Little did I know a serendipitous stop at a small distillery in upstate New York would open a dizzying exploration into new trends in aging whiskey.
Alexandria Bay, New York is a seasonal, tourist-driven town across the St. Lawrence River from Canada. As I drove through streets rustling with shriveling maple leaves, about three weeks past their brilliant autumn coloring, Dark Island Spirits Distillery & Winery (DISDW) came into view. Tall copper stills, gleaming through the modern glass façade were an inviting sight. A visit was required.
In contemporary vernacular, DISDW is an artisanal, boutique, micro- or craft producer of small quantities of whiskey, rum, wine, beer and a few other alcoholic beverages. The “feel” of the place is friendly and inviting. An adjoining gift shop and tasting room is stocked with unusual merchandise and tasty samples. The real hook for me, as a single malt Scotch guy, was something DISDW was doing with their maturation technique. It’s called TIIME™, a thankfully short acronym for Tactile Immersed Isolated Maturation Engine. In short, the owners believe maturing some of their whiskey and rum with the vibrations of appropriate music (reggae for rum, rhythm & blues for whiskey, and more), will speed up the aging process to enable getting product to market faster. With images of quiet, dark dunnage warehouses nestled in the Scottish Highlands and labels with double digit age statements swirling around my brain, this seemingly serious approach to maturation threw me for a loop.
With just a bit of research, I found using vibrations to accelerate whisky maturation is being done by a variety of distilleries. One in Kentucky calls their approach “sonic aging” and emphasizes the importance of their music’s bass notes; a distillery a bit north of New York City ages their spirit in very small barrels (more liquid to wood contact ratio) and exposes these baby barrels to low-frequency soundwaves; a California company sells an agitator for “any size barrel” called the Symphony. There are stories of spirits-laden barrels sloshing along for the ride in taxis and ships, all for a back-story value of increased agitation. In short, these folks are talking about vibrations working on a physical as well as molecular level to hurry the aging process.
Recently I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with Dr. Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie’s Director of Distilling, Whisky Creation & Whisky Stocks. Says Dr. Bill (about “musical maturation” and “sonic aging”): “It’s a lovely story – I like it a lot. However, as a scientist, I really don’t take it seriously”. Pressed to elaborate, he continued, “Ultrasonic vibrations might make a difference.” And, sure enough, there’s a retired chemist in South Carolina who subjects young spirits to high-intensity ultrasonic energy. The result, in about 12 hours, is a noticeable softening of harsh edges of the liquid. Somehow, however, the sight of an I-pod or high-energy device attached to a whiskey barrel does not conjure up the same air of anticipation as seeing stocks of dusty barrels resting among dark shadows
On the opposite end of the science-art continuum is a fascinating film made on behalf of Glenfiddich 21 year old Caribbean rum finished single malt. “The Finishing Touch – Raised in Scotland, Roused by the Caribbean” combines music by musicians from Scotland and the Caribbean and the science of cymatics to turn sound waves of their music into mesmerizing shapes and patterns on the golden liquid. Enjoy!: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9J_ziyz69Aw