Single Malt - matured for 30 days.
Innovation. With their company Bespoken Spirits, Martin Janousek (pictured above, left) and Stu Aaron produce high-proof whiskey in a fast process and still leave decades-old cask maturations behind in blind tastings. This could revolutionize the market for whiskey - not necessarily to the detriment of established distilleries.
Mountain View is a city in the heart of Silicon Valley. Some years ago, Martin Janousek and some of his friends were sitting together in a whisky and wine club and had a funny evening. Until someone threw a seemingly harmless question into the room: Why does the whisky sparkling in their glasses actually have to be stored in barrels for so long? And why does a bottle of "Suntory Hibiki 30" cost more than 5000 dollars?
Janousek, who earned his doctorate in materials science at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, couldn't shake the question. Can the process be shortened? Not just a little. But radically. Instead of 30 years, 30 days? That would be a technology to which the favorite term of all venture capitalists really does apply: disruptive.
For some time, the 50-year-old had been in touch with friends from Portugal who were experimenting with a brandy that only needed to mature for a single month. "That inspired me. I wanted to know the technology and science behind it. And thanks to my education and career, I brought the tools. Modern materials science and data analytics could give us the opportunity to completely change the antiquated way spirits are made, after all."
In Stu Aaron, he finds a passionate comrade-in-arms. He knows the New Yorker of the same age, a graduate of the renowned Cornell University, from their time together in management at Bloom Energy, a fuel cell manufacturer. Together they begin to tinker.
As whisky connoisseurs, the two know all the judgments and biases of the industry. "The longer a whisky matures in a cask, the better it is," they say. "Good things come to those who wait." "There's power in rest." "Everything takes time." In Craigellachie, Scotland, on the banks of the River Spey, one of the country's oldest distilleries distilled a whisky 95 years ago that wasn't bottled until 60 years later under the label "The Macallan." One of them was acquired by a private collector in Colorado. After his death, his widow put the collection up for auction. A bottle of "Macallan 1926 Valerio Adami 60 Years" was auctioned for more than one million US dollar at the end of 2020. Time makes money ...
"Rubbish," says Stu Aaron, "time costs money! The traditional spirits manufacturing process is outdated, inaccurate, unpredictable and inefficient." One problem, for example, a collateral damage that the industry has accepted without complaint, he says, is the so-called angel's share: while whiskey matures in barrels, millions of liters of the precious liquid are lost every year through evaporation processes. The US state of Kentucky has less than five million inhabitants. But more than nine million barrels are currently maturing in special warehouses, most of them containing the bourbon whiskey typical for the region. "Of that, ten percent evaporates. What a waste," Aaron thinks. "Add to that the cost of the warehouses, the staff, heating the buildings in the winter." In the EU, a spirit can only be called whisky if it matures for at least three years in a wooden barrel that holds a maximum of 700 liters. New and small distilleries quickly run out of money. And there are also distilleries whose location simply does not permit longer storage. It is not for nothing that gin has become so popular worldwide - it can be sold immediately after production.
So there are definitely economic reasons for turbo-aging - away from the big, round cellar barrels, towards a production process similar to that of a biotech company. In a small lab in Menlo Park, Janousek and Aaron set up their startup's witch's kitchen in 2018. The goal: to flash-age a young whiskey to give it aroma, flavor, and color in just a few days.
The process they're developing is called "ACTivation." ACT stands for the first letters of the English words "aroma", "colour" and "time". Instead of letting the young whisky mature in wooden barrels, they mix it with thousands of pieces of wood, "microstaves", in steel tanks. By rapidly raising and lowering the pressure and temperature in the tanks, the device, which the founders call the "ACTivator," "pushes" the whiskey into the wood several times a day. By combining tens of thousands of snippets of different tree species, the exact aroma, color and flavor profile desired can be achieved.
In their first attempt, the duo aims to produce a spirit that tastes like a typical bourbon that's about ten years old: strong oak notes, vanilla and caramel flavors. "We're deconstructing a classic whiskey, in a sense. And then reassemble it. This involves toasting and charring the microstaves to get as close to the original as possible."
When the founders let friends taste their drink, which has been aged in just a few days, they are met with incredulous amazement. When asked, they confirm: yes, their brandy really does contain no additives, no artificial flavors or colors.
Janousek and Aaron enter their creation in the World Spirits Competition in San Francisco - and win the gold medal in the blind tasting by renowned experts right off the bat. They dare to create new variations, a rye-based whisky and even a rum. And again they receive prizes at the World Whiskies Awards or the World Wine and Spirits Competition in New York. To date, they've cleared 44 awards in less than two years.
The tinkerers realize: The spectrum of styles and flavors is nearly limitless. What's more, the process is not only fast, it's precise, efficient, and easily repeatable with consistent results. Apparently, the duo, who call their startup Bespoken Spirits, have succeeded at something others have been chomping at the bit to do for some time. The Lost Spirits Distillery from Los Angeles, for instance, has been experimenting with light as a decisive adjusting screw since as early as 2010. The reason is that bright light changes the molecular structure of the wood, thus, creating the complex aromas of ripe brandies. However, this has not convinced the test drinkers yet.
The only ones who don't seem to be surprised by the success of Bespoken Spirits are the two investors of the first financing round of 2.6 million US dollar: On the one hand, this is the entrepreneur T. J. Rodgers, who, among other things, owns the Clos de la Tech wine estate, where he vinifies best pinot noirs by using a mix of traditional and novel enology techniques. And on the other hand, businessman Derek Jeter, former icon of professional baseball and also wine lover.
