Comment - Spirits - Is Rap Music the Future for Whisk(e)y Innovation?

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Having recently returned from his travels, Ian Buxton reports back on some of the more outlandish attempts to innovate in the notoriously traditionalist world of whisk(e)y.

I have seen – and heard – whisky’s future, and it rocks. Or, to be more precise, raps.

Late last month, I visited Tuthilltown Spirits’ distillery in New York’s Hudson Valley to learn about their range of rye, bourbon and single malt whiskeys and their tie-up with William Grant & Sons. What I didn’t expect to find was a completely insane aging technique that would have the 'traditionalists' recoiling in horror.

Their tiny warehouse (itself part of the gift shop) is fitted with large bass speakers and sub-woofers. At night, the last staff member locks the doors and flicks a switch. Cue a continuous loop of very loud hard-core rap music. It sounds like the finest mumbo-jumbo or New Age madness; a bunch of hippies left over from Woodstock (held just down the road) indulging in some crazed whim.

Except that it isn’t. There’s a scientific principle behind this. The low frequency base notes cause the barrels to vibrate very, very slightly – enough to create a greater interaction between whisky and wood, which promotes faster uptake of colour and flavour. Control samples held in monastic silence develop more slowly, so Tuthilltown are convinced they’re onto something with a technique they call ‘sonic aging’.

I didn’t ask if they pay the local Performing Rights Society.

More seriously, they have also experimented with ‘rifling’. This involves cutting spiral grooves into the inside of their casks, thus greatly increasing the surface area and again promoting faster uptake of colour and flavour. For a Scot, it’s uncomfortably reminiscent of Compass Box’s battles with the SWA over the first release of The Spice Tree.

It’s not traditional, but – to this layman at least – it feels like a variation on de-char / re-char. That’s allowed. Would this be? If so, this tiny craft distillery, which has been making whiskey for less than 10 years, may have discovered the Holy Grail – legal accelerated aging.

Innovation in the wider world of whisky isn’t just an American phenomenon. Ruedi Käser’s Whisky Castle is located on the family farm between Basle and Zurich in Switzerland. It’s even smaller than Tuthilltown, but that hasn’t stopped him trialling any number of alternative approaches in his quest to make a Swiss whisky.

Many different styles have been produced, some highly experimental. Snow Whisky, for example, was made entirely with water from melted snow off the Jura mountains, and Full Moon is produced with water drawn only on the night of the full moon. Once again, it may sound like New Age nonsense but Käser had the water analysed and it is clearly chemically different from the normal flow. 

At The Whisky Castle they also make an intriguing Smoke Rye and a whisky using spelt. Is this whisky? I’m not sure, but it tasted fine.

All of this may sound completely trivial. In the greater scheme of things, these distilleries are insignificant fringe players who will never produce volumes to rival the industry’s giants, or even the small independents. But they do appeal to the hardcore of passionate consumer whisky enthusiasts, and they open up new ways of thinking that, perhaps, may contain some lessons for their big brothers.

After all, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. Or so many consumers will conclude. And, if Tuthilltown and The Whisky Castle and the many hundreds of micro-distilleries that are springing up worldwide can excite consumers with innovative and experimental drams that challenge preconceptions while exciting the palate (and they do), isn’t this good for all whisky?

It’s not ‘traditional practice’ but Scotland could at least try playing the bagpipes to some of its whisky. It can hardly hurt. And, this week at least, there’s plenty of snow on the hills.

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