Whisky Advocate

Lew Bryson’s wrap up on ADI’s Craft Spirits Conference

April 9th, 2012

It was time for me to really get into the meat of the conference. After getting a ride over to Huber with Darek Bell, I hit the vendor room as it opened. Briefly, it was mostly about packaging — bottles and closures, and I talked to the people at Jelinek Cork a lot; amazing stuff, cork — chemical analysis, records, and stills. Vendome was there, of course, but there were at least three other small still makers there, including Hillbilly Stills, who were showing some surprisingly sophisticated equipment, given their name.

I grabbed some iced tea and caught the 11 AM session I’d had on my radar since signing up for the conference: “Small Barrel Realities,” presented by Scott Spolverino, Tuthilltown Spirits and John Jeffery, Death’s Door Distillery. These were extremely technical presentations from two bright chemists, typical of the kind of talent craft distilling is attracting.

Here’s the nutshell knockdown. Barrel-aging affects whiskey in three ways: reactions between the wood and chemicals in the wood; changes in concentration from evaporation; and an interaction among the chemicals in the spirit. The reactions are largely about wood aldehydes becoming esters, aromatic compounds, which, the presentation stated, “only form when there is a massive excess of alcohol.” Exactly what you have in barrel-proof spirits! Three of the major aromatic components are ethyl syringate (which gives an aroma of tobacco and fig), ethyl ferulate (spicy/cinnamon), and ethyl vanillate (a smoky, burnt aroma), all producing familiar aromas to the bourbon drinker.

Evaporation means oxidation, as air fills the space where spirit was. This is where it got interesting, as rates of evaporation were shown to take months to years for some compounds. The whiskey transforms at different speeds, in ways that are not affected by surface area, but purely by time.

The last part, interaction, was presented as important for the “maturation” of whiskey, and involved “ethanol clustering,” that coming together of ethanol and water in a way that made the ethanol sensation on the palate smoother. This process, Scott Spolverino specifically said, takes time. “A small barrel can’t force the hand here.” But the small barrel can rapidly increase the extraction process of the aldehydes to esters. In short, the take-home was that small barrels can extract flavor from wood into whiskey faster than larger barrels, but they can’t “mature” whiskey and bring about that smoother flavor of aged whiskey sooner than large barrels. With constant monitoring, small barrels can make “good whiskey,” with lots of barrel flavor, but maturing whiskey takes time…as anyone who’s had 4 year old bourbon and 12 year old bourbon can tell you.

I had lunch with some friends — Mike Miller of Delilah’s in Chicago, and Jerald O’Kennard of the Beverage Testing Institute — scarfing down some tasty fried chicken and iced tea out on the back porch of Huber’s (which was actually huge and sprawling and very impressive). Afterwards we went back into the conference hall for another barrel session, sponsored by Independent Stave and presented by wood expert Dr. Jim Swan. We sampled young whiskey (from Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane) that had aged 9 months in five different barrels: a traditional charred bourbon barrel, an American oak barrel that was charred and toasted, French oak with high toast, French with low toast, and East European oak (Slovakian, I think). They were distinctly different, and the second and third came out as tied favorites. I didn’t care much for the last one until I added water, which changed it significantly. Doctor Swan then broke the differences down into levels of about five compounds…but it got a bit too technical for this college history major to follow at this point. Suffice to say, there are significant differences among the oaks, and not just in tightness of pores, but in chemical makeup.

It was good to see the small distillers so interested in all this. Some of them are very much working on this from a scientific, analytical angle, rather than simply firing up a still and trying things by the seat of their pants. This is going to bring about the winnowing of the sheep from the goats that is inevitably coming in this industry, and again, I’d go back to my original comparison to the early days of craft brewing.

There are some…well, let’s be blunt. There are some appallingly bad craft spirits being made today. While the learning curve for everyone in the industry is quicker on the sales side because of the experience of the craft brewers — you can see what worked for small-scale drink products, and what didn’t — the learning curve on the production side is much slower; a generation of aged spirit takes a lot longer than a generation of beer. You can see your mistakes or your strokes of genius, but it takes months and years instead of days and weeks. That could spell trouble for folks who are trying to put together a business based on aged whiskey.

After the presentation I tasted some wines with Scott Spolverino — we were at a winery, why not? — and then ran into micromaltster Andrea Stanley (of Valley Malt in Hadley, Massachusetts; see our upcoming issue for more on this new niche), who then introduced me to three other micromaltsters, including Peter Begley of Tasmania’s Belgrove Distillery (also in the upcoming issue!), who grows, malts, and distills his own grains. It led to a lively discussion that included start-up costs, cognac-style blending applied to whiskey, glassware (Andy Davidson of Glencairn had joined us by now), and tasting some Tuthilltown whiskeys (Gable Erenzo had also joined us). It also included some great beer, Community Dark Mild from New Albanian Brewing, which helped grease the wheels a bit!

We all adjourned to the awards banquets, where there were a passel of awards given out (quite a few of them to Corsair). After that, it was back to Louisville, where I had a quick cocktail at the Seelbach with John Lipman (one of the collectors from our special auction issue last year), then went out to hear an impressive swing band at a Louisville bar.