Together, the quartet is now considering what business strategy to pursue with the lightning spirits, which undoubtedly have the potential to revolutionize the industry. Two business models are crystallizing - service for established suppliers and in-house production.
In the fall of 2020, the first bottles of 0.375 liters will go on sale for around $30. They will be bottled in Treasure Island near the San Francisco Bay Bridge, which looks like a typical distillery: lots of stainless steel, tanks, pipes, the smell of mash. The drink is currently available in seven US states in liquor stores and grocery stores, in selected bars and restaurants, and also via online ordering. The only foreign market is currently South Korea. The bottle labels say "Bespoken Spirits" in large letters.
The small print explains what is in the bottle. The word "whisky" is carefully avoided. The first bottling is simply called "Original". The website states that the spirit is made from a bourbon mash that is 75 percent corn, 21 percent rye, and four percent malt. In all, there are seven varieties to choose from, including a dark rum and a Special Batch, which is lighter and reminiscent of Japanese whiskies.
As a second mainstay, Aaron and Janousek want to become service providers to the whisky industry - an industry that turns over many billions each year and, after a brief setback during the pandemic, is now growing rapidly again. As consultants and partners to established distilleries, they want to help them develop and produce high-quality products more quickly. Large whisky distilleries in particular would be predestined for this. Firstly, they lack casks; demand exceeds supply. Secondly, the rooms for the casks, which are sometimes stored there for decades, require an extremely high capital investment. And third, if you want to test a new flavor or blend, you have to wait five years or more to see if the experiment has worked.
The arguments Bespoken Spirits uses to score points are: faster, cheaper, more sustainable. A Harvard Business School case study, Janousek reports, found that distilleries can save 50 to 70 percent of costs and five years of time using Bespoken Spirits' process. For the whiskey industry alone, the potential savings is $20 billion - per year, mind you. "We use 99 percent less energy, 97 percent less wood and 20 percent less water," Aaron adds. They have filed patents to that effect. They should be granted in the next six to twelve months.
The duo admits, however, that this form of consulting and process optimization would probably have to take place behind the scenes, so customers wouldn't even notice. How this could actually work and whether it is even permissible remains questionable. That the topic is extremely explosive is shown by the terse statement of Moët Hennessy Germany in Munich, whose portfolio includes spirits brands like Hennessy, Glenmorangie, Ardbeg and Belvedere: "No comment."
The Scotch Whisky Association also certainly doesn't want to give the impression that it sees Bespoken Spirits as a serious business partner: It threatened to "take action around the globe to prevent Bespoken from circumventing the rule that Scotch must be matured in oak casks for at least three years."
Still, the whisky revolters bristle with self-confidence. They suspect that they have a business model with unicorn potential in their quiver. Potential backers stand ready, they say, from family offices to private equity or venture capital funds. "We are well supplied with capital." The company wants to grow quickly. "We are disruptive and agile. We have ambitious plans."
Exactly what these look like, however, remains a bit unclear. The markets of the future would depend on many factors. In the EU, for example, there is currently a dispute about whether the addition of wood chips is considered (permissible) barrel aging or (not permissible) flavoring - outcome uncertain. Only in the first case would the spirit be allowed to call itself whisky. "Every market has its regulatory peculiarities," Janousek says. "But as long as these are transparent, we can live with them just fine."
It will be exciting to see how this innovation affects the market for auctions of very old and correspondingly expensive whiskies. "In the short term, prices there are unlikely to fall," Aaron suspects, "after all, anyone looking for a classic car wouldn't want to drive a Tesla." But then there's a big "but": "Maybe at some point whisky connoisseurs and collectors will realize that the romance factor of this drink doesn't just depend on age."
There's no accounting for taste.
"I can't blame people for wanting to create something new," wrote renowned whisky critic John Dover, "but I do take exception when they take shortcuts and see the creative process as just an easy way to make money."
Commenting on the bourbon mash-based Bespoken whisky, he said, "My first impression was the smell of rust and disinfectant." The taste, he said, was that of "plastic with a hint of banana bread," "like biting into your afternoon snack when you forget to take the cellophane off." The review of a rye mash whisky from the start-up was more gracious. This one, he said, exuded a certain "oakiness" with a "sharp cinnamon note on the tip of the tongue" - reminding him of "a bowl of cold oatmeal with raisins."
But it's also a fact that John Dover knew exactly what he was going to drink beforehand. And perhaps didn't go into it without prejudice. That's why it's so important for Bespoken Spirits to excel in blind tastings.
German fermentation chemist Gundolf Ströhmer, something of a spirits pope in this country, told a trade magazine, "You can smell and taste the difference made by raising the temperature and extracting the wood. The totality of a naturally aged spirit is not achieved and the complex impression cannot succeed." It's a bit like the difference between brandy and real cognac, he says. You can recognize the latter immediately if you leave the empty snifter. Cognac still smells for an hour. With brandy, the smell is gone immediately.
Daniel Einfalt from the Institute of Food Science at the University of Hohenheim is more cautious: "Apart from subjective perception, there is hardly any analytical difference between flash whisky and its long-term stored counterparts. This has been confirmed by the latest research on "artifical aging".
Author: Dr. Günter Kast