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