Imagine if you could age whisky in a few days rather than years: consumption of wood and energy would shrink, as would waste. Well, Bespoken Spirits reckons its new technology can do just that – and still go toe-to-toe with traditionally-aged spirits in taste tests.
The Silicon Valley start-up, which made the front page of the Financial Times this week, claimed its so-called “industrial scale Nespresso machine” could save the spirits industry more than $20 bn (£15.5bn) a year, help address the global environmental crisis, and keep up with consumers’ fast-changing palates.
In Kentucky, for example, there are currently more than 9.1 million barrels of bourbon and other spirits ageing. Each year, nearly 20 million gallons of that product is “lost to evaporation due to the wasteful, time-consuming and antiquated barrel ageing process”, the company said.
This evaporation percentage – often referred to as the “angels’ share” – is more of a problem in hotter climates, where it can be above 10%. In Scotland, however, it’s closer to 1.5% to 2.5%, according to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
Bespoken said its technology “extracts the key elements of the barrel that enhance aroma, colour and taste, managing the critical chemical reactions with precision, control, and speed, and enabling billions of ‘bespoken’ recipes within days, not years”. Other distillers in the US are also working on approaches designed to speed up the process of ageing.
“The traditional spirits production process is outdated, imprecise, unpredