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What’s My Age Again?

A Cleveland tech company is trying to change the way bourbon tastes — but is it change for the better or worse?

Cleveland Whiskey
Cleveland Whiskey

Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week,​The Ringer ​is exploring why Cleveland matters.

Bourbon production is officially sanctioned sorcery, regulated by American law. To legally identify a spirit as bourbon, it must be distilled from a fermented grain-and-malt mixture that consists of at least 51 percent corn. It must then be aged in a previously unused oak barrel that has been treated with heat to char its insides. There is no minimum or maximum allotted time for the aging process, but much of what’s readily available is aged anywhere between four and 12 years.

A four-year-old, which is generally the age of a standard low-end bourbon such as Jim Beam Original, will contain the familiar notes of soft caramel, coconut, and vanilla; as the maturation process enters double digits in years, new flavors emerge and old flavors are emboldened — the vanilla might transform into banana; coconut might give way to the scent of dried fruit; caramel becomes butterscotch. Once you hit the two-decade mark, like with a bottle of 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve that would set you back thousands on the illegal secondhand market, things get tricky. Aging bourbon is a magic, an art, and a science, and it’ll show in something as sacred as Pappy 23, which apparently (I sure as hell haven’t tried it) maintains a fruity essence when similarly aged bourbons might start tasting like a rotting forest.

Do people age like bourbon? The tyranny of the you must be this tall to ride signposts in our early years gives way to the flood of hormones that turn us into emotional monsters by 13. We spend the next decades letting new environments smooth some of those edges while sharpening others. But bourbon isn’t sentient — it isn’t weighed down by the idea of being past one’s prime; it can’t know how its past states could be reformed, given the chance. The number correlating with our time spent on Earth molds the perception of our identity. It’s cultural shorthand for all the learned experiences expected of someone at a specific point in their life. But those benchmarks shift over time. We’re never as old as we feel. New generations establish new standards of acting one’s age, and, unsurprisingly, that generational shift has seeped its way into bourbon making, one of America’s most enduring, old-fashioned traditions. Tom Lix, the founder of Cleveland Whiskey, has led the crusade for the last three years.

“We talk about [whiskey that is] six years old, or eight, or 12, when age is simply a shortcut for all of the other variables that really occur,” Lix told me. “It’s not just that it was eight years old, but it’s all the environmental effects that go into those eight years. We use that shortcut — ‘it’s eight years old.’ That’s how it’s been defined. Our definition is a little more complicated; we say age is irrelevant.”

That is because Cleveland Whiskey’s aging process takes about 24 hours.

Popular imagination tends to travel south when we think about America’s preferred brown spirit. Tennessee whiskey. Kentucky bourbon. To affix a product to a specific place suggests a certain exclusivity — that the region’s terroir is uniquely equipped to produce something, that it’s the only place with the capacity to do so. Maybe it’s banal to say, but by simply branding itself as Cleveland Whiskey, the company is asserting that it isn’t Tennessee whiskey, that its bourbons don’t fall in line with Kentucky’s tradition. You can make bourbon anywhere. Even in Cleveland.

The Cleveland Press Collection
The Cleveland Press Collection

Cleveland Whiskey wears its home city brazenly in its name, but the entire venture could’ve easily taken place on the West Coast. Lix was raised in Boston, and had sold off his software company in the area in 2004 with the intentions of moving to Washington state.

Plans changed when his mother, a Cleveland native, became ill. He and his wife took care of her, and around that time, Lix began his basement experiments. When it came time to name the business, he hired an outside market-research firm to conduct interviews around the country. Cleveland Whiskey tested well in metropolitan areas — the notions of a hard-working, Midwestern authenticity resonated with city slickers. The name’s origin story (as with the product) can feel a bit sterile, but Cleveland’s ties to whiskey do run surprisingly deep.

During the Prohibition era, feuds that arose from Cleveland organized crime sprung up over corn sugar and the Italian families that controlled its distribution. The sugars were used in the bootleg manufacturing of whiskey on the east side of the city. But for smuggling whiskey into Cleveland from Canada (a product which almost certainly tasted better than the hooch being concocted in local basements), bootleggers preferred a mile-long stretch of land on the west side of town, at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River leading into Lake Erie.

