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Craft Distillers Confront The Challenges Of Aging Their Spirits

September 6, 2013

Spirits aging has become a major topic of debate within the craft industry, as the leading players look to benefit from rising consumer interest in their products.

Some small distillers are jump-starting the aging process by laying down stocks in barrels as small as five gallons, and for periods of only one or two months. Even 25-gallon barrels can produce dark, richly hued whiskey in two years or less, but some purists say that process doesn’t produce the complexity of whiskies aged for years in standard 53-gallon barrels.

When House Spirits Distillery in Portland, Oregon was founded in 2004, the company paid its bills by selling gin and vodka. But right from the start, House Spirits laid down 100% malted barley in full-size barrels. It’s now using that liquid for its Westward Whiskey brand, priced at $50 a 375-ml. Production was just 300 cases this year.

“We won’t use small barrels,” says House Spirits CEO Thomas Mooney, a former executive at Fiji Water. “I’ve tasted some delicious whiskies from small barrels, but for the most part those barrels serve only to oak the liquid more quickly. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s maturing faster. There’s no substitute for a full-size barrel—and patience.”

Kent Rabish, owner and master distiller at Grand Traverse Distillery in northern Michigan, founded his distillery in 2007 with vodka as his first product. He’s just now releasing a 100% rye, Old George Straight Rye ($54 a 750-ml.), matured in full-size casks. But he’s also offering consumers a raw white whiskey ($33 a liter) and a choice of barrels sized from one to 10 liters to take home to do their own aging. A 5-liter barrel is priced at $69 at one of the company’s five tasting rooms around Michigan.

“Customers can buy some corn whiskey and some rye or wheat or barley and do their own blending,” says Rabish, 56, a former drug company salesman. “We’ve sold more than 1,000 of these sets so far.”

Meanwhile, some adventurous distillers are resorting to more scientific aging processes. Cleveland Whiskey in Ohio, for instance, is putting distilled liquid into pressure cooker-like devices together with oak staves to simulate the aging of a 12-year-old Bourbon within a period of weeks. And Terressentia, a craft distiller based outside Charleston, South Carolina, is employing a mix of ultrasonics and oxidation to mimic aging.

“There are different ways to view these technologies,” concedes Richard Stabile, the founder, president and master distiller of Long Island Spirits Co. in Calverton, New York. “It’s like a chef looking at a piece of meat. Maybe he can spend hours in smoking it or he can decide to put it right on the grill and broil it in a few minutes. Either way, it may be delicious.”

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