Have you ever wondered why whiskey is aged in oak wooden barrels? It’s not originally because of the flavor.
An Ohio distillery contends it was simply because barrels were the storage device of the day. The flavor the whiskey got was merely a consequence.
“We’ve used oak barrels not because somebody was prescient enough to say, ‘gee, that'll give it a great flavor,’ even though it does, but because oak held liquid,” Tom Lix, founder and CEO of Cleveland Whiskey told us. “They built a barrel for storage purposes for carrying things. You've got a bulge in the middle of a barrel so you can roll it down a dirt road or up onto a ramp onto a ship. The whiskey industry has been continuing to do that.”
What if you wanted to mature your whiskey with something other than oak?
“Wooden barrels give us a great flavor and 68% of flavor in a whiskey comes from that interaction with the woods,” Tom told us. “But my question was, what about the other woods like black cherry, walnut, hickory and apple and all the fruit woods you could get some amazing flavors out of?”
The problem is you can't build barrels out of those woods. They’d leak like a sieve. You could put those woods inside of oak barrels but the flavors are so aggressive that it overpowers the spirit, Tom explained.
“What we do instead of using those barrels is to use pressure-capable stainless steel tanks,” Tom said. “We cut up the woods and then we add those woods to the young spirits in those stainless steel containers and apply pressure differences — high pressure, low pressure, high pressure, low pressure — it's almost like it squeezes it like a sponge in a bucket of water.”
Cleveland Whiskey is a technology company that happens to make whiskey.
“We're different from a traditional craft distillery, we're really more of a technology company,” Tom said.
The distillery is even located within a manufacturing and technology incubator, MAGNET. They’ve been able to lean on the talent within that program to develop their proprietary process to age whiskey using woods like black cherry, apple and sugar maple.
But what about the naysayers?
“Because we use technology, we’re sometimes considered sort of heretic to this business and that maybe what we're doing is sacrilege. We've had our share of traditionalists say ‘oh, what you're doing, it can't really work well,’” Tom explained. “We've won all these medals.”
They’ve also done thousands of blind taste tests comparing it to a similar well-known whiskey that’s been aged for 10 years. Cleveland Whiskey wins out 54% of the time.
President Obama even toured the distillery while in office.
“There’s a new and quicker way to make whiskey,” President Obama told reporters. “We’re going to have to taste test it as supposedly it’s pretty good.”
Cleveland Whiskey’s technology and process means they’re able to make a finished whiskey in a fraction of the time. It also means they don’t need to store barrels in a rackhouse, which had us worried for our name!
But as we sipped on their double gold award winning Wheat Penny 1958 Bourbon, we didn’t mind that our name was under threat. We were tasting the future. We would have had no idea it took mere days to age compared to years if Tom hadn’t just told us.
“My best advice is to sign up for RackHouse Whiskey Club so you can actually try our flavored whiskey,” Tom said. We’ll toast to that!
What’s in the box
Wheat Penny 1958 Bourbon
Cleveland Whiskey’s Wheat Penny 1958 Bourbon is their first wheated bourbon and is finished with black cherry and toasted oak. Why 1958? 1958 was the last year of the wheat penny.
Mash Bill: 51% Corn, 45% Wheat, 4% Malt
Underground Select: Bourbon Whiskey Finished with Black Cherry Wood
Winner of a platinum SIP Award and double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, this bourbon is unique and well-rounded with light ﬂavor from the cherry wood.
Mash Bill: 75% Corn 21% Rye 4% Malted Barley
Sign up to RackHouse Whiskey Club by Dec. 10 to get your box featuring Cleveland Whiskey.