There is an old joke about business that gets told a lot in Napa Valley: How do you make a small fortune in wine? Start with a large fortune.
The same goes for making whiskey. Equipment, barrels and enough space to keep them all can cost millions, money you won’t recoup until years later, when the spirit has matured. In the meantime, you’ll have lost 20 percent or more of your product to evaporation as it ages — what distillers wistfully call “the angel’s share.”
Whiskey, in other words, is ready to be hacked — at least according to Stuart Aaron and Martin Janousek. Their company, Bespoken Spirits, in Menlo Park, Calif., says it can make whiskey in just a few days, using heat and pressure to force alcohol in and out of small pieces of wood that give the spirit its characteristic flavor and color.
“With modern material science and data analytics, we can change this antiquated industry,” Mr. Aaron said.
Bespoken, whose first bottles appeared in stores last fall, joins a crowded field. Nearly a dozen companies claim that they can speed, or even bypass, the aging process. Many have attracted significant attention from investors: Endless West, in San Francisco, has received nearly $13 million in funding since it was founded in 2015, while Bespoken’s backers include the retired New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.
Some of these whiskeys are better than others. While several have won awards at spirits competitions, so far critics have largely dismissed them. But as whiskey sales grow by double-digit percentages each year, and as consumers — and investors — clamor for more than establishment distilleries can provide, companies like Bespoken may be here to stay.
The question is, where does whiskey made overnight fit in a business built on tradition and prestige?
For almost as long as distillers have been putting spirits in barrels to mature, people have been trying to speed up the process. Traditionally, aging involves letting the rise and fall of seasonal temperatures push whiskey into a barrel’s wood, then out again, leaching flavor and color along the way, a process which might last anywhere from a few years to several decades.
Before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 imposed regulations on how whiskey could be made, “speeding up” often meant dosing clear alcohol with caramel and soot, or worse, to make it taste old. But other techniques that were developed in the late 19th century — like heated warehouses that could replicate a full quartet of seasons several times a year — became accepted, and even a common practice among established distilleries.
Over the last decade, some distillers have taken to using barrels much smaller than the standard 53-gallon size, increasing the surface-to-volume ratio inside and thus the rate at which whiskey cycles in and out of the wood.
Bespoken’s technology is in some ways the next step in this evolution. Instead of a full barrel, the company uses thousands of half-pinky-size wood chunks it calls “microstaves,” which it places, along with unaged or partly aged whiskey, in a steel tank. By rapidly raising and lowering the pressure and heat inside, the device, which Mr. Aaron and Mr. Janousek call the “activator,” forces the whiskey in and out of the wood several times a day.
The process offers another advantage, beyond speed. While a barrel is usually made entirely of the same sort of wood, there are hundreds of types of microstaves, varying across tree species and treatments, which allow Bespoken to create a near-limitless array of styles and flavors: The company claims to have 17 billion possible combinations to work with.
“Traditional distilleries excel at producing one thing over and over,” Mr. Aaron said. “We have already produced thousands.”
Another distillery, Lost Spirits, based in Los Angeles, takes a similar approach, loading whiskey and wood into what its founder, Bryan Davis, calls the reactor. One key difference is light: In addition to fluctuating the heat, he bombards the wood with intense light, which he says rejiggers the molecular structure of the wood, helping create the sort of complex flavors one associates with well-matured spirits.
For Mr. Davis, who used to mainly make whiskey before focusing on aged rum, the urge to manipulate aging is less about getting a product to market as fast as possible than it is about taking control of a process that, he believes, leaves too much to chance and nature.
“It’s about getting the ability to move the needle around so we can manipulate these flavor components,” he said. “I wanted to get control so I could create something interesting, like an artist’s medium.”
Other companies, like Cleveland Whiskey and Green River Spirits, use variations on the technologies employed by Bespoken and Lost Spirits. Endless West does something totally different. By analyzing the molecular components of a whiskey, drawing them from natural sources like plants and yeast, and essentially infusing them into an alcohol base, the company claims to be able to reverse-engineer not just bourbon or Scotch, but any beverage, even wine.
