Has This Man Discovered the Secret to “Healthy” Alcohol?

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Harsha Chigurupati, a gregarious man and a self-described “technological evolutionist,” may not be a scientist, but he does know a little something about the liver. His family runs a company called Granules India, which Chigurupati calls the world’s second-largest manufacturer of acetaminophen (a widely used but notorious liver-damaging drug), and during his tenure there the company tinkered with a way to minimize its harm to the organ. An additive was developed, he says, though never commercialized – but it did get Chigurupati thinking. If you can stop Tylenol from damaging the liver, why not do the same thing for booze?

Alcohol is rough on the body, but it’s particularly bad for the liver. Alcohol-related liver damage takes many forms, and epidemiologists put all of them under the umbrella of alcoholic liver disease, or ALD. According to the CDC, deaths from ALD took 18,146 lives in 2013, its most recent reporting year. That’s over 62 percent of all alcohol-related deaths not associated with accidents, homicides, or other indirect causes.

The most notable and dangerous member of this group is cirrhosis, a slow-to-develop disease caused by scar tissue in the liver accumulating and replacing healthy tissue, ultimately causing it to cease functioning. It’s especially dangerous because many people who suffer from cirrhosis don’t even realize they have it. B.S. Anand, a gastroenterologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, wrote that up to 40 percent of cirrhosis cases are never discovered until an autopsy is performed, making prevention particularly difficult.

A few years after leaving the family business, Chigurupati founded Chigurupati Technologies with an eye on this problem and the goal “to deliver safer alcoholic beverages to mankind,” as he says. But “safer” is a loaded term in liver circles, because the mechanism by which cirrhosis develops is poorly understood. Some posit that acetaldehyde, a major product of metabolizing alcohol, is responsible, and Chigurupati hypothesized that reducing acetaldehyde would protect the liver. Ten years and $40 million later, he says he’s figured out how.

Chigurupati’s work led to the development of NTX, a combination of mannitol, potassium sorbate, and glycyrrhizin. Mannitol is a sugar. Potassium sorbate is a preservative. Glycyrrhizin, the primary active ingredient, is a creepy name for an extract of licorice root. Glycyrrhizin isn’t snake oil. It has been formally studied to treat hepatitis and cirrhosis in both animal and human trials, and the findings have largely shown that it has so-called hepatoprotective – liver-protecting – effects. (That said, there have been reports of serious side-effects associated with excessive licorice intake.)

In a peer-reviewed study published by Phytotherapy Research, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover experiment tested whether NTX would reduce the production of aminotransferase (ALT) and other enzymes when drinking. These are commonly used liver tests, markers that, when elevated, typically indicate liver dysfunction. By the end of the study, 12 subjects had been dosed nightly up to a 0.12% blood alcohol level, drinking vodka either spiked with NTX or a placebo. The results were promising: The placebo group showed increased ALT and other liver enzyme levels, but the group drinking vodka with NTX showed lower levels, sometimes much lower. Chigurupati has used that data to suggest that when consumed with alcohol, NTX can protect your liver.

The experts say: Well, maybe.

Drink Two and Call Me in the Morning

Swaytha Ganesh, a hepatology doctor, and Raman Venkatraman, a pharmaceutical scientist, both with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, evaluated the study in full at my request. Says Ganesh, who is part of UPMC’s living donor transplant team was cautiously positive, saying, “It’s a good conceptual study. We’ve never had any human studies along these lines. Animal models have been done, but there’s nothing in the literature on preventing alcohol-related liver damage in people.”

But, Ganesh said, the number of subjects is too small to extrapolate to the entire population, and enzyme tests are a relatively crude indicator of liver damage. “Alcohol can cause lots of changes in the liver,” she says. “You can only prove damage through a biopsy.” She’d like to see the test repeated with a larger sample size, validation through biopsies, and a longer time horizon than just a few days in order to establish the long-term effects of NTX as well as to verify its safety.

Anurag Maheshwari, a doctor specializing in liver disease, at Mercy Hospital in Baltimore found Chigurupati’s study compelling but agrees that the sample was too small and the study too short to make firm conclusions. “People who drink have higher ALT levels,” he says, “and people who take this product have lower ALT levels; but is that true for every person? In the market they need to know whether this is effective 2 percent of the time or 100 percent of the time. I don’t think this study answers all the questions that are raised.”

Chigurupati responds that this isn’t the only research he has done, pointing to “thousands of animal tests” that include biopsies that back up his claims. However, those studies have not been published or peer-reviewed. He thinks biopsies on living human subjects are unrealistic and unwarranted, saying, “This is not a drug with a curative effect; it has a preventive effect. If you go to a doctor and he suspects you have a liver problem, he does not order a painful biopsy, he orders an enzyme test.”

Chigurupati has also faced criticism that the study was funded by his company rather than an independent entity. He responds that this is the norm in pharmaceutical research and asks, “Why would an independent agency spend millions of dollars to replicate human trials that don’t benefit them?”

The Business of “Safer” Booze

Despite the relative simplicity of his research, Chigurupati hopes to license NTX to distillers and vintners, who would mix it directly into their spirits. A pill won’t work, he says, because the drug has to be consumed in the right amount as well as at the right time. “If it’s mixed into the alcohol you are automatically getting the correct dosage,” he says. “If you take it 20 minutes later it isn’t as effective, and we don’t want to get into a situation of people taking 10 pills and thinking they can go out and drink all the alcohol they want.”

As such, he has taken the product to the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to get approval to use the study’s findings in marketing materials. Bellion Vodka is actually on the market already, the first booze you can buy with NTX in the mix. Chigurupati wants to see the product, and others that use NTX, labeled as “safer” alcoholic beverages that reduce the risk of liver damage.

But Chigurupati says the TTB rejected the health claims “immediately” upon disclosure to the bureau two years ago, even yanking label approvals Chigurupati already had. Chigurupati says that he filed a formal petition earlier this year and that the case is under appeal. He even says he plans to file a first amendment-based lawsuit if his labeling request isn’t ultimately approved.

The TTB offers a somewhat different story. “We do have a health claim petition in front of us. It has not been rejected and is currently under review,” says Tom Hogue, the TTB’s representative for Congressional and Media Inquiries. “It will be evaluated on the facts presented to us,” adds Hogue. “We have regulations that deal with health claim petitions and how to deal with that, but we have not acted on that.” The TTB wouldn’t comment further on Chigurupati’s legal plans but stressed that any health claims made would have to be shown to be truthful, adequately substantiated, and not misleading to the consumer.

Chigurupati believes that the TTB is stalling in part because the TTB might feel that NTX will convince drinkers they can drink all they want without fear of harm. “This is a marketing problem,” Chigurupati says. “Overindulgence is a common theme I hear, but NTX isn’t alone. When seatbelts and airbags were invented, people were afraid they would encourage people to drive more recklessly. Some people thought that helmets would cause motorcycle drivers to be less cautious. Our position is that if something can be made to be safer for your body, the world is better off.”

When I told her that the product in the study was being marketed as a liquor additive and described the squabble with the TTB, Ganesh, the liver specialist, laughed out loud. “We know that alcohol causes damage to the liver. I would never endorse any product to be taken with alcohol to make it safer,” she says. But she also hedges: “If [Chigurupati] can prove something with a broader study, well, that’s a different story.”

Until then, well, here’s to your health.

Review: Tovolo Sphere Clear Ice System

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Nothing makes a better statement in a cocktail than using a single piece of ice to chill it. Up the ante by making that a sphere instead of a cube. Up it again by ensuring the ice is crystal clear, not cloudy.

The secret of clear ice was figured out a long time ago: Water that freezes very slowly is clearer, because the trapped gasses in the water have time to escape. The home method to do this is to freeze water inside a series of coolers. The catch: This takes an insane amount of room in your freezer, and a very long time. And at the end, you still have to carve your own cubes or spheres out of the block of ice you have.

Tovolo attempts to solve all of these problems with this unique product which promises to make clear, spherical ice balls without nearly as much hassle.

You put together the inner (green) silicone components, then fill with water through a hole in the top. Then you surround that with a plastic sleeve. The sleeve acts as the second cooler in the operation, slowing down the freezing process (a lot). It takes a solid 12 hours or more for the ice in the inner silicone mold to freeze. You are actually left with two spheres — the one on the bottom is a pretty cloudy mess, but the one on top is supposed to be the clear one. Results? Well, after several tests, the ice that came out was clearer than any other ice in my freezer, but nothing I’d describe as “crystal clear,” which the box (and the picture on the box) touts. Check the photo to the right to see for yourself.

