When it comes to most types of food, the fresher the better.
Unless, of course, you’re talking whiskey or rum or any other type of spirit where aging is a key contributor to the flavor of the finished product. With the ‘good stuff’, the older the drink, generally the more valuable and desirable the product.
This business of aging spirits works well for established distillers who already have lots of their aged brew sitting in barrels and on store shelves, but for a new craft distiller of a spirit like whiskey or rum, chances are pretty good they’ll need to sell some of their non-aged white dog (also known as moonshine) spirit just to pay the bills.
But what if a distiller had a machine that could create many of the same flavor effects that come from putting your distillate into an oak barrel for years and years? Would they take it?
That’s the question PicoBrew is posing with their new CaskForge spirits aging technology. The company, which as I wrote last week is up for sale, has developed a technology that they claim can mimic esterification and other effects that result from the aging process a spirit undergoes and essentially produce basically the same magic elixir overnight.
Of course, there’s no doubt most master distillers and spirits snobs would turn up their ester-sniffing noses up at the very idea that a good bottle of scotch or whiskey could cheat time. But, over the past few years there has been a number of new entrants into the accelerated-aging market and PicoBrew’s CaskForge is just the latest.
Approaches to spirits aging run the gamut. One company called Terrassentia uses machines called “Rosies” to pump ultrasonic waves that they claim enhances the flavor profile.
Another company with aging-acceleration technology is Lost Spirits. Lost Spirits exposes spirits to varying light and heat within bioreactors to create simulated aged spirits in a matter of days.
Then there’s Cleveland, which uses a combination of exposure to wood staves and varying levels of pressure and oxygenation.
And Hudson makes bourbon by putting their distillate into small barrels (to get a better ratio of wood to liquid) and literally serenades the liquid with music to agitate the molecules as a way to accelerate the aging.
So how does PicoBrew’s CaskForge do it? While the cofounder brothers of PicoBrew Bill and Jim Mitchell wouldn’t disclose the exact specifics (patents are still pending), they explained how they approached spirits aging in much the same way they did to creating their beer brewing appliance: they broke down every part of the process and used technology to simulate the various aging effects.
“It’s very similar to the way we invented the Zymatic and the whole process where we were able to shrink down the elements of a brewery,” said Bill Mitchell. “We took each element, asked how can we create that separately, and systemize it and see how we can sequence it in program steps.”
Ultimately it will be up to the market – and spirits experts with much more refined palates than myself – to decide if the CaskForge works to create a desirable facsimile of true aging effects, but a quick tasting tour at PicoBrew headquarters of rapid-aged spirits created by Jim Mitchell (PicoBrew’s chief science officer) showed promise.
Mitchell had me taste a mix of spirits, ranging from white dog (non-aged spirits bottled straight from the still) to a variety of rapid-aged whiskey and rum.
On the rum side, they had me taste a “flight” of Bacardi rum, going all the way from straight Bacardi Superior (the rum giant’s low-end, unaged white rum) up to the rapid-aged Bacardi equivalent of Bacardi 8.
Overall, the more “aged” the rum, the more complex the drink’s flavor characteristics. With all the the rapid-aged drinks they had me sample, it seemed the trademarks of aged spirits – heavier mouthfeel, flavor notes like vanilla, smokiness of peat when tasting accelerated whiskey/scotch – were all there. Granted, I’m no spirits sommelier, but the CaskForge-aged spirits seemed similar in taste and characteristics with beverages that sat in a barrel for years.
Ultimately the Mitchell brothers will need to convince master distillers, not a occasional sipper of whiskey like myself, that rapid aging really works. To do so, they’ve been reaching out to a number of craft distillers to talk about and show off the abilities of the CaskForge and some have begun to experiment with the technology.
The CaskForge system comes in both a professional version and a mini version meant for home cocktail enthusiasts or craft bartenders looking to take their creations next-level. In fact, PicoBrew believes craft cocktail makers themselves are a big potential market as they see drink artisans embracing the idea of creating specialty drinks with their own uniquely created base alcohol.
Of course, before all that happens, the company needs to navigate the process of receivership. As I wrote last week, PicoBrew has been put up for sale as an action forced by their bridge lending group, who hopes to take full ownership of the company through an open bidding process. It remains to be seen ultimately who will take ownership of PicoBrew and what they choose to invest in. Spirits aging is a growing business, but it’s a vastly different business than coffee or homebrew gear.
Bill and Jim both think they’ll get some takers, in part because of the smaller form factor and portability of their technology. Unlike other spirits-aging technologies, they believe their product is unique in part because it can go into smaller craft distilleries or even bars themselves rather than a centralized aging facility outfitted with bioreactors or spirits-aging robots.
I myself can envision craft cocktail nerds getting excited about aging their own liquor with specialty woods and flavors (Jim also had me taste a whiskey aged with coffee beans). If CaskForge or similar technology takes off, I can see an “aging” machine as another tool of the trade just like a strainer or even a centrifuge.
Let’s just hope the Mitchell brothers get their chance to get the CaskForge into the world and your favorite bartender a chance at making his or her own base liquor.