This post is dedicated to my parents, who just this past week celebrated 31 wonderful years of marriage (my dad jokes "31 years of incompatibility"). We were ring-around-the-rosy children, they were circles around the sun. Never give up, never slow down, never grow old, never ever die young :-)
On the heels of my Four Corners Whisky Tasting (designed to explore the influence of wood on the spirit) - and before I open the gates to my Pentagon Tasting (an American tasting designed to explore the influence of grain) - comes the topic of maturation. When we say "maturation", we're referring to the way in which a spirit is aged in wooden barrels. As the Four Corners tasting shows, the type of wood (and the liquid it contained - if any - prior to the "first fill") is an enormous part of the color and flavor profile of all distilled spirits. There are nearly limitless ways to combine spirit and cask. What's astonishing to me is how much the pairing is still an act of provenance.
It is an inherently old-fashioned and romantic notion, the idea that a spirit and a cask could be destined for each other. Most master blenders wouldn't have it any other way. The choice to pair new-make spirit with, say, virgin American white oak or Buffalo Trace ex-bourbon or Oloroso sherry butts is a painstaking one, and only the most suitable oak will do. This is why you'll hear descriptions like "aged in barrels made from slow-growth American white oak from the northern slopes of Missouri's Mark Twain National Forest, cut, dried, and seasoned in the open air for 2 years before being fashioned into barrels." Distilleries are proud of this relationship, like a father who has just given a deserving suitor his daughter's hand in marriage.
It's also no surprise - given the age of instant hook-up and gratification that we live in - that there are some people who try to ... advance the process. Laphroaig has an excellent expression called "Quarter Cask" that is a young Islay malt spirit aged in quarter-sized barrels to speed up the maturation (greater surface-area-to-whisky-volume ratio). Another pioneering distillery in New York (Tuthilltown Spirits) has taken the same angle (3-20 gallon barrels) but drills dimples into the cask staves to attain an even more complimentary ratio (many Scottish distilleries do cut small grooves into their staves to accomplish the same). Oh, and Tuthilltown also plays rap music on giant subwoofers in the warehouse every night to increase the vibration between wood and spirit - a process some call "rapturation." Romantic aria or brain-numbing club culture? You tell me. Or I can tell you when I purchase my first 375 ml bottle this afternoon. For what it's worth, Tuthilltown was named American Artisan Distillery of the Year by the American Distillers Institute. So this marriage is just different, maybe a bit unruly.
In most modern distillery culture, spirits and casks enjoy meaningful, fulfilling marriages; the offspring don't lie. But much in the same way that we've penetrated the mysteries of human sexual reproduction, we are now trying to penetrate the mysteries of maturation. Of matrimony. It's a process that's rooted in scientific curiosity but ends... who knows where. You have only to look at 10 year experiments being commissioned by Scottish distilleries to monitor every condition of maturation inside and outside the barrel to say confidently that technology is starting to peal back some of those mysteries. But at what cost? And will we ever be able to say with confidence that those mysteries will ever be fully bent under our command?
If a man can figure out how to create a 22 year old Scotch in 3 days, what will that process look like, and how will it change our perception of provenance? Can wisdom be attained without experience? Can love be truly committed without the passage of time? One distillery in Cleveland thinks that it can.
"Cleveland Whiskey unabashedly brings 21st century science and technology to an industry steeped in traditional practice. Making whiskey is done in pretty much the same way it’s been done for centuries and that’s okay, it works, in fact it works quite well. Indeed, it’s a $20 Billion world-wide market, a market that’s growing around the world.
Pardon my English, but bullshit. That's not just me saying it, that's every critic who has tasted this product of what I would kindly call "stave rape" - the forced coupling of wood and spirit under temperature and pressure. That's not love, that's sexual abuse. Why would we even??
I understand there is a large barrier to entry for new distilleries who have to lay down and age spirit for years before seeing cash flow (well, hey, there's always vodka and gin), but money is about the worst reason ever to abandon the beauty of craft, provenance, and terroir; what is this, a bride price? Time is what whisky is, even if some whiskies have only been married for 3 years. We can listen to Tom Petty all day long telling us that "the waiting is the hardest part", but the waiting is also what makes the whole damn thing worth it! It's lifting the veil with the valinch and nosing an aged spirit for the very first time. It's the tender consumation that occurs when that spirit first enters the palate. It's the Master Blender saying hello and goodbye to a spirit that he raised from the moment it exited the still's womb. Like it or not, we're starting to miss the marriage for the offspring, assuming that the denouement lies in production rather than what God has joined together.
"That is why a man leaves his father and his mother, and cleaves to his wife, and the two become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame." - Book of Genesis
In whisky we have a liquid that embodies the human condition, our desire to be loved and joined with another. However, that marvelous liquid can quickly give way to emptiness, greed, and detachment as easily as the culture that created it. Heed well then the ponderings of Samuel Clemens, for if the world loses touch with the divine mystery, then what have we really gained? And who, or what, is our new idol?
2 Ways of Seeing a River
"Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the sombre shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring. I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home.
"But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river's face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, in this fashion: "This sun means that we are going to have wind tomorrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody's steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling 'boils' show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the 'break' from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark?"
"No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a "break" that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?"