While $16 isn’t going to break the bank, there are plenty of spherical molds on the market that will get you roughly the same results as this one, with considerably less hassle. Note that Tovolo also makes a cube ice version of the product, should right angles become hot in 2017.

$16 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

Buffalo Trace Completes First Round of Whiskey Experiments

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Earlier this year I wrote about Warehouse X at Buffalo Trace and the distillery’s dedication to experimentation with whiskeymaking technology. The first barrels were laid down here in 2013, and this week, 3.5 million data points later, they were cracked open, ready for analysis.

I’m pasting the full press release below, but here’s the findings in a nutshell.

  • Hotter barrels do indeed produce higher alcohol levels in the finished product. This has long been well-known in the business (and is the reason why barrels on the upper floors of a rickhouse tend to go into the rarer bottlings, like George T. Stagg), but Buffalo Trace has formally validated this with science.
  • Natural light hitting barrels however does not impact color or abv. The “honey barrel” theory has long held that barrels nearest windows, which receive natural light, mature more fully. The experiments show that this really isn’t the case. That said, other factors such as air flow may impact these barrels, so the jury’s not yet out on honey barrels.

More experiments are on the way, so stay tuned come late 2018 for the next batch of results!

FRANKFORT, Franklin County, Ky (Nov. 30, 2016) Buffalo Trace Distillery has completed phase one of its bourbon barrel aging experiment inside Warehouse X, the experimental warehouse built in 2013 that allows for specific atmospheric variables to be tested in four individual chambers, plus one open air breezeway.   The first experiment focused on natural light, keeping barrels in various stages of light for two years.

Chamber One of Warehouse X held barrels at 50% natural light, while matching the temperature of the barrels inside the chamber to the temperature of the barrels in the outdoor breezeway.

Barrels in Chamber Two experienced 100% darkness, while keeping the barrel temperature at a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit.

Chamber Three also had 100% darkness, but those barrel temperatures were kept the same temperature as the barrels in the outdoor breezeway.

Chamber Four barrels saw 100% natural light as the temperature was kept the same as the barrels in the outdoor breezeway.

In the two years this experiment was conducted, the barrels in the open air breezeway (which was not climate controlled) saw a fluctuation of temperatures ranging from -10 F to 105 F, likely some of the greatest temperature variance any bourbon barrels have ever experienced. The pressure inside these barrels varied from -2.5 psi to 2.5 psi.

The team at Buffalo Trace collected and analyzed an astonishing 3.5 million data points. Among those learnings, an interesting correlation between light and psi was realized, and a long held distiller’s theory of more heat equaling higher proof was scientifically proven (at least for now).

However, another popular theory was disproved in part – as it turns out, the amount of light does not really affect the color or the proof of the bourbon inside the barrels. So much for the theory of honey barrels! But Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley has this to add about honey barrels, “Even though we proved light doesn’t affect the color or the proof of the whiskey, that doesn’t mean that honey barrels (those next to windows in standard warehouses that are typically distiller’s favorites) don’t taste a little bit better. Perhaps because of other factors than natural light.  We did prove factors like temperature, pressure, humidity and air flow all play a role in the end result.”

Now that the light experiment is complete, Buffalo Trace is moving on to the next planned experiment, which focuses on temperature. In this experiment, the various chambers will experience different temperature variations, with Chamber One remaining the same temperature as the outdoor breezeway, plus 10 F.  Chamber Two will be 80 F, Chamber Three will be at 55 F and Chamber Four will be kept at the breezeway temperature minus 10 F.  The temperature experiment is expected to last at least two years.

For information about Warehouse X including a blog updated since the inception, visit http://www.experimentalwarehouse.com/

The Experts Speak: My Wine Is a Winner

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Some eight years ago I received the craziest gadget I’ve yet to review: The WinePod, a giant urn that helps home winemakers craft their own vino. I ended up spending six months fermenting grapes, aging the wine in oak, and bottling it, and chronicled the process in a six-part series for Wired.

For years the wine (four cases were produced) has sat in my cellar, occasionally cracked open for kicks or given away as a gift. This year I finally got the idea to see what the pros thought about it, and I entered the wine into my local Marin County Fair.

