When a bottle of Yamazaki 55-year-old whisky sold for a record $795,000 at an auction in Hong Kong in August it was proof of two things. The whisky, matured in Japanese oak casks that can impart vanilla, honey and floral notes and a hint of burning incense, is a collector’s item. Also, they do not make it any more.
The spiralling prices of top Japanese whiskies shows one of the biggest problems facing any spirits maker: if it underestimates the future demand for a product it will only bottle and sell decades in the future, it cannot go back and increase the supply. Many wish they had more of their prized liquors to offer, but it is too late now.
You might think that distillers would be grateful to anyone who solved this conundrum, but not the Scotch Whisky Association. Its reaction this week to Bespoken Spirits, a Silicon Valley venture that can make spirits in days rather than decades, was brusque. It threatened to “take action all over the world” to stop Bespoken circumventing the rule that Scotch must age in oak casks for at least three years.
Distillers of Scotch single malts such as Macallan and Glenlivet should pour themselves a dram and relax. When Bespoken promises to replicate ageing in oak barrels with a “designed, engineered and precisely controlled” process in a stainless steel drum, it does not make the heart sing. The best whiskies are made in a slow, inefficient and archaic way, and that is fine.
In one experiment, fans of Coca-Cola and Pepsi lay in an MRI scanner to have their brains observed while drinking soda, both with and without knowing the brand. Not only did they enjoy their favourite brand more when told they were drinking it, but their brains responded differently. Knowing that it was the real thing literally made Coke taste better.
The psychological effect is even more powerful when drinking a whisky with a distinguished heritage — in the case of Suntory’s Yamazaki 55, aged both in 1960 Mizunara oak and white oak casks from 1964, the year of the first Tokyo Olympics. As the study noted, “many levels of social, cognitive and cultural influences combine to produce behavioural preferences for food and drink” — not just their overt flavours.
The way in which whisky ages contributes significantly to its appeal, and how satisfying it is to imbibe. That is why ads for Jack Daniel’s whiskey feature tributes to its 154-year-old distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee, just as a Yamazaki whisky connoisseur will savour the history of its distillery near Osaka in its single malts. Steel drums and chemistry lack this old romance.
Stu Aaron, co-founder of Bespoken Spirits, observes that whisky ageing methods are “trial and error, not repeatable and worst of all, slow”. Indeed they are. Staves of oak are toasted in dry heat, or charred with flames, to trigger reactions when the barrels are filled with spirits and left to mature on warehouse racks. Every few years, some are moved from one rack to another.
What occurs inside the casks is mysterious: two filled at the same time with the same spirit may end up tasting different. But compounds called esters and aldehydes gradually leach from the wood and form in the barrel to give the whisky its distinctive notes — from the sweet and fruity to the smoky. The latter is characteristic of Mizunara oak, which is itself rare and prized.
Bespoken is among a group of “rapid ageing” pioneers, including Lost Spirits and Cleveland Whiskey, that use technology to produce a similar result much quicker and cheaper. In Bespoken’s case, it adds between 300 and 600 tiny chips of wood, some charred and toasted, to a 1,000-litre drum, and heats the spirits to impart flavour.
That is not going to displace Yamazaki in a hurry (although one of Bespoken’s three-day-old whiskies was placed higher than a Kurayoshi 18-year-old malt in a San Francisco spirits competition in March). “Whisky tech” has other uses, like laboratory-grown diamonds that are chemically the same as deep-mined gems, but lack their mystique.
Although it makes spirits under its own brand, Bespoken’s real business is behind the scenes, offering others “maturation as a service”. Are you a distiller with a product that does not taste as hoped, despite having spent years in casks? It can be tweaked in days. Are you a supermarket wanting to offer a white label whisky on shelves alongside well-known brands? It can be manufactured efficiently.
It is a big industry, and barrel ageing of spirits already conceals a multitude of sins. Despite the astonishing prices paid for top Japanese whiskies, its domestic regulations are lax and some of the cheap stuff is made with molasses. There is a market for any stiff drink that is affordable and enjoyable.
But you get what you pay for, and those buying decades-old whisky, aged in sherry or bourbon casks, are purchasing — and tasting — more than chemicals in dark spirits. They are consuming the fragrance of the past and something ineffable that they do not even grasp, but still appreciate. Technology does not taste like that.