There are a whole lot of craft beer fans out there today who have a generally poor understanding of the difference between “craft” in the beer market and “craft” in the liquor market.
In the beer market, there’s a very decent chance at any given time that the best beers in the world are being made by very, very small craft brewers—guys making beer on farms, in garages, etc. The reason for this is a matter of resources: A dedicated homebrewer or small-scale professional brewer can conceivably have access to the same level of ingredients and equipment as large-scale regional breweries, and may even use higher-quality ingredients because they can afford to buy them in small amounts. Also: Beer is fast to make, compared to other alcoholic beverages. You can brew a beer one weekend and be drinking it three weeks later.
Not so, in the liquor market, and ESPECIALLY in the ultra-popular market for American whiskey. Whiskey, by its nature, is a time-consuming thing to make. At the very least, we’re talking the better part of a year in a newly charred American oak barrel. To call it “straight” whiskey, you’re looking at a minimum of two years. And even a flagship, “value” whiskey that many drinkers would think of as “cheap stuff”—let’s say Jim Beam white label—is aged even longer, at FOUR years. This is a massive time investment.
The best whiskeys, therefore, tend to come not from the little craft microdistilleries that have popped up in your backyard in the last few years, because they simply haven’t been in business long enough to be competitive in terms of barrel science and the distiller’s art. Innovation, likewise, has mostly been pushed forward by the big, older distilleries, because they’re the ones with the budget, the time and the resources to make it happen.
Is it any surprise, then, that the young distillers are often searching for shortcuts that can allow them to be more competitive and offer a comparable product? And indeed, many young distilleries have found a solution of sorts in the science of barrel surface area. By using either smaller barrels, or barrels with honeycomb patterns and various other internal modifications, they can increase the amount of wood in contact with their distilled spirit. The logic is that this process thus helps the spirit take on the flavor and appearance of “aged whiskey” more rapidly. The point of argument, meanwhile, is obvious: Does aging a spirit FAST infuse comparable flavors to aging a spirit SLOW? New distillers tend to say yes. Old distillers tend to say no. Regardless, the young distilleries are why you see so much white whiskey on liquor shelves these days, because they’re trying to make some kind of revenue while waiting on aged whiskeys to be ready.
This is also the philosophy behind a new Kickstarter product now hitting the market, called The Mighty Pint. A “DIY whiskey barrel” with a volume of roughly a pint, it is meant for the aging of white whiskey or moonshine, but can also be used for barrel-aged cocktails, wines and other potential drinks. The project’s videos and advertising claim to be able to take relatively inexpensive white whiskey and turn it into a “premium” product in as little as a week. And so, we thought we would take a Mighty Pint for a spin and see how our own home-aged whiskey would fare.
It’s very significant to note that the Mighty Pint does not come assembled, arriving as a pile of newly charred wooden staves with a couple of end caps and metal bands to tighten around them as you construct your mini-barrel. It’s understandable why the vendors don’t want to have to assemble them, as the process is slow and hands-on, ultimately taking multiple days (more on that in a moment). However, it does leave the consumer with a very real chance of completely screwing up the job.
The above video makes assembly look like a breeze, but things didn’t go nearly as smoothly for me. No matter what I did, the first several times I attempted the above method, I was left with significant gaps between the staves that made it quite clear the mini-barrel wouldn’t be holding liquid anytime soon. It didn’t help that my Mighty Pint (this was sent for review purposes, not an order) did not include either the funnel or a set of instructions, which had not yet been printed. A much more detailed video on constructing the mini-barrel is now available from the manufacturer, and this one gives a much better impression of how touchy and precise this process needs to be. When I finally managed to get it together without visible gaps between the staves, it felt more like a matter of luck than anything. The video below even notes that the barrels unsurprisingly vary in small ways in their dimensions, so your Mighty Pint may be easier or harder to assemble than mine. It also recommends sanding the edges of the barrel caps, which was never recommended to me.
Even after construction has been completed successfully, the barrel isn’t whiskey-ready just yet. Boiling water is the final step in hydrating and sealing the wood, allowing it to swell up. I poured boiling water into the barrel multiple times a day over the course of several days, and in the end was left with a mini-barrel that was more or less water-tight. It held the white whiskey I aged in it, although it oddly started leaking a small amount after a few days before stopping once again—changes in temperature or pressure, perhaps? Regardless, I kept it sitting on a plate the entire time, just in case.