The results: A blue ribbon, first place for winemaking in the “Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010 or older” category. The big ribbon came complete with tasting notes: “Great balance of fruit, acid and tannin. Very well made. I really like it. Commercial quality.” Another critic said: “Very nice. Smooth, balanced, nice fruit to tannin ratio. Slight eucalyptus.”

Eucalyptus, folks!

Anyway, that’s a long way around of patting myself on the back, and giving serious praise to the WinePod. The WinePod never became a massive success, but it is still being sold — I’d love to see more folks experiment with it. Here’s a toast to the WinePod and a strong vote for its revival!

How to Build a Better Bourbon: The Science Behind Buffalo Trace and the Lessons of the Single Oak Project

What better industry could you hope to work in today than the bourbon business? America’s official spirit has never been in better shape. U.S. bourbon sales have risen from 118 million liters in 2000 to 174 million liters last year, and bourbon is increasingly beloved on the global stage. Plus: Free bourbon.

Across Kentucky, quite a few distilleries are taking full advantage of the boom times, doing away with “age statements” on bottles that promise the whiskey inside is, say, “8 years old.” This lets them squeeze out a little more hooch by releasing a younger and younger spirit. As long as the customers don’t revolt, anyway.

So far they haven’t. Prices are going up. Sales show no signs of stopping.

MarkBrownIt’s in this comfortable position that one curious man is finding himself increasingly in the spotlight. Mark Brown is the CEO of the Sazerac Company, a mammoth distilling operation that owns 250-some brands, all the way down to bottom-shelf rotgut like Kentucky Tavern and Crown Russe (slogan: “Finest Vodka Made”). It’s junk that pays the bills for Brown’s passion: Buffalo Trace, a beloved, high-end whiskey operation that produces some of the most noteworthy brands in the bourbon business, including the now feverishly demanded Pappy van Winkle.

Unlike most distillery bosses, Brown isn’t a seventh-generation southerner with a century of bourbon in his blood. He’s not even from America at all. Brown was born in 1957 in a tiny town south of London. After a stint behind the bar at his parents’ pub, he moved here in the ‘70s and worked his way up to the top of the 165-year-old Sazerac. He became Sazerac’s CEO in 1997 and a U.S. citizen in 2006.

The lanky, bespectacled, and wildly energetic CEO now oversees an empire of filled whiskey barrels patiently aging in Buffalo Trace’s many rickhouses in Frankfort, Kentucky (and wherever else it has been able to grab some land). Only four years ago, the company had an aging capacity of 350,000 barrels. Now it has space for nearly twice that – and growing – which has Buffalo Trace buying up land and building new, 50,000-barrel warehouses at a rate of one every five months.

harlan_wheatleyBrown should be coasting, but he’s using Buffalo Trace’s growing coffers not to pad his pockets but to launch one of the industry’s most ambitious scientific investigations into how whiskey should be made. About two years ago, Buffalo Trace formally opened Warehouse X, a tiny brick building with four climate-controlled chambers that the company is using to age whiskey in an environment where every imaginable variable is under the company’s control. Temperature, air flow, humidity, air pressure… everything is monitored by computer and controlled by Buffalo Trace’s master distiller, Harlan Wheatley, the man who convinced Brown to invest over a million dollars into what amounts to an insulated brick shack housing a grand science experiment. Even Brown seems like he’s still talking himself into it, invariably wringing his hands and visibly clenching his teeth when the cost of all this work mentioned (which is often). But he clearly has the bug, confessing to “a nagging doubt that if you aren’t continually improving, you risk someone catching up to you. You can’t rest on your laurels.”

The first experiment being undertaken here is an inquiry into whether light impacts the way whiskey ages in the barrel. Two of the Warehouse X chambers are in 24-hour darkness. One offers full sunlight. One is shaded to 50 percent brightness. (Control barrels sit in the “breezeway” and essentially mimic sitting outside.) It sounds silly. Can a little light shining on an opaque barrel seriously have an impact on the whiskey inside? Just eight months in, Wheatley says that differences between the chambers have already begun show up in the whiskeys – both the changing alcohol level inside and how the spirits taste. The light experiment will run for a total of two years. The results will impact the size of the windows Buffalo Trace builds into its future warehouses.

