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Making bourbon, with a tech twist

Distillers say it takes years to produce great bourbon. Some upstarts are challenging that assumption.

Woodford Reserve's bourbon warehouse can make you feel mildly inebriated. It's warm, it's dark and it smells invitingly boozy. The other stone buildings in the Versailles, Kentucky (pronounced Ver-SAY-ils), distillery add to that sensation.

Giant copper stills and 20-foot-high vats made from cypress give off a complex aroma of grain, fermenting mash, toasted wood and alcohol.

This is the best-smelling story I've ever reported.

Kentucky is bourbon country, making 95 percent of that particular drink. And bourbon country is a good place to be right now because bourbon is enjoying a revival. Last year, US sales of Kentucky bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and rye rose almost 8 percent, to $2.9 billion. Theories as to why include everything from better marketing to consumers' new affection for top-shelf drinks.

There's a problem, though. Despite the fact that bourbon production has increased 170 percent since 1999, distillers are having trouble keeping up with demand.

That's because it takes a really long time to make bourbon. Making it goes roughly like this: Mix finely ground grain with water and add yeast to create mash, which then ferments. The fermented mash gets distilled into spirit. Distilleries pour that into new American oak barrels, which have been charred on the inside, and then store it for anywhere from four years to two decades. This barrel aging gives the bourbon its color and distinctive flavor as natural changes in pressure and temperature move the spirit in and out of the wood.

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Barrels of white oak are flame-charred to impart flavor to the bourbon as it ages.

Tyler Lizenby

For Woodford Reserve and other traditional bourbon makers, barrel aging is as much a curse as a blessing. It gives their products the premium cachet they want, but it also forces them to wait years before recouping their expenses.

Now, a new breed of small craft distilleries is trying to take the years out of aging. They're turning to new technologies and processes they hope will deliver the taste and finish people expect from quality bourbon, without the expense. But not everyone applauds their efforts to stray from tradition. Some in the industry worry these new processes could compromise bourbon's reputation and everything it represents.

Breaking bourbon

Cleveland Whiskey has no warehouse. It doesn't even store barrels.

Three years ago its founder, Tom Lix, wanted to see if high pressure could make bourbon age quickly. Something of an amateur chemist, he tinkered with that idea out of his basement -- blowing up about 600 mason jars in the process.

"My wife was worried the police were going to knock on the door," he says. "It was the early days of 'Breaking Bad.' She was convinced the neighbors thought we had a meth lab in the basement."

Today, Cleveland Whiskey adds oxygen and precisely cut pieces of American oak, sugar maple or black cherry to pressurized containers holding the new spirit. The pressure forces the spirit to continually move in and out of the wood. That, along with proprietary techniques the company won't divulge, produces bourbon in less than a week.

Cleveland Whiskey has won four gold medals.

It has also been called the world's most-hated whiskey among traditional bourbon drinkers.

Opponents say barrel aging is about more than just getting wood flavor into the spirit. The barrel also acts as a filter that, over time, mellows unwanted flavors.

That's one reason Terressentia -- which makes private label spirits as well as bourbon under the O.Z. Tyler Distillery name -- developed its own rapid-aging process called TerrePure. According to the company's website, TerrePure uses ultrasound, heat and oxygen to eliminate "harsh-tasting impurities present in all spirits" to reveal "the pleasant taste and aroma" that people want.

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A worker at the Brown-Forman cooperage sands down staves of white oak, which will be made into barrels for aging bourbon.

Tyler Lizenby

Terressentia CEO Earl Hewlette claims they can take a whiskey that's been in a barrel for six months to a year, and TerrePure will handle the rest.

Not so fast

Why are traditionalists so opposed to fast aging? Fear that an inferior product would damage bourbon's popularity, says Michael Veach, bourbon historian and author.

If someone really did find a way to rapidly age bourbon without harming flavor, the industry "would all adopt it in a heartbeat," he says, "because it would save them a lot of money and make them a lot of money."

So for now, traditional distilleries will turn to technology to improve efficiency, but won't compromise their core identity.

Technology varies among distilleries. Woodford Reserve uses cooling coils in its cypress fermenters and heat cycling in the warehouse to encourage the barrels to expand and contract.

"While a lot of the equipment looks very old-fashioned -- and it is -- we've put modern components within it to make it run the way it needs to today," master distiller Chris Morris tells me as we walk between buildings.

Eddie Russell, master distiller at nearby Wild Turkey, installed a computerized system that automatically opens and closes water or grain valves.

"It's helped me be more consistent and that's what we strive for," he says. "I don't have to worry about somebody talking to a friend and forgetting to turn the water on after 10 minutes."

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Freshly filled barrels are rolled down a track at the Woodford Reserve distillery, ready for delivery to warehouses for years of aging.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Maker's Mark will have none of it, even if there are more efficient ways to do the same things. All the labels on the bottles are die-cut and torn by hand because founder Bill Samuels' wife, Marge, did it that way. And all of the bottles, known for the red wax that drips down their necks, are hand dipped in that wax.

"It's a way of knowing that every bottle a consumer picks up, no matter where they are in the world, was held and created by the team here at Maker's Mark," says Victoria MacRae-Samuels, vice president of operations for the popular bourbon maker.

Taste test

Writing about bourbon without tasting it borders on negligence. So in the name of professionalism, I stage an unofficial, double-blind taste test with three of my friends.

The contestants: O.Z. Tyler Honey Bourbon Whiskey, Wild Turkey American Honey and Evan Williams Honey.

The four testers are between 26 and 32, with a range of bourbon expertise. Adam is the connoisseur, the collector. He has more than 80 bottles and stores details and history like sports stats. Michael swears by the $8.99 Benchmark bourbon from Buffalo Trace, but has a few bottles of $200 bourbon, including Angel's Envy. His heart breaks when someone doesn't like it. Paul doesn't seek out bourbon but has paid $30 for a shot of the good stuff. I like fruity drinks.

They're from Kentucky. I'm not.

We each line up three shot glasses that have been labeled A, B or C on pink Post-it notes.

A hush. Then quick, short sniffs. The crunching of palate-cleansing corn chips. A sip, a squint, a scribble. And then we talk about what we do and don't like about each. Which we thought was which, and how we feel when we learn the truth. We split hairs for 40 minutes on the merits of honey.

Three of us rank O.Z. Tyler in last place, but all agree it tastes the most like bourbon, albeit a very young one. On the plus side, its honey flavor was less intense than the flavor of the alcohol. But it also had the most burn and a smell that none of us could pinpoint. When I suggest talcum powder, the guys don't think I'm crazy.

Did anyone think the rapidly aged bourbon matched traditional bourbons? No, but my friends didn't think that should have been the aim. This crowd viewed the process as a differentiator, not a replacement.

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Mark Mann

"What I would look for in a rapid-aged bourbon is the kind of flavor and notes you get from [older] bourbon, for a fraction of the price," says Paul.

Michael likened O.Z. Tyler to a bourbon attached to a talking point, something he'd add to his collection and have friends try.

"If [O.Z. Tyler] is set apart by being rapidly aged, that's a pretty cool advantage because it does make them different," he says. And if he had to choose among the three honey bourbons at a liquor store, he would pick O.Z. Tyler.

In the end, bourbon makers want to keep their customers happy. For some people, happiness depends on respecting tradition and enjoying the complex mixture of flavors and aroma that take years in the making. For others, it's buying something that's good enough at a great price. It just depends on how quickly they want it.

Erin Carson (@ErinCarson) is CNET's staff reporter in Louisville, Kentucky, writing about fun and weird tech. She now has a startling amount of bourbon in her kitchen.

This story appears in the summer 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.