With lab help, whiskey distillers skip oak barrel-aging. But how does it taste?

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In a small lab in California’s Silicon Valley, Martin Janousek and Stu Aaron are making whiskey. There are no oak barrels stacked floor to ceiling. In fact, there’s hardly any wood at all. Instead, they use syringes, beakers and vials to find a more sustainable way to distill whiskey.

“This modern consumer – they tend to care about causes like climate change,” said Aaron, co-founder and chief commercial officer of Menlo Park-based Bespoken Spirits. The spirit spends three to five days in a keg-like metal barrel.

With lab help whiskey distillers skip oak barrel-aging - but how does it taste? Samples of rye whiskey rapidly matured by Bespoken Spirits sit in the company’s lab in Menlo Park, California, U.S., October 20, 2021. (REUTERS)

The company’s technology speeds up oxidation, thus changing the whiskey’s flavour and extracting the colour, smell and flavor profile from a piece of oak about the size of a pinky finger.

They char the oak in the lab before cutting it into small pieces known as microstaves, which constitute about 1/25,000th of a traditional barrel. Janousek, a material scientist and company co-founder, said this allows them to use 97% less wood.

By nixing barrels completely, they can avoid cutting down trees and the costs of storing barrels for years in climate-controlled conditions. Because of the short maturation time, Bespoken does not lose liquid to evaporation, known as the “angel’s share.” Aaron said this allows them to use 20% less water.

Throughout, the Bespoken team runs a sample in a gas chromatograph to determine its chemical fingerprint, allowing them to create a hyper-specific recipe and track flavors like vanilla. Those flavors are why Michael Kudra, principal bartender at Quince in San Francisco, prefers whiskey. At Reuters’ request, Kudra tasted the Bespoken Spirits whiskey.

“You definitely get alcohol straight off the nose… That caramel colour flavor comes right away, and then that alcohol starts burning your tongue,” Kudra said, adding that an egg white cocktail such as a whiskey sour could cut down on the high tones of alcohol and bring out the whiskey notes.

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