And that’s just step one. Brown and Wheatley have 20 years’ worth of experiments lined up for the space so far, designed to answer questions like whether a longer fermentation makes for better whiskey years down the road. Or whether staves cut from very old trees make for better barrels (and better bourbon). “I believe the perfect bourbon has not yet been made,” Brown says flatly.

One Bourbon to Rule Them All?

Scientific inquiry isn’t a new idea at Buffalo Trace. An even bigger experiment got its start over a decade ago in the form of the company’s Single Oak Project. At the time, the duo identified seven major variables that might impact how finished bourbon turns out. These range from whether the whiskey uses wheat or rye as a flavoring grain, whether newly-distilled white dog goes into the barrel at 105 or 125 proof, and even whether the wood used to make the barrel was crafted from the bottom half of a tree or the top half of a tree. Buffalo Trace laid down 192 barrels, each one unique, and it has been releasing the finished product to the public over the last four years.

Consumers were invited to weigh in on each bottle’s quality via a website. Over the years, Buffalo Trace amassed more than 5,000 consumer reviews, along with professional critics’ ratings. Last June, the company crunched the numbers – the most delightful big data project ever – and took the five highest-rated whiskeys (excluding bottles that didn’t get enough votes to be statistically valid) through a competitive tasting. A panel of 11 whiskey pros (including this writer) were almost unanimous on the winner. Barrel #80 will be recreated precisely to that barrel’s unique production specifications, then branded as it becomes part of Buffalo Trace’s permanent lineup. It will be ready for release in 2023.

In the meantime, Brown will have to occupy himself with his distillery’s continued, breakneck expansion, plus the mountain of data he’s collected about the SOP. I’ve done some of the work for him in the sections that follow, but Brown is already looking ahead at multivariable analysis of the data, how significant randomness is in an experiment like this, and the daunting concern over whether barrel #80 was a fluke. “I have to forecast eight years’ worth of sales of a new whiskey brand before one bottle is released. How much should I make in year one? 10,000 cases? 20,000 cases?” he asks, and not quite rhetorically.

Such questions don’t have easy answers, but Brown at least has plenty of lubricant to help grease the wheels of inquiry. 25 million gallons of it, actually, all sleeping quietly in his backyard.

What Difference Can (Half) a Tree Make?

Ready to dig into the data of how various production factors impacted consumer opinions about the finished whiskey eight years later? Get ready for some serious number-crunching…

1

Average ratings weren’t much impacted by tree cut – whether a barrel was made from the top of a tree or the bottom of the tree — but its impact can be seen at the edges of the chart. Good whiskeys were improved by being aged in barrels made from the bottom of the tree, while otherwise lesser whiskeys got worse. Brown hypothesizes that nutrients are more concentrated in the lower parts of trunks and thus have a bigger impact on the whiskey, for better or worse.

2

On the whole, the grain of the barrel wood had no real impact on the average score, but the trendline shows some interesting results for tight-grained barrels. Lower-scoring whiskeys saw a significant improvement from the tight wood grain, while higher-scoring whiskeys saw their ratings dampened.

The Best Little Warehouse in Kentucky

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Warehouse design is a hotly debated topic. Newer designs favor buildings largely made of concrete, which have better fire and spill containment features, but older wooden rickhouses – breezier and more susceptible to temperature swings – are still commonly used. While a few top barrels were aged in concrete warehouses (including the winner), by and large, the wooden rickhouses turned out better whiskeys – with an average 1.7% improvement in tasters’ scores. This was the largest single factor affecting average ratings in the entire experiment.

4

But it turns out even identical warehouses can turn out different spirits. Warehouses M and N are constructed identically, face the same direction, and are situated about 50 feet from each other. But whiskey ages differently in these two environments. After four years, barrels in Warehouse N average 127.9 proof, while those in Warehouse M hit just 124.8 proof. And this spread gets wider with each passing year. The company has yet to explain why this is happening. (This wasn’t a factor in the Single Oak Project, as all the barrels were aged in the same warehouse, but it remains a key issue when you’re dealing with tens of thousands of barrels that, by necessity, have to age in somewhat different places.)

