For as long as spirits such as bourbon, rye whiskey, rum and scotch whisky have been aged in oak barrels, there have been attempts to subvert the time and care inherent to the aging process. There have been flirtations with artificial coloring and flavoring, to replicate the flavor lent over time by the wood. New barrel innovations have been developed over the years, including the use of smaller barrels or barrels filled with honeycombed oak panels, to increase surface area exposed to spirit and thus “speed up” maturation. Anything that small distilling companies have thought to try, they’ve tried—but the results have rarely been well received by those who love the flavor profile of aged spirits.
Now, a new company is giving it a go, using a new method that purports to be able to produce comparably “aged” spirits in only a few days. Bespoken Spirits is a Silicon Valley-based start-up, founded by materials scientist Martin Janousek and entrepreneur Stu Aaron, which produces “aged” spirits such as whiskey, rum and brandy through a combination of wood and pressure aging. Comparing their process to a “Nespresso machine on an industrial scale,” they expose neutral spirits to “micro staves” under pressure in order to infuse them with the flavors and aromatics typically found in aged spirits, and claim to never use “any additives for flavor or color.”
The below video gives one an idea of how the folks at Bespoken Spirits see themselves, disparaging the entire aged spirits industry as it exists today as “wasteful” and inefficient. To quote it directly: “Barrel aging is an antiquated process, practically unchanged for over 200 years. The barrels are slow, inconsistent, clumsy and wasteful.”
The just-launched brand smartly focuses on its more “efficient” approach, while neglecting to mention that producing “whiskey” in this way is also likely much cheaper for the company, thanks to the short time span and comparatively smaller amount of resources required. That doesn’t stop Bespoken Spirits from selling their products at a premium, however—the $37 price tag on their “bourbon” looks like mid-shelf pricing until one notes that this is a 375 ml bottle, rather than a standard 750 ml one. At that pricing, Bespoken Spirits is implying that their bourbon “aged at least three months” is equivalent quality to say, Heaven Hill’s 12-year-old Elijah Craig Barrel Proof bourbon, which I’m having a bit of a difficult time accepting.
The company also uses some “alpha” vocabulary to get across the idea that their aging methods should be seen by consumers as an alluring feature—in an interview with Financial Times, Aaron said that “rather than putting a spirit into a barrel and passively waiting for nature to take its course over decades, our technology instils the barrel into the spirit, delivering a premium-quality tailored spirit in days rather than decades.”
Because “passive” is the worst thing a person or brand can be, right?
The founders of Bespoke Spirits are correct when they say that their process produces less waste, and is technically more efficient, but even though the spirits the brand produces have won some awards, closing the gap in flavor is another story entirely. There are compounds created during aging as a result of time, such as those created by oxidation, that simply can’t be replicated without the slow exposure of the spirit to air over the course of years. It doesn’t mean that “bourbon” produced by Bespoke Spirits can’t be good—but it’s unlikely to remind you of a well-aged traditional bourbon for those reasons.
Bespoke Spirits’ products are just starting to hit the market, so perhaps we’ll have an opportunity to taste them in the future, only to find that a breakthrough has been made in circumventing the “antiquated” method of sticking spirits into oak barrels. But they’re not the first to claim they’ve discovered this particular form of alchemy, and they probably won’t be the last.