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

Facebook.com/ClevelandWhiskey
Facebook.com/ClevelandWhiskey

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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History
84 Years Ago Today: Goodbye Prohibition!
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
Keystone/Getty Images

It was 84 years ago today that the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, repealing the earlier Amendment that declared the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol illegal in the United States. Prohibition was over! Booze that had been illegal for 13 years was suddenly legal again, and our long national nightmare was finally over.


A giant barrel of beer, part of a demonstration against prohibition in America.
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Prohibition of alcohol was not a popular doctrine. It turned formerly law-abiding citizens into criminals. It overwhelmed police with enforcement duties and gave rise to organized crime. In cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis, the dismantling of breweries left thousands of people unemployed.


Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Homemade alcohol was often dangerous and some people died from drinking it. Some turned to Sterno or industrial alcohol, which was dangerous and sometimes poisoned by the government to discourage drinking. State and federal governments were spending a lot of money on enforcement, while missing out on taxes from alcohol.


New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach (right) watches agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition.

The midterm elections of 1930 saw the majority in Congress switch from Republican to Democratic, signaling a shift in public opinion about Prohibition as well as concerns about the depressed economy. Franklin Roosevelt, who urged repeal, was elected president in 1932. The Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution was proposed by Congress in February of 1933, the sole purpose of which was to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment establishing Prohibition.


American men guarding their private beer brewing hide-out, during Prohibition.
Keystone/Getty Images

With passage of the Constitutional Amendment to repeal Prohibition a foregone conclusion, a huge number of businessmen lined up at the Board of Health offices in New York in April of 1933 to apply for liquor licenses to be issued as soon as the repeal was ratified.

The Amendment was ratified by the states by the mechanism of special state ratifying conventions instead of state legislatures. Many states ratified the repeal as soon as conventions could be organized. The ratifications by the required two-thirds of the states was achieved on December 5, 1933, when conventions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah agreed to repeal Prohibition through the Amendment.


Workmen unloading crates of beer stacked at a New York brewery shortly after the repeal of Prohibition.
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A brewery warehouse in New York stacked crates past the ceiling to satisfy a thirsty nation after the repeal of Prohibition.


Keystone/Getty Images

Liquor wouldn't officially be legal until December 15th, but Americans celebrated openly anyway, and in most places, law enforcement officials let them.

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Courtesy New District
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Food
Say ‘Cheers’ to the Holidays With This 24-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar
Courtesy New District
Courtesy New District

This year, eschew your one-tiny-chocolate-a-day Advent calendar and count down to Christmas the boozy way. An article on the Georgia Straight tipped us off to New District’s annual wine Advent calendars, featuring 24 full-size bottles.

Each bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine is hand-picked by the company’s wine director, with selections from nine different countries. Should you be super picky, you can even order yourself a custom calendar, though that will likely add to the already-high price point. The basic 24-bottle order costs $999 (in Canadian dollars), and if you want to upgrade from cardboard boxes to pine, that will run you $100 more.

If you can’t quite handle 24 bottles (or $999), the company is introducing a 12-bottle version this year, too. For $500, you get 12 reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from various unnamed “elite wine regions.”

With both products, each bottle is numbered, so you know exactly what you should be drinking every day if you really want to be a stickler for the Advent schedule. Whether you opt for 12 or 24 bottles, the price works out to about $42 per bottle, which is somewhere in between the “I buy all my wines based on what’s on sale at Trader Joe’s” level and “I am a master sommelier” status.

If you want to drink yourself through the holiday season, act now. To make sure you receive your shipment before December 1, you’ll need to order by November 20. Get it here.

[h/t the Georgia Straight]

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