5

It’s commonly said that higher floors of any warehouse – no matter the design – age whiskey faster than lower floors, thanks to those blazing hot Kentucky summers and the fact that heat rises. Most cult whiskeys, like George T. Stagg, are high-alcohol beasts that can spend over a decade at the tops of these warehouses. But it turns out this isn’t always a linear function. In its nine-floor Warehouse I, Buffalo Trace found that the highest rate of proof increase took place on the 6th floor, followed by the 4th. The company posits that increased air flow on those floors is the reason for the discrepancy. Floor number was not varied in the Single Oak Project. (The prior two graphics are courtesy of Buffalo Trace.)

What’s in a Grain?

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Bourbon is made primarily from corn, but rye and wheat are the two most common “flavoring grains,” used to give bourbon a unique personality. Rye is increasingly popular in the market, but some of the most popular bourbons, including Pappy van Winkle, are wheated. While the top whiskey in the Single Oak Project was made with rye, the trendline shows a surprising, general preference for wheat among consumers.

More Than a Sum of Its Parts

Now here’s an interesting conundrum. We know, for each of the seven categories tested, what the average rating for the various bourbons made using that specific production method was. For each variable, one factor outscored the other(s). For example, we know that wheated bourbons outscored rye bourbons by 0.67%. We know that 105 entry proof bourbons outscored 125 entry proof bourbons by 0.46%. In theory, we can take all of those aggregated, winning attributes and make a theoretically perfect bourbon, which would look like this (the level of improvement over the alternative is in parenthesis for each favor):

  • from a wheated recipe (0.67% higher rating)
  • aged on wooden ricks (1.67% higher rating)
  • stored in a barrel from the bottom of the tree (0.13% higher rating)
  • the barrel staves should have 12 months of seasoning (1.04% higher rating)
  • the wood should have average grain (0.03% higher rating vs. both tight and coarse grain)
  • the barrel should be a #4 char (0.14% higher rating)
  • 105 entry proof (0.46% higher rating)

This exact whiskey was in fact produced in the Single Oak Project: Barrel #124. Winner it was not. Its composite score was a 6.45 out of 10, which was the fourth-worst-rated whiskey in the entire experiment. That’s a key lesson to be drawn from the data: These variables may interact in ways far more complex than a few spreadsheets can describe.

In contrast, here’s what the winning barrel, Barrel #80, looked like:

  • from a rye recipe
  • aged on concrete ricks
  • stored in a barrel from the bottom of the tree
  • the barrel staves had 12 months of seasoning
  • the wood had average grain
  • the barrel had a #4 char
  • 125 entry proof

Of the seven “ideal” variables, Barrel #80 complied with just four of them.

The ultimate lesson from the Single Oak Project may very well be, just like the old moonshiners used to tell us, that whiskeymaking is more art than science after all.

Experimenting with Beyond Barrels Bottle Aging Staves

cherry_1024x1024Beyond Barrels doesn’t exactly have a new idea: Take whiskey you don’t quite like as is, add a small piece of wood to the bottle, wait a few weeks, then presto, you’ve got extra-aged whiskey for just a few extra bucks. So-called “whiskey sticks” are everywhere these days.

Sounds good, but does this all work quite that easy in the real world?

To find out, I tested a wide range of bourbons with both of Beyond Barrels’ whiskey aging staves, and I’m here to tell you the blunt truth about how well it went.

For starters, the staves arrived without a whole lot of instruction. There are two varieties: French oak and cherry oak. They are remarkably different products that have a much different impact on your whiskey, so purchase very carefully.

I charged ahead with only a bit of guidance from the company, starting with a bottle of Wyoming Whiskey, a spirit that I felt could have used a bit of extra time in barrel when I first reviewed it. Experiment #1 involved trying out this whiskey with a French oak stave and a month of bottle time. (All experiments were tasted against a control; details follow.)

Wyoming Whiskey @ 1 month French oak stave – This was a bit of a disaster. The oak is extracted to the hilt, giving a youthful whiskey that is already redolent with wood so much more of it it has no idea what to do with itself. The oak stave handily also destroyed any nuance left in the spirit, washing away the fruit and grain notes in short order. In Beyond Barrels’ defense, I was (later) told that the French oak staves are best used to age bottles for only 1 to 2 weeks and that a month is likely too long. C-

Whoops. OK, back to the drawing board. This time I took a bottle of Amador Double Barrel and tried the French oak stave for just one week, then sampled it again at the two-week mark.