Being a fan of American rye whiskies in particular, I chose a bottle of Redemption White Rye, which Paste happened to write about a little while back. I ended up aging it in the Mighty Pint for just under a week, which is what I was instructed to do by the manufacturer who sent it to me. To quote his original email:
After 6-7 days in the Mighty Pint, here is the unaged white whiskey (on the left) next to the aged spirit (on the right).
As you can no doubt see, the whiskey on the right has taken on color from the barrel, although perhaps not quite as deep a shade as one might expect. It’s certainly a shade or two lighter than the “standard” caramel-type shade of typical American whiskeys, with a bit more of the honey-like yellow-gold that one usually finds in Scotch—which ironically is the product of artificial coloring in most of those scotches, but I digress.
Wanting to get as detailed a comparison as I possibly could, I compared the aroma and flavor of the aged rye to the original, unaged white rye.
Unaged aroma: The Redemption White Rye on its own is unusual stuff, sweeter than most white whiskies, with a somewhat medicinal quality. You can get honey-like sweetness and floral notes, along with green apple fruitiness and the peppery notes of rye. In general, it’s lacking a deeper sense of soul, and is a little too “vodka-like” for my taste, which is how I find most white whiskies.
Aged aroma: Quite a lot has changed in a week. The oak aromas are big, very big—maybe too big, already. Any chemical or solvent-like quality has been smoothed out, though, while retaining the fruitiness of green apple and the spice of rye. It still smells fairly hot, but it’s a little bit more approachable now than it was a week earlier. Given the two, I’d certainly prefer to get this impression when I raise a glass of whiskey to my nose.
Unaged taste: This white whiskey is very spicy and very fruity, with a strong, lasting burn. It’s sure as hell hot, and it’s sure as hell young, wild and unrefined. Green apple shows up again, and I also get a peach-like stone fruitiness. The body is light, with a “corny” sweetness, despite the fact that this thing is like 95% rye. There might be applications where this would be an interesting mixer, but it’s not really the kind of thing I’d be likely to drink neat. Still, it’s better than drinking neat vodka.
Aged taste: Again, quite a lot has changed in a week. Let it not be said that the Mighty Pint has no effect on the liquid, because it certainly does. The resulting whiskey is certainly smoother and a bit easier to imbibe, while retaining plenty of peppery spice. The flavors are very woody, as in the aroma—pungent, dank, oakiness. There’s less of the vanilla and caramel character that is expected in just about any American whiskey, and a more raw sort of lightly tart woodiness, but some interesting fruit flavors have also developed—this is the first time, tasting it, that the whiskey is making me think of red berry fruitiness. It makes for a pretty unusual, but not unpleasant rye whiskey, one that isn’t very comparable to anything store-bought I’ve had in the past. This may simply be a factor of starting off with the Redemption White Rye, rather than a more “standard” white whiskey.
Regardless, it’s safe to say that the aged spirit is measurably a better drink, and a more interesting one, than the unaged spirit. I would like to see more of the “char” character come through rather than this degree of “wood” character, but I don’t know if this is something that will balance out more given future uses. Given the choice between the two drinks, though, everything else being equal, I would go for the aged one every time.
The question, then, is whether the change you can affect on your spirit is worth the purchase of the Mighty Pint. As is, it seems to me like an interesting, if somewhat limited tool. Using it to age cocktails might turn out intriguingly, but the volume is suitable for a small group rather than a party of friends, and you’re bound to lose at least some of the liquid. Using it to age white whiskey produced an interesting result, but I doubt that result would motivate me to go out and purchase white whiskey with the express plan of aging it, rather than simply seeking out already aged spirits. And of course, there’s also the potential issues of assembly to consider. It’s a balance of how much you value the time and effort involved in using the Mighty Pint, plus its $50 price tag vs. the value you place on its results.
In the end, though, I can at least confirm that a better liquor came out of the Mighty Pint than the one going into it. If someone ever gifts me with a bottle of moonshine, or leaves a bottle of white whiskey in my apartment, I wouldn’t hesitate to age it in the Mighty Pint again. It’s available now through the Clawhammer Supply website.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor. You can follow him on Twitter.