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How to Use Chemistry to Age Whiskey in Days Instead of Years

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By Chris Gayomali

Maker's Mark attracted gobs of unwanted (or perhaps pre-meditated?) attention earlier this year when it announced that it would begin watering down its bourbon in order to meet the market's unprecedented demand.

A swift and severe public butt-kicking kept Maker's from following through, but the company's decision to dilute its alcohol content was apparently the result of basic supply-and-demand economics. Maker's shipped 16.9 million cases of Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey in 2012, which was up from 14.9 million cases in 2007. (Which just so happens to be the year Mad Men made its debut. Hmmm.) Decent bourbon, however, takes at least eight to 10 years to reach maturity. Maker's Mark simply failed to make enough bourbon to anticipate its soaring popularity.

But what if the aging process could be condensed using some technical wizardry? That's what's driving a new bourbon-maker called Cleveland Whiskey. Based out of its namesake city, the company's premise is to synthetically age alcohol at a much faster pace using a controlled chemical process. Instead of taking years, Cleveland Whiskey is aged to maturity in just about a week.

Founded by former marketing executive Tom Lix, Cleveland Whiskey has basically been an overnight success. Since March 1, the company has sold more than 14,000 bottles, which works out to about 1,000 bottles a week—not bad for a small-batch brewer. Lix says he plans on producing 7,000 cases of Cleveland Whiskey this year, before ratcheting things up to 20,000 cases in 2014.

The process involves highly pressurized vats, along with pieces of charred oak to infuse the bourbon with its signature character. "I took apart a couple of used barrels, and it didn't seem like the whiskey soaked very deep," Lix told Forbes. "So I started experimenting with pressure to get the spirit to soak deeper into pore structure."

The spirit ages in a whiskey barrel like normal for the first six months of its life. Then it is deposited in stainless steel tanks. Meanwhile, the barrel it aged in is cut up, processed, and put into the tank as well. Within the tank, the spirit is agitated, and undergoes a series of differences in pressure to squeeze in and out of the wood pores. "Like a sponge," Lix said. Once deposited in the tank, the whiskey takes about a week to create. [Forbes]

The important question, of course, is what does the stuff actually taste like? "Not bad" seems to be the consensus, although one blind taste-tester told Forbes that it tasted more like "an Irish whiskey than it did a bourbon."

Cleveland Magazine was more effusive with its praise:

It's dark in the bottle, a gorgeous honey-amber hue in a glass. The aroma was rich and complex. It had none of the bite or harsh alcoholic "heat" — though it is 100 proof — that usually comes with young (and therefore inexpensive) whiskey. The mouthfeel is round and silky. An added splash of water smooths it out even more. This is comparable to a very fine high end bourbon. And it will sell for a fraction of the price. [Cleveland Magazine]

With a patent pending, Lix is careful not to divulge too many specifics about the process. But he is optimistic about his chances of disrupting an industry that has more or less abided by the same basic tenets for centuries. "I believe in the Coca-Cola model," he told Cleveland.com. "Don't tell anybody anything."

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7 Surprising Uses for Tequila
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Happy National Tequila Day! While you could celebrate by having a few drinks, you could also skip the hangover by unlocking one of tequila's amazing abilities outside of a glass. Many spirits are useful for activities beyond sipping (vodka, for example, is a great stain and odor remover), but tequila holds some particularly magical powers. Here are just a few of them.

1. SYNTHETIC BAUBLE

In 2008, a team of scientists in Mexico discovered that when the heated vapor from an 80-proof tequila blanco was combined with a silicon or stainless steel substrate, it resulted in the formation of diamond films. These films can be used in commercial applications, such as electrical insulators, or to create one big fake diamond. Who knew that spending $50 on a bottle of Don Julio was such a wise investment?

2. ALTERNATIVE ENERGY SOURCE

Keeping with the science theme: In 2011, researchers at England’s University of Oxford suggested that we may one day be gassing up our cars with tequila. They identified agave, the plant from which tequila is produced, as a potential biofuel source—and a particularly attractive one, as the plant itself is not consumed by humans and can thrive in desert climates.

3. WEIGHT LOSS SUPPLEMENT

Scientists have long promoted the potential benefits of the agave plant for its ability to help dissolve fats and lower cholesterol. The bad news? These properties get a bit diluted when the plant is distilled into alcohol. Even more so when it's whipped into a sugary margarita.

4. SLEEP AID

Take three or more shots of tequila and you’re bound to pass out. A single shot can have the same effect—just not in that drunken stupor kind of way. Relaxation is one of the positive side effects of tequila drinking; a small amount (1 to 1.5 ounces) before bedtime can reportedly help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.

5. COLON CLEANSER

Too much of a good thing may not bring a welcome turn of events for your liver … but your colon will thank you! Researchers at Mexico’s University of Guadalajara have identified the blue agave as a potentially helpful source for delivering drugs to the colon in order to treat colitis, IBS, Crohn’s disease and even cancer.

6. DIABETES PREVENTATIVE

If Ernest Hemingway had known about the healing properties of tequila, his signature drink might have been a margarita instead of a daiquiri. In 2010, experiments conducted at Mexico’s Polytechnic Institute of Guanajuato revealed that the agave plant (which is high in fructans, a fructose polymer) could stimulate the GLP-1 hormone, aiding in increased insulin production.

7. COLD REMEDY

“Plenty of liquids” is a well-known remedy for getting oneself out from under the weather. But expanding that definition to include a kicked-up shot of tequila makes a day laid out on the couch sound much more appealing. In the 1930s, doctors in Mexico recommended the following concoction to fight off a cold.

.5 ounce of tequila blanco
.5 ounce of agave nectar (to eliminate bacteria and soothe sore throats)
.5 ounce of fresh lime juice (for Vitamin C) 

Though some people (including tequila companies) swear by its healing powers, others say it's hogwash.

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What's the Kennection? #158
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