Amador Whiskey Double Barrel @ 1 week French oak stave – After a mere 7 days, the whiskey is immediately lumber-heavy on the nose, with a huge note of raw wood and sawdust, significantly overpowering anything else on the palate. The delicate cinnamon character in standard Amador DB (which is already wood-forward) is washed away here, replaced by a dusky clove note and, of course an epic amount of wood. C

Amador Whiskey Double Barrel @ 2 weeks French oak stave – Still on a steep decline, with overpowering wood notes that taste like chewing on freshly cut lumber. No fruit left at all except for a hint right on the tip of the first sip. D+

OK, those didn’t go so well, so what about the cherry staves? These rods have a more subtle influence on your whiskey, imbuing it less with raw wood and more with fruity overtones. Beyond Barrels was kind enough to supply me with five samples of cherry stave-aged bourbons that it had doctored itself. I tasted all five of these blind, then compared them to the closest analogue I had by way of a control. I didn’t always have a perfect match, but you can check out my comparatives in each writeup below.

Blanton’s @ 3 months cherry stave – Quite fruity on the nose, very sweet on the tongue. Cherry notes are prominent, along with some bubblegum notes and baking spice. A bit sweet for my tastes, but not a bad sipper. B

Vs. Blanton’s Single Barrel Private Selection – I had no rack version of Blanton’s available but pitted it against a private selection we recently reviewed. I had a pronounced and dramatic preference for the standard bottling, which was less hot, more balanced, and much less candylike on the finish.

Four Roses Single Barrel @ 3 months cherry stave – Strong wood influence on the nose gives this the first impression of age. As it develops on the palate it reveals significant spice (cloves and allspice), some caramel corn notes, and a sweeter side. A bit out of balance, but also worthwhile. B

Vs. Four Roses Single Barrel (Distillery Bottling) – The wood is much too harsh on the doctored bottling, which throws this delicate whiskey out of balance, numbing its spice profile.

Four Roses Small Batch @ 3 months cherry stave – Restrained on the nose, with only some rough alcohol notes to show. On the palate it feels youthful and dialed back, without a lot going on. A slight chocolate and barrel char influence are about all I get from this one. Mostly harmless. B

Vs. Four Roses Small Batch (Distillery Bottling) – I have a standard bottling of this that we dip into from time to time for comparative purposes, though oddly we’ve never formally reviewed it (hence no link). 4R Small Batch has always been “entry level” Four Roses for me, and here I found the two samples closer than any of the others in this experiment. I nonetheless prefer the undoctored version, which has more prominent (and fun) chocolate notes. The stave deadens those a bit in the doctored sample.

Evan Williams Black Label @ 4 months cherry stave – Popcorn is heavy on the nose (perhaps it’s quite young?), with burnt caramel and significant barrel influence underlying it. A touch vegetal on the tongue, it opens up with time to reveal a mingling of cotton candy and cloves. Caramel is huge, but there’s lots of wood influence on this one. B+

No comparison bottle – I had no EW Black Label on hand to compare to here, and pitting this against one of the Single Barrels would be unfair to the point of cruelty. Surprising though that this cheap bottling was my favorite of the bunch. Or, perhaps not surprising.

Maker’s Mark @ 2.5 months cherry stave – Initially rough on the nose, heavy with alcohol influence and a big punch of wood. The palate is milder and moderately sweet, with notes of tobacco, spearmint, and cloves. The finish is a bit of an unfortunate letdown, though. B

Vs. Maker’s Mark – Again, the standard Maker’s is considerably better, its spice elements are more present and the various flavors are more in alignment and better balanced. Maker’s is a soft whiskey and while Maker’s 46 is a fine product, Maker’s is not a whisky that I would normally think additional wood influence would improve. Seems to be the case here.

So, what did I learn in all of this? Well, the quick and dirty takeaway is that in every comparative review I undertook, I preferred the original, non-doctored version of the spirit to the stave-aged one. Now, perhaps I never struck on the perfect combination — and some of my preferences were only slight. That said, it seems to me that if I were to continue down this road, doctoring a relatively cheap (mass-produced, not craft) bourbon with a cherry stave for a few months might very well be the best way to go. After all, there’s no point trying to touch the sun and improve a whiskey that’s already at the top of its game. However, when faced with a budget bottling and a low level of investment, I wouldn’t mind dropping a few cherry staves into bottles just to see what comes out the other end. (Note: These can also be used to make barrel-aged cocktails.)

