aged whiskey by using burnt sugars that would also add caramel flavor. The essential oils of mint added that flavor. Fruit juices such as prune or cherry juice would add color and fruit notes. Cochineal, a red dye from beetle shells was used to give the whiskey the amber red color of aged whiskey. This whiskey was later designated as blended whiskey if they actually used some aged whiskey in the process and imitation whiskey if they used neutral spirits alone as their base spirit.
Next, in the 1870s, Frederick Stitzel developed and patented a system of barrel racks in warehouses to “improve aging”. This system allowed better air flow around the aging barrels which was thought to speed up maturation of the whiskey in the barrels. Before this system, barrels were simply stored in stacks in the warehouse. This system quickly became the norm for aging warehouses and is still used today.
About the same time, steam heated warehouses were developed because the distillers at the time knew that the whiskey gained the most benefit from aging during the summer. Warehouses would be heated during the winter months to speed up the maturation process. This process was expensive and worked best in brick or stone warehouses, so only a few of the larger distilleries adopted it, but it is still being done at aging facilities today such as Brown-Forman, Michter’s and Buffalo Trace.
As technology improved at the end of the 19th century, some people tried other, more outlandish methods for rapid aging. My favorite is described in the papers of an insurance company archived at the Filson Historical Society. This person had developed a system where the bung would be pulled from the barrel and an electric heating probe inserted into the barrel. Needless to say, the insurance company declined to insure his business for fire damage.
After Prohibition, the Publicker Company wanted aged whiskey to bottle in 1934, but did not have any in their warehouses. They decided to purchase empty barrels from distilleries that had bottled aged whiskey. They then steamed the barrels to get the whiskey out of the barrels. The government tried to collect the taxes on this whiskey, but Publicker argued the tax was already paid by the company that emptied the barrel. Publicker actually won the case.
Rapid aging became less of a concern during the remainder of the 20th century. The companies had plenty of whiskey aging in warehouses and over-aging was more of a concern than speeding up the process. This changed in the 21st century with the explosion of new distilleries. These distilleries wanted aged products to sell and the sooner the better.
Most of the aging effort from the artisan distilleries focused on the whiskey’s contact with the barrel. Some of the distilleries used smaller barrels, which gave the whiskey more contact with the barrel. They used 5, 10, or 20 gallon barrels to age their whiskey, but this process gives the whiskey more wood tannins, but the evaporation rate also increased in small barrels, so most of the distilleries did not age their whiskey long enough to extract the sugars from the wood or for oxidation to break down unpleasant flavors into desirable flavors.
Next, they looked at the barrel staves to increase contact. They purchased barrels made from staves that were grooved on the inside to increase the surface area of the interior and give the whiskey more contact with the wood. Others started adding wood chips to the inside of the barrel to add additional contact with the wood.
Other distilleries were looking at the aging conditions of the warehouses. It is believed that the rotation of barrels increased the whiskey’s contact with the wood, so they decided that the movement of the whiskey in the barrel would aid maturation. This belief goes back to the 19th century when it was said that sea captains would strap a keg of whiskey to their rocking chair to aid the aging process. This would mimic the rolling of a ship carrying barrels of whiskey. It was said the best whiskey came from barrels transported by a ship or steamboat because the rocking motion of the ship kept the whiskey in constant movement in the barrel. Jefferson’s Reserve sends some of their barrels out to sea to recreate this process. Others tried to increase the movement of the whiskey by using sound induced vibration of the whiskey. They play loud music with lots of bass sounds in their warehouses to cause the liquid to vibrate.
There has always been an interest in speeding the maturation of whiskey. Time is money to the distiller and the quicker the whiskey matures, the quicker the distillers can sell their products. It is up to the consumer to decide if the methods being used are working and if these distillers have really found a way to cheat time.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller
June 15, 2020 at 5:58 pm
Your main photo looks suspiciously like Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn.
When I visited there was no suggestion of rapid ageing – other than the use of smaller cask sizes.
The whiskey did taste good though!
June 15, 2020 at 6:45 pm
It is Kong’s County and they use small barrels for faster aging. It is good whiskey.
June 25, 2020 at 1:16 pm
If age means quality than why aren’t all 15 yr. plus whisky’s fantastic?
Age is meaningless in how good it taste. Yes white whisky and oak make something magical but if distillers would focus more on recipes, technique and equipment than age becomes less important.
Also if oxidation is so important than why don’t distilleries just pump pure O2 into there product? Seems like a simple fix.
March 7, 2021 at 8:16 pm
Oh dear “Traditional” is just marketing. Those who pretend to understand spirit maturation clearly do not understand the complex nature of the problem (with apologies to Thermodynamicist Racker or was it Lehninger?). I will focus on your one point here – too much oxygen would poison the system – there is a reason for the term microoxygenation, which is not the same as microoxidation. Though you don’t have one without the other. The oxygen reacts with bioflavonoid ring structures and compounds called quinones and highly reactive oxidant radicals are formed which assists the formation of components during maturation. Also in relation to this is acid base chemistry and we know that acids rise in concentration and must reach a certain point before any other reaction of flavor importance and beyond can occur. I will be talking about this at the upcoming Beam conference.
March 7, 2021 at 8:19 pm
Also can we have some actual reference details in these posts? We need to see the legitimacy behind such commentary.
March 10, 2021 at 8:13 pm
Always wondered if a charred oak waterfall/sluice would work. Sounds like some similar themes
January 9, 2022 at 7:30 pm
Nice to see the repost of this – almost a year on. The ADI assembled my three part treatise “80 Years of Rapid Maturation…” and published as an eBook. I added 80 new references with commentary on the topic there too. Plus my new rendition of an alcohol molecule. Available for about $25.00 over at Amazon. And no I don’t recover anything for that – actually had to buy my own copy – Thanks Bill!
June 17, 2022 at 9:23 am
It’s no secret the best tasting whiskies are using old autenthic Sherry Casks to finish off the aging process. Sherry Casks can make wonders in 12 months due to the special Spanish fortefied wine which was inside for over 30 years!