In the whiskey world, it’s practically a matter of faith that making whiskey takes time—a lot of it. In Scotland, you can’t even call it “whisky” until it’s spent three years aging in an oak cask, and while the United States doesn’t specify exactly how long a spirit has to rest in oak, it does require that it spend at least some time getting acquainted with the inside of a barrel.
But Tom Lix, founder and CEO of Cleveland Whiskey, saw that widely held belief as a challenge, not a hard-and-fast rule. His company has revolutionized the whiskey making process by using technology, not time, to produce a rich, mature, flavorful whiskey. In the process, he’s uncovered some truly exciting new possibilities beyond the traditional oak barrel, and he’s garnered acclaim and awards around the world. We caught up with Tom to learn more about how his proprietary technology works, how China inspired his ideas, and what other kinds of woods beyond oak might be able to contribute to whiskeys of the future.
There’s nothing wrong with using a barrel and time to age whiskey—in fact, it produces some pretty delicious products—so it’s a fair question to ask why a company might try to speed up the process. For Tom, the desire to make whiskey more quickly stemmed from an awareness of the challenging business dynamics of the spirits industry: demand can grow quickly, but it can take decades to build up adequate supply.
“I read an article about the emerging middle class in China. I realized that as people entered the middle classes, they were looking for affordable conspicuous luxuries, and they were importing more brown spirits like Cognac and bourbon,” says Tom. “Thinking about that all over the world, it seemed like there would soon be a tsunami of demand for a product you can’t just crank up production for. Traditional practice says you have to wait years to release a whiskey, so it’s hard to plan for increases in demand.”
But what if you could eliminate those years of maturation? “I’m really interested in innovation and disruptive technologies,” says Tom—and what better place to explore new ideas than the stolidly traditional spirits industry? So Tom began to experiment, and eventually, he succeeded in developing a proprietary process that successfully mimics years of maturation in a matter of days.
How does it work?
Cleveland Whiskey’s rapid aging device uses a combination of heat, pressure, and oxygenation to mimic the conditions that take place inside the cask, only on a dramatically compressed time scale. “Think about what happens in a barrel,” explains Tom. “Every day you have a temperature cycle, which changes the pressure inside the barrel, which helps alter the structure of the wood pores and lets alcohol move in and out. It’s like putting a sponge in a bucket of water and squeezing it. When you let it go, the water rushes into the pore structure.”
To emulate that, Tom created a climate and pressure-controlled chamber he fills with spirit (usually bourbon aged a few months in an oak cask so it meets the legal requirements). Then, he adds staves and chunks of wood. The sealed chamber undergoes rapid temperature and pressure changes in the presence of oxygen, which encourages chemical reactions that produce the flavor of aged whiskey. “Our process aggressively pulls flavor out of the wood,” explains Tom. “Not just from the surface, but really all three dimensions of the wood. That gives us a lot of fresh flavors.”
But how does the stuff taste? The proof, as they say, is in the glass. Famously, Tom likes to serve skeptics a blind flight of two whiskeys: a pour of his rapid-aged whiskey, and a pour of Knob Creek. More than half choose Cleveland Whiskey as their favorite over the traditional bourbon.
Opening new frontiers for innovation
Cleveland Whiskey’s technology came with some unexpected benefits beyond a faster timeline. Because it doesn’t rely on traditional barrels, it opens up a totally unexplored new frontier in terms of the type of woods Tom and his team can use.
“Humans have been using oak barrels for 2,000 years at least,” says Tom. “They were originally designed as transport and storage containers. It was an accidental discovery that they made spirits taste better. Now, we know between 60% and 80% of a whiskey’s flavor comes from the wood.”
Oak is a great material for making barrels with. It’s hard enough to be durable, but soft enough to be bent into staves. Even grain makes it easy to work with, and it seals well to create a watertight container. Other wood types might be just as delicious, but they’re too brittle, too soft, or too knotty to make a good barrel. But with Cleveland Whiskey’s technology, that no longer matters.
“We’ve experimented with all kinds of wood,” says Tom. “Peach, mango, olive. Not all are palatable—we did one with Osage orange and it was awful—and there are others that you have to be careful with. Sarsaparilla, for instance, is something you can’t really use, because it’s toxic. We run a lot of tests with academics and food scientists and wood scientists to make sure what we’re using is safe, but we experiment as much as we can. The beauty of the technology is we can do experiments so quickly.”
Tom says one of Cleveland Whiskey’s most successful experiments was with black cherry wood, which gives whisky a rich spiciness and distinctly tart flavor. “Black cherry has won all sorts of medals,” says Tom. “It’s not like the fruit at all, but it has amazing flavor.” This month, we’re excited to be shipping not one but two Cleveland Whiskey releases to some of our club members: Cleveland Whiskey Underground Bourbon Black Cherry Finish, and Cleveland Whiskey Underground Rye Black Cherry Finish, one of the company’s newest products. Even for die-hard traditionalists, it’s hard not to feel excited by the possibilities Cleveland Whiskey has unlocked.