If there’s one thing that’s a constant in the world of Scotch Whisky, it’s the waiting. Whisky takes time. Whisky cask investment is built around buying casks of New Make Spirit and slightly matured casks that are then stored in warehouses for several years before they have risen in value enough to be sold at auction. It’s slower-paced than many other types of investment and that’s the way we like it.
But could that be all about to change?
That’s the dream of Los Angeles-based distiller Bryan Davis, who claims that he can use heat and light to speed up the maturation process significantly, offering decades’ worth of ageing in just a few days. And he’s just one of several distillers from the USA who are looking to revolutionise the way we mature our spirits.
The scientific methods they use involve experimenting with heat, light, sound, pressure, tiny fragments of wood and patented reactors, with some of the more out-there methods involving blasting loud hip hop or heavy metal music at the spirit.
For Davis, his process was inspired by the way sunlight can age wood: “What if the decomposition products produced by light degrading the wood are the same ones you get in the barrel? It turns out that if you turn the light up way beyond what you get in nature, the acceleration is exponential and the products turn out to be the same . . . You can match the chemical signature of old booze.”
But is anything created this way technically whisky? So far the reaction from the Scotch industry has been largely negative, pointing out that for a spirit to be legally called Scotch Whisky, it needs to have been matured for a specified period of time.
Alan Park, legal director of the Scotch Whisky Association is not a fan: “For me, accelerated ageing is a contradiction in terms. Maturation in a cask is a complex reaction. You simply don’t get the same spirit by using artificial processes. We should just put them back in their box and say, ‘Do what you want, just don’t call it whisky.’”
Ian Palmer from InchDairnie distillery said that rapid maturation is: “All about factory production, about getting something on the shelves as quickly as possible without understanding that there is more to it than just the product itself. The process is as much the product as the flavour.”
However, it’s already happening in the world of Scotch, at Ailsa Bay, the only whisky to undergo ‘micro maturation’, using small Hudson Baby Bourbon casks for 6-9 months of intense maturation before spending several years in traditional casks.
So is the future based on speed over tradition? Davis thinks so, saying: “It’s very likely that this will end up being the way everybody makes [aged spirits] 100 years from now.” Meanwhile, Tom Lix, founder of Cleveland Whiskey, said: “There will always be a market for traditional aged spirits that are older and unique and rare. But there is also a market for a good quality everyday product that’s affordable and that matches the quality of something that costs more to make.”
However, with 22 million casks of Scotch currently maturing in warehouses all over Scotland, it’s clear that the old ways are here to stay for some time yet.