Have you played with aging staves? Sound off in the comments!

$11 each (staves are reusable) / beyondbarrels.com

What To Do with Leftover Whisky? Blend Your Own Bottle

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Whiskey samples are a way of life at Drinkhacker HQ, and when you’re in this business for awhile (we’re approaching 9 years and 5000 posts), those samples start to stack up.

Sometimes samples come as full 750ml bottles. Often they arrive in the form of 50ml or 100ml minis. I give away more mostly-full bottles of hooch in a year than you will probably drink in your lifetime. But what do I do with the miniatures that are largely empty, but not quite gone? The mediocre stuff gets thrown out, sure, but with 20-plus year old spirits that cost four figures, I feel bad pouring the leftovers — even if it’s just half an ounce — down the drain. The result: I have had hundreds and hundreds of largely empty vials of whiskey sitting around, though I know I’ll never consume them. When would I ever have the chance to do so?

A few months ago storage space was becoming an issue so I made a decision I wish I’d made at the start of Drinkhacker: To make my own bespoke blends, drawn from the best of the best of my leftover stock, just for kicks.

It didn’t take long to fill a bottle, to the point where I now have three of them going, in various stages of fullness — two vattings of single malts and one bourbon blend. I did not keep track of what went into each bottle; that would ruin the fun.

These have all been marinating and marrying for awhile, with each bottle having room for 30 to 40 whiskies in it. Today, I finally decided I’d give them all a semi-formal review as if they were actual releases.

Without further ado, let’s see how good various blends of a bunch of random — yet all very good — whiskies can be. Most of the whiskies in these blends are cask strength releases, but I have no formal proof data, of course. All, of course, will continue to evolve as new samples find their way into the mix.

Drinkhacker Single Malt Blend #1 – This contains lots of SMWS castoffs, Diageo Special Releases, Exclusive Malts leftovers, and other high-end single malts. The malts are heavy on the Highlands, but there’s a bit of everything in here, including a significant amount of Islay malt. I didn’t think there was that much peated whisky here, but the solid smoke and iodine on the nose showcases how just a bit of Islay can go a long way. The palate offers honey and caramel notes, but it’s hidden beneath considerable peat. The finish folds sherry and chocolate with a bit of maraschino cherry character, but ends up squarely on the smoke. Water helps coax out more of the fruit, and while it’s not a bad dram, on the whole the blend is a relatively unbalanced disappointment. Hopefully as old whisky goes out and new whiskies go in it may find its footing. B

Drinkhacker Single Malt Blend #2 – Similar to blend #1, except there’s almost no peat in this one (save for incidental peat in Highland whiskies) — and going forward this will be my “non-peated” blend. This is a younger vatting of only about 20 whiskies to date, but it is already drinking better, likely thanks to the closer homogeneity of the components therein. Lots of honey and nougat give this blend structure, but it’s also quite restrained — with sweet vanilla and some lightly savory spices offering nuance. Baking spice and citrus notes hit on the back end. I’d say it was a classic, sherry-finished Highland malt, if I didn’t know better. By far a better blend, it isn’t entirely complex, but it offers balance, exuberance, and drinkability. I’d put this up against almost any 16 to 18 year old Speyside bottling. A-

Drinkhacker Bourbon Blend #1 – Mostly composed of various Buffalo Trace experiments (only really good ones) and Antique Collection leftovers, which means there’s a bit of rye in this. Immediately odd: Lots of licorice up front, plus cloves and barrel char (though not so much lumberyard/sawdust). As the body opens up (water isn’t wrong here), it showcases more of a salted caramel character with the dense wood notes underpinning it. The ultimate impression is one of surprisingly old bourbon — which goes to show how a splash of very well-aged stuff like the George T. Stagg in this blend can go a long way. That said, it’s still worthwhile and fun to sip on. In fact, it’s especially fun because I keep it in a novelty decanter that Jim Beam sent me with my name and photo on it. Nutty Kentuckians. B+

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