Bryan Davis is the owner of Lost Spirits Distillery, where he’s created a chemical reactor that supposedly ages spirits rapidly. Sort of. He makes young spirits taste more mature. The science behind it? Unaged spirits have short-chain molecules called carboxylic esters and short-chain fatty acids. When these chemicals interact with oak, extraction and esterification occur. Extraction strains new chemicals – aldehydes and phenols – from the barrels. One of these chemicals includes vanillin, which gives whiskey its (you guessed it) characteristic vanilla flavor. However, extraction also gives way to aromas that aren’t entirely pleasant, like lumberyard. Extraction is less difficult than the next process aged spirits deal with, esterification.
Esterification occurs when alcohol and phenol or weak acids bond together, which creates medium and long-chain esters responsible for other flavors and aromas like nuts, honey, and flowers. During this process, the unpleasant odors from extraction disappear. Esterification can take up to decades of a spirit resting in the barrel.
Davis’s method prompts esterification in a brief period of time.
His Model 1 reactor goes through three steps in order to boost esterification. Raw spirit and oak chunks are put into the reactor. The reactor first forces esterification of short-chained fatty acids in the raw spirit, turning these acids into short-chained esters. Next, polymer molecules in the oak are split, yielding the compounds needed to finish the esterification. What are these compounds? Aldehydes needed to complete the process, but also undesirable medium-chained acids. However, the reactor’s final step forces those medium-chained acids, along with phenolic compounds, to esterify. The simple esters are turned into long-chained esters normally found in an aged spirit.
So, to sum it up, when alcohol comes out of Davis’s reactor, it’s chemically similar to mature booze. I haven’t tasted the product, so I can’t attest one way or another, but let’s assume it does taste wise beyond its years. The question is, does that matter?
Even if Davis’s spirits sip like they’ve been resting in barrels for twenty years, I doubt taste alone is enough to convince brown spirits evangelists, or even the average consumer, to disregard barrels and aging as unnecessary. Remember Mila Kunis’s Jim Beam commercial? One of the things she proudly declares is that the distillery “age[s] every drop of Jim Beam twice as long as the law requires, for a true Kentucky straight bourbon.” For the record, the law requires a straight bourbon to be aged for at least two years.
Jim Beam is just one example. Peruse Wild Turkey’s website. Regarding aging, they write, “We never pour a drop of Wild Turkey until it’s aged at least five years — often six or eight or more. Of course we only have to age it two years, by law, but we’re not big fans of doing the minimum.” With statements like these, it’s clear what the distilleries are saying: aging booze for a short period of time is considered a “minimum,” a shortcut. In other words, old spirits are earned spirits.
You can also look to the cult following of Pappy Van Winkle: people are willing to plunk down thousands of dollars and hours worth of time searching for the elusive whiskey. Speaking transparently, I wasn’t one of the lucky few who got to sip Pappy, so I’ll have to go by popular opinion and assume it’s incredible. But besides the scarce supply of the product, the aging statements (Pappy is aged for fifteen, twenty, and twenty-three years, longer than a typical bourbon), must have accounted for some of the lore.
So while what Davis has created can, if legitimate, help craft distilleries make their products taste more mature, simply because they lack a high-numbered aging statement, it might not matter. Just by virtue of having a technically young spirit, the product might be considered inferior by retailers and consumers alike. Having worked in the craft distilling world, I applaud what Davis is doing and hope his method will be greeted warmly, but challenging the iconic deity of the barrel is certainly not just a matter of a spirit’s taste.