The company says it can fashion the equivalent of a spirit aged five years or longer overnight, opening the possibility of mimicking, say, a 30-year-old Balvenie single malt Scotch for a fraction of the Balvenie’s $1,300 retail price. Bottles of its flagship whiskey, Glyph, cost about $40, while Bespoken’s bourbon sells for about $35. Lost Spirits’ rum, which is available only at the distillery or online, costs about $40.
“I liken a lot of the work we do to the digitization of music,” said Alec Lee, a co-founder of Endless West, echoing a sentiment common among these companies. “The digitization of music has largely expanded the availability of great art to people. We want to see a world where quality and availability are not in conflict.”
All three of these companies make competent, pleasant spirits, though each has its shortcomings.
Bespoken’s whiskeys lack the roundness of a conventionally matured spirit; there is an initial hit of vanilla, caramel and wood spices, but no follow-through. The same goes for Lost Spirits’s rum, though it’s much more rough and tumble: Bottled at 61 percent alcohol, it is full of dark fruit and leather, a sinewy beast of a drink that, nevertheless, needs depth.
Endless West’s “molecular” whiskey is different. It’s enjoyable enough to drink, and mixes well in a cocktail. But in the same way that an android might have features resembling ears, eyes, hands and hair while still being obviously not human, it has many of the flavor components of a whiskey without actually tasting like whiskey.
Spirits experts tend to agree that whiskeys like these have a way to go before they can compete with conventional labels.
“From my analysis, while someone can create a good product, I don’t get the same kind of complexity as you get from, say, an old bourbon,” said Nancy Fraley, a veteran freelance blender who consults with dozens of spirits companies in the United States and Europe.
It may be that, like computer chess programs in the 1970s, the technology is both impressive and still in its infancy, and that it’s only a matter of time before we see a whiskey from Endless West beat out a bottle of the Macallan in a taste test, the same way the Deep Blue computer bested Garry Kasparov in chess in 1997.
But it may also be that besting the Macallan, or its equivalent, is not the point.
The high end of the spirits market is huge and growing, but in terms of sheer volume, the real money is still in lower-shelf spirits, as well as flavored whiskeys and “ready to drink” canned cocktails — the sort of products in which a spirit’s nuances don’t really matter.
In that sense, a whiskey like Bespoken’s doesn’t have to taste like the best bourbon in order to succeed; it just has to be better than the worst, at a competitive price.
And then there’s the international market. As fast as spirits sales are rising in the United States — according to Nielsen, they were up 25.1 percent in 2020 over the previous year — they are nothing compared with the potential that some U.S. and European companies see in places like China and India, where trade barriers are often all that stand between them and billions of consumers, unfamiliar with American spirits but eager to try them. If India dropped its barriers tomorrow, a company like Bespoken or Endless West, with no need to age its products, would be able to supply consumers much faster than a traditional distillery.
That may be why several large distilling companies have been quietly dabbling in rapidly aged whiskey as well. Edrington, the British company behind such luxury Scotch brands as the Macallan and Highland Park, owns Relativity, an American whiskey made using a process similar to Bespoken’s.
Mr. Aaron and Mr. Janousek, of Bespoken, also see an opportunity for customized products — for example, a company looking to give a unique gift to its employees. That possibility is one reason Mr. Jeter has cited for investing: Bespoken could be a boon for athletes and celebrities like him who want their own spirits brand, but don’t want the hassle of paying up front for something that might not be ready for years. (Mr. Jeter declined to be interviewed for this article.)
It’s also possible that, as these companies develop, their products will end up tasting less like a science-fiction version of conventional whiskey than like something else entirely.
Mr. Davis, at Lost Spirits, said he has repeatedly rejected offers from investors because he is more interested in creating new and surprising flavors than in finding a way to beat established distilleries at their own game.
A decade ago, no one could have imagined how large the whiskey industry would grow, and companies like Bespoken and Endless West seem more interested in occupying future markets than in fighting over existing ones.
For a traditional whiskey blender like Ms. Fraley, that’s more than OK.
“From what I have seen and tasted, I don’t see it replicating a 20-year-old whiskey,” she said. “Does that mean it’s bad? No. Does is have a place in the market? Yes. Just as long as we’re clear that it’s not the same thing.”