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Distillers Are Doing the Weirdest Stuff to Whiskey

Published On 05/31/2016 Published On 05/31/2016
Dan Evans/Thrillist

Almost 9 out of 10 adults experiment with alcohol, but some of them are doing it on an entirely different level. The people creating it for your consumption are never satisfied and constantly refine their ancient methods to perfection… most of the time. Once in a while they chuck all that out the window and try something completely new. The distillers below did just that to present you with whiskey (or whisky if you’re Scottish) like you’ve never had it before.

Sending it to space

Space: the universe’s freezer. And just like your freezer, stuff that sits in it too long starts to taste like “antiseptic smoke [and] rubber.” Also, like your freezer, hooch gets stored there.

See, the final step of distillation is maturation: when that precious white dog ages in a cask until it is golden and beautiful and ready to be drank. Unless it’s feeling adventurous. Then it flies to infinity... and back! Because infinity and beyond is a scary proposition.

(Although if we’re being honest, the whiskey is completely amber after six months, while the flavor develops for years. Nevertheless!)

In 2011 Scotland’s Ardberg Distillery sent a small vial of whisky up to age on the International Space Station, which--through the power of relativity--it did, slightly slower than its same-batch counterpart on earth. Miraculously, the space sample evaded imbibery by booze-deprived astronauts for three years, probably thanks to the extreme discipline and focus it takes to be a part of the space program.

Upon its return to Earth, the cosmic whisky reunited with its sibling, and the two drams were examined for comparison of their terpenes. Although “terpenes” sounds like a Scottish insult, they are in fact biosynthetic compounds.

These terp-a-derps are why beer and whiskey taste so good. And the fine folks at Ardberg wanted to know what happens to them in microgravity. How does it affect flavor? Will it satisfy unknowable alien intelligences if consumed by their endless hunger? These are the questions, people.

Space Whisky X, as society doesn’t call it but should, is technically not scotch, which must be wholly matured in Scotland. Sorry astro-tipplers, but passing over the highlands 15 times a day doesn’t count. But it is pretty close to the real thing, since it was packed into MixStix with shavings of the same oak barrels that housed the earthbound scotch.

The result: a whisky that pulls out less of the wood’s essence but breaks down more of its tannins. The scent and flavors that Space Whisky X evoked in a taste tester are crazy, including (but not limited to): smoked fish, graphite, vanilla, beef, hickory ham, and antiseptic lozenges. Coincidentally, those are the ingredients for the world’s worst smoothie, but reports are that this space-scotch (spatch?) ain’t bad… just odd.

Aging it with a vacuum

The ISS may lack gravity, but thanks to the efforts of Bowie-strumming spaceman Commander Chris Hadfield (and a desire not to explode its residents), it is under pressure. To test whiskey in a vacuum, turn your Earthman eyes to Cleveland, OH -- as in, “OH! There are a disproportionate number of astronauts from Ohio!”

Perhaps because of Buckeye State residents’ comfort with a deadly vacuum, it’s home to the world’s first pressure-pumped whiskey. See, the golden liquid is really popular right now: so darn popular so that traditional production can’t keep up. Are we doomed to live in a world where whiskey is the privilege of tech billionaires and oak barons?  

Well Tom Lix, owner of Cleveland Whiskey, looked into that future and said, “No, that just won’t do.” His company developed equipment to age the whiskey in one day at various high and low pressures, forcing that beautiful spirit through the wood several times.

“Passionate about whiskey” is an expected description of any distiller. But watch this video and decide whether Tom Lix is the most passionate whiskey wrangler you ever saw. He just wants whiskey to be everything it can!

He also has a voice made for baseball commentary.

Lix’s process allows from some really cool innovation. A lot of woods make for terrible barrels; they’re just too porous. But they do make for great flavor. Guess who has the machinery that can “squeeze the wood like a sponge” and extract previously untasted flavors? Cleveland Whiskey. Lix points out that “85% of the flavor comes from the wood!”

Of course, he has caught flak from whiskey purists, but do you think Tom Lix cares? Tom Lix does not care. His Twitter bio proudly touts the label “industry #heretic.” And why shouldn’t he? The world is already drinking as much whiskey as it possibly can, and he’s keeping that number up. As long as the drinker feels the end product is of good quality, and the product meets all the requirements, the method should be irrelevant.  

Cleveland Whiskey sped up a process from three years (or 18 if you want to hit the ideal maturation) to three mealtimes. Imagine any other field where an innovator is criticized for increasing productivity by 11,000%. You can’t, because you’re a realist, and not a dogmatic quibbler who’s no fun to drink with.

Even if this bottle isn’t to your taste, it shouldn’t bother you that other people enjoy it. Traditional whiskeys aren’t going anywhere; they just sit on the shelf next to new and exciting settlements on the taste horizon, thanks to Lix and Cleveland Whiskey.