That hub was (and still is), fittingly, known as Whiskey Island, a name it earned in the 1830s when it erected a distillery and became a center for Irish immigrants. Today, it’s about a six-mile drive west from Cleveland Whiskey headquarters along state Route 2.

“There’s a little park out there on it, and it has a little Coast Guard station,” Lix said. “I would love to have a facility out there, but I don’t think that’s going to happen since it’s public land.”

Cleveland Whiskey, Lix insisted, isn’t a craft distiller or a microdistiller. “We’re really sort of an innovation company,” he said. “A technology company that works on, essentially, maturation technology or flavor-extraction technology.” He’s right — the disruptive, heretical, us-against-the-world company ethos would probably get you more than halfway through a round of Tech Bro Bingo. But, admit it: You’re curious as to how a process that has traditionally relied on the slow change of seasons and years can be condensed into a mere day.

Here’s how Cleveland Whiskey does it: The clear, unaged whiskey, also known as the “white dog,” sits in a new charred oak barrel, in accordance with American regulations. (The charring caramelizes the sugars within the wood that lend flavor to the bourbon, but it also creates a layer of carbon on the surface of the barrel, which acts as a natural filtration system for impurities.) In Cleveland Whiskey’s case, it’s a brief stay — the spirit is held in the barrel for the sole purpose of legal bourbon compliance; the barely used oak barrels are later sold to an Ohio maple syrup producer. From there, the unaged distillate is poured into the company’s highly oxygenated, stainless steel pressure tanks, which are lined with patented wood inserts made from dismantled wood barrels.

The tanks, known in house as “reactors,” go through variations of pressure and vacuum, essentially turning those wood inserts into high-capacity sponges that absorb the spirit, then spew it out repeatedly, each time imparting the whiskey with more of its wood flavor.

The process essentially fast-forwards the seasonal effects of natural barrel aging — in the summer heat, pressure inside the barrel increases, which draws more of the distillate through the pores of the wood barrel; in the winter, the pressure dips and the spirit retreats.

“What we’re trying to do is essentially [say], ‘Let’s not just define bourbon or whiskey by the oak barrel,’” Lix said. “Because that’s how it’s always been defined. And people might’ve wanted to use a black cherry wood barrel, for instance, in the past, but if they have tried it, they would’ve found that it leaked like a sieve. So we’ve been stuck using what was essentially a storage container, a transportation carrier which was designed to be rolled down dirt roads and up onto planks on ships, and was made out of oak not because somebody was prescient enough to say, ‘Hey, that’s going to taste good,’ but simply because it held liquid.”

Therein lies the heresy. Oak is uniquely suited for the ponderous wonder of aging. By renouncing oak as part of whiskey’s inherent DNA, Cleveland Whiskey is not only unbinding two and a half centuries of American bourbon tradition, but about two millennia of barrel-aging wisdom, dating back to the Roman Empire.

Spirits are called such because of the wafting, wraith-like vapors that emerge in a distillation process. It’s a term with mystical connotations that stems from old-world alchemy. The creation of whiskey — of turning a harsh, young distillate into a rich, mellow elixir through an unknown number of organic microprocesses — is in a way, an occult act. It’s a chapter in the long story of man’s relationship with oak wood as an alchemical muse (barbecue is another story altogether). Cleveland Whiskey breaks that chain of folklore. So, it’s fair to wonder: What’s the spirit without that spirit?

Cleveland Whiskey was established in 2009, but didn’t start bottling and distributing until March 2013. In its infancy, the company produced a traditional bourbon using its patented procedures and made a lot of enemies.

Lix’s eagerness to experiment with other woods — his Cleveland Underground line processes its (technically) bourbon with black cherry, sugar maple, hickory, and apple — aligns with his whiskey philosophy as a whole. “When we think about whiskey, 60 to 80 percent of the flavor is coming from the wood,” Lix said. “Not from that mash, not from the distillate — it’s coming from the wood.”

Harlen Wheatley, the master distiller at Buffalo Trace, one of the leading bourbon producers (and the distiller that handles the Pappy Van Winkle line) estimates a much different ratio: 50 percent comes from the oak barrel, 25 percent from the distillation process, and the final 25 percent from the mash, yeast, and fermentation recipe. Formulating a recipe is a matter of priorities, and the difference in breakdowns gives a sense of what Cleveland Whiskey’s finished product tastes like.

