Sometimes I feel like we've returned to the patent medicine days, in which anyone can claim anything when it comes to booze. And what's more, people will buy it.
Today's evidence: this Kickstarter campaign that promises "you can now get 3 years of aging 'effects' (time travel not included) in just 24 hours." How? "In a way, we redesigned the whiskey barrel by removing the barrel and developing a proprietary curing method to replace its presence in the aging process." And what is this "proprietary curing method?" Producing charred bits of wood you drop into a bottle to customize the flavor of a whiskey. They've even come up with a few half-dollar words to describe it: "We call this process “accelerated transpiration through capillary action."
Now, I'm not denying that additional wood scraps can add flavor. But I'm not sure how proprietary it is. Wine makers figured out how to do this long ago. And in the liquor business Black Swan Barrels in Minnesota has for some time been selling oak spirals and "honeycomb" barrels that enhance wood flavor through "capillary action."
What's more, the crew behind Whiskey Elements seems to have skipped whiskey-making school on the day that aging was discussed in detail. Yes, barrels impart flavor. But they do something more: because wooden barrels aren't airtight, they're also machines for oxidation, a critical part of the aging process. New make whiskey has long, funky molecules that give it that grainy, moonshiney taste, which dissipates over time in interacting with oxygen. No one has yet figured out how to speed that interaction. Small barrels add more wood flavor more quickly, but does nothing to accelerate the complex reactions.
Whiskey Elements disingenuously points out on its pitch page, "Here’s a fun fact, if you have one bottle of clear whiskey that is 30 days old, and another bottle of the same clear whiskey that is 3 years old, they taste exactly the same." Yes, that's true if you put new make whiskey into sealed glass bottles to age. Which nobody has done, ever. And it sidesteps the fact that barrels are used for aging for a good reason, and have been used for centuries to good effect.
I would have no problem with this product if it advertised itself as a essentially a wooden tea bag, adding additional wood flavor to whiskey. I can see that as possibly being beneficial, although cumbersome and inexact. But it's not going to move a bottom shelf whiskey to the top shelf, and it's certainly not going to speed the aging process., as claimed
As of this morning, Whiskey elements has nearly 3,000 backers and has topped its fundraising goal of $18,000 by nearly $100,000. And the campaign has two weeks left to go.
There's a lot of talk about educating the consumer about what makes a good spirit. Here's solid evidence that we've got a long, long way to go.