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Turning health food into whiskey

Are you eating quinoa? You should be eating quinoa. Quinoa is a complete protein, a superfood that will prevent you from ever dying. It’s a great way to eat grains, max gainz, and suffer pains, as you poop a brick composed of this morning’s cup of quinoa. But bro: PROTEIN! And it does taste pretty good, until you find the randomly gritty bite in every serving.

Corsair Distillery found a better, crunchless use for the Peruvian superfood, plus some other grains you may not have heard of. The Kentucky-based business was trying to develop a bio-diesel method, but the power of Kentucky overcame them, and suddenly everything was whiskey.

Now they’re a widely hailed, innovative brand that just loves to make whiskey out of any grain they can find. Yes, even pseudocereals like quinoa and amaranth. These guys wrote the literal book on wringing whiskey out of non-traditional grains.

See, most every whiskey maker likes a mash of malted barley. Or rye. Whatever crops you’ve got lying around. But quinoa? That stuff’s expensive. Oats? Sure, they make a few whiskeys out of that. Wheat? Kind of rare, but no problem. Buckwheat? You know it, and that’s not even a real grain!

They’ve also made whiskey from blue corn, millet, rice, and sorghum. But their most obscure distillation is probably derived from triticale, a wheat-rye hybrid created in the 19th century by a Scottish botanist who thought it would be hilarious to trick residents of 21st century Los Angeles into eating gluten.

To top it off, they combined all those into the Voltron of whiskeys: Insane in the Grain, a 12-grain bourbon. Now that’s a healthy bowl of cereal.

Giving it sea legs

Tipplers know the age of a whiskey shows in the legs: those traces that run down the side of the glass. Viscosity takes time to acquire; whiskey doesn’t become full-bodied in a day; the alcohol and sugar have to formulate together. While this is happening, distillers often turn the barrels so that every inch of wood interacts with the spirit.

Enter Trey Zoeller. Whiskey runs so deep in his veins that his multiply-great-grandma got busted for illegal distilling in the 18th century (and yet it was legal to work a child 11 hours a day in the mines. Get your priorities straight, colonials).

Zoeller got the bright idea to age his whiskey on a boat. Sloshing it around at sea for over three years (and 10,000 miles) under scorching sky and salty osmosis produced a whiskey weathered like an ancient mariner. But with zero notes of dead albatross.

Jefferson’s Bourbon is back under production, and taking different sea routes to yield varying flavors from the same batch of spirit as it ages.

Dan Evans/Thrillist

Rocking it to sleep

In its house in Gardiner, malt whiskey rocks dreaming.

Tuthilltown Spirits kicked off the resurrection of craft whiskies in the northeast, thanks in part to New York state’s relaxation of fees for small batch production. To do so, they had to innovate.

As with Zoeller’s sea whiskey, the amber potions that would become Tuthilltown’s Hudson Whiskey line needed to be turned to help with the maturation process. The more the whiskey is in contact with the wood, the more it draws from its vanillins and tannins. But the distillery was a small operation, and nobody had time for that. Far better to swirl the whiskey and leave the barrel intact. If only there were a way...

And that’s when the crew at Tuthilltown had a brilliant idea: sonic maturation.

You see, Hudson Whiskey is all about that bass. By blasting their barrels with hip-hop, they agitate the liquor via soundwaves. The stuff hums in the oak, and comes to fruition faster and better. How cool is that? And how have they not capitalized on a partnership with 50 Cent? The ad copy writes itself! “Aged for three years to Fiddy’s deep tones, this whiskey got rich and you’ll die to try it.”

Hanging it from the ceiling

At last, the whiskey is ready for bottling! Or, in the case of those distilleries that supported an IndieGoGo campaign by Angels’ Share Glass: encapsulating.

As you might tell from the name, the Scotland-based glassblowers are tightly bound to its whisky market, making all manner of accessories for the whisky aficionado, equipment for distillers, and custom pieces commissioned by major scotch labels like Johnnie Walker and The Macallan.

Their signature piece is an angel filled with whisky. How do they fill molten glass with high proof alcohol and not light the whole works ablaze? Nobody knows! It’s a trade secret. All we can say for sure is they’ve given wonderful new meaning to the phrase “holy spirit.”

To raise money for a new studio, Angels’ Share Glass offered backers custom made “whisky drops” chandeliers, which managing director Karen Somerville says are filled with the product of the distilleries purchasing them.

Now it’s sad to think of whisky never being sipped, but it’s nice to know you’ll always have a few drams on hand, quite literally illuminating your life. You’ll never drink it, but you’ll always enjoy it.

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Brendan McGinley was led astray by the devil whiskey multiple times while writing this. He occasionally drunk-tweets @BrendanMcGinley.
 

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