I bought two bottles from their Underground line: the black cherry–wood finish and the hickory-wood finish. In both bottles, you truly do get the essence of the flavoring agent: the hickory lends a smokiness reminiscent of a scotch; the black cherry is bright, almost tart, with a spicy, black pepper finish.

Cleveland Whiskey
Cleveland Whiskey

The flavors are interesting, but thin; they don’t last as long as you’d hope. Lix’s process extracts a great deal of wood’s essence, but doesn’t quite capture the intangibles — the roundness and fullness that are a byproduct of the layers upon layers of chemical reactions that add up to a well-aged bourbon. But, then again, it’s not exactly trying to — at least not anymore.

“Admittedly, when we first came out, we were making traditional bourbon just using oak, and the whole advantage there was time to market,” Lix said. With a global increase in whiskey demand, Lix positioned his company to move quickly in an industry that, by its very nature, takes its time with production.

Cleveland Whiskey’s flagship bourbon buckled under the expectations Lix had set forth: that the flavor would be commensurate with a 10-year-old bourbon. The product had the requisite wood spice, but tasted unrefined, unfinished. “It takes time to [extract flavors and remove harshness from the distillate] but particularly the extraction of flavors [is] sensitive to time due to the depth of penetration into the wood,” Wheatley said. “The deeper it goes, the more complex the flavors, and after some time, the balancing of the raw distillate and the extracts begin to take shape.”

Cleveland Whiskey was still being defined by oak and time. For a brand trying to establish itself as “radically different,” it seemed fully content to play by the old set of rules.

Last year’s introduction to the Cleveland Underground line was something of a turning point, when the company’s conceit became less look at our time machine, and more look at how wide bourbon’s scope can be. “We’re getting a little bit of a reluctant acceptance,” Lix said. “Like, ‘OK, this is an interesting use of technology. You’re not just defying tradition and making the same product in a different way. You’re actually making something different.’ I won’t say we’re getting glowing reviews, but the very same people who really criticized us heavily are starting to turn that around a little bit.”

But no one gets to the future unscathed. Before Cleveland Whiskey got its pressurization system down, Lix was blowing up mason jars in his basement. Buffalo Trace has bottles of bourbon aged in sour wood barrels that, for very obvious reasons, were not put up for sale, and are stored in the company archives as both a learning tool and a good laugh. A Scottish distiller sent samples of its scotch out to space to see how the different environment affected aging — it affected it badly.

Big distillers have the time-accumulated resources to study, on a chemical level, the minutiae of their craft: Just last year, Buffalo Trace completed its Single Oak Project, in which seven different aging variables were tested on 192 wooden barrels made from 96 hand-picked oak trees; in 2013, The Atlantic reported that Buffalo Trace had found around 300 compounds related to the aging process — it has since identified all of them. Buffalo Trace had briefly experimented with small-barrel aging, which is the method in which most craft distillers speed up the aging process, but the results after six years didn’t meet the company’s standards. “Rapid aging is not at all the focus of our experimental program at Buffalo Trace Distillery,” company president and CEO Mark Brown said. “Quite the opposite, in fact.” (Neither Wheatley nor Brown has tried Cleveland Whiskey’s products.)

The future of whiskey puts science before magic in hopes of quantifying the secrets of the past. “We call it our holy grail project,” Brown said. “To create the world’s perfect whiskey.” Craft and microdistillers don’t have the cash flow to pursue the same endeavors, but they are pushing the quality of the spirits industry forward by changing the parameters. Lix sees new wood as the future. Others, like Koval in Chicago, are embracing the 49 percent of a fermented bourbon mash that isn’t corn by using different grains. Accelerated aging (via pressure, ultrasound, or smaller barrels) is no longer a fantasy, it is simply the conditions under which smaller-batch distillers operate; prioritizing different flavors is how a small company can separate itself from the competition. Tradition and innovation can coexist. They can contain multitudes.

“I will say one thing, though: The quest for the perfect bourbon is an impossible task,” Lix said.