To wind up, the next morning I caught Andrea Stanley’s micromaltings presentation — she’d been the recipient of an ADI internship scholarship the previous year to visit English maltings, and she presented on that, and on her own operation — then hit the long road for home. The ADI conference showed an industry in explosive growth. I met quite a few people who were in the planning stage or about to open within 6 months, and saw at least two brewers who were thinking about adding distilling to their operations. Craft distilling is not just growing, it is expanding beyond white spirits and imitations of traditional products. Much like craft brewing, it is reviving extinct whiskey forms, innovating with new twists on traditional methods, and trying completely new ideas. It will be interesting to see who, and how many, will be there next year.

9 Responses to “Lew Bryson’s wrap up on ADI’s Craft Spirits Conference”

  1. sam k says:

    Holy cow! We’ve heard about theories on small barrel aging for some time, but the truth, in analytical terms, seems to have been available on a very technical level all the time. Fascinating stuff, and good news for the upcoming wave of small distillers.

    Sounds like ADI puts together an excellent conference for the very distillers that can use this information the most. Seems like this was time well spent, Lew.

  2. two-bit cowboy says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Lew. I especially enjoyed reading what you learned in the wood session. I just noticed over the weekend that Doctor Swan’s signature appears on the two most recent Kilchoman releases. Thanks again.

  3. JDW says:

    The explanation of small barrel aging was interesting from an intellectual standpoint, but the reality thus far for me has been, whatever the chemistry, my palate does not like the whiskey. Whether this is an isolated instance reflecting my taste buds rather than some broad reality I leave to philosophy. For my money, I would rather buy good whiskey than somebody’s chemistry experiment. When they figure it out, then I will give their products another try.

  4. MrTH says:

    “I talked to the people at Jelinek Cork a lot; amazing stuff, cork….”

    Boo! There is absolutely no good reason to stopper whisky bottles with cork, and plenty of good reasons not to. I’m on a serious anti-cork crusade.

    “Evaporation means oxidation….”

    Boo again! Oxidation–the chemical combination of oxygen to form oxides–is a myth, in my book. In fact, I would say that oxidation means evaporation, since the phenomenon that most people call oxidation is nothing more than evaporation of volatile components of the spirit.

    Those reservations aside, this is a great report. I’m especially glad to see that a) many small distillers are taking a scientifically analytical approach, and b) there is some acknowledgement that, as in the craft beer boom, there is some real crap being produced. The process is its own metaphor: the distilling experience is the brewing experience distilled, with exponential consequences for not knowing what you’re doing.

    A fine review, Lew, thanks.

  5. Tinker says:

    Lew, I’m wondering if you could tell me more about interactions among chemicals in aging spirit:

    “ethanol clustering,” that coming together of ethanol and water in a way that made the ethanol sensation on the palate smoother. This process, Scott Spolverino specifically said, takes time.”

    Can ethanol clustering occur outside the barrel given enough time? We’ve all been told that, unlike wine, whiskey in sealed bottles won’t improve with age. However, this claim is misleading if ethanol clustering can take place outside the barrel. Mature whiskey would not improve with age in the bottle, since the clustering would already be complete. Young whiskey, in contrast, might be aged for flavor in a short period inside the barrels and then “bottle mellowed” on the shelf (any benefits of oxidation not withstanding). One could buy a young whiskey from a new distiller and then cellar it until the time is right. So should I go out and collect some promising young specimens, or does clustering require a barrel?

  6. Thanks for the review, Lew. (That was fun to say.) Means a lot that my topic has sparked such delight in the industry. Woo! I will try to answer any questions to the best of my knowledge. The link on my name is a link to the pdf of the slides.

    Mr. Tattie Heid: Oxidation is a very real thing. Everyone knows that wood leeches chemicals into the whisk(e)y which gives it its flavor and color. What many don’t know is that these chemicals also undergo reaction within the spirit…and oxidation is an important one. The chemicals that come out, known as phenolic aldehydes, attribute some flavors that you’re all familiar with: woody, sweet, vanilla. But to get a more complex wood profile in a whisk(e)y, these chemicals need to break down into phenolic acids and phenolic esters. In order to do that…they need to oxidize. You are, indeed, right in the fact that oxidation and evaporation are linked, and here’s why: the oxidation of those phenolic aldehydes form phenolic acids. Those phenolic acids change the pH of the overall whisk(e)y in the barrel, which in turn changes the volatility (or willingness to evaporate) of chemicals within the barrel. Check the slides for the chemical breakdown of this.

    Tinker: Someone asked me the same question at the ADI conference and, to be truthful, it’s had me on a bit of a thinking spree. Not all of the reactions and interactions within the barrel between the spirit and barrel chemicals is known, and clustering in beverages is part of this. It IS known that the chemicals that come from the barrel do speed up the process of ethanol clustering. An experiment was done where a mature whisky was analyzed for ethanol clusters, then distilled again. The distilled spirit had a much lower level of clustering than the mature spirit. However, once the remnants of the distillate (the pot stillage) was added back in, it retained the clustering seen in the original spirit. In answer to your question, I’d give the short answer of no, mainly due to what I was saying to Mr. Tattie Heid: oxidation of those introductory phenolic chemicals from the barrel form more chemicals. In a bottle, with limited to no oxygen, it would be difficult to form significant concentrations of the phenolic byproducts. So it might change a bit…but probably not much.

    • Red_Arremer says:

      I guess this makes one wonder how the oxidation and evaporation processes can be controlled and sped up. We’ll probably see some info on this appearing in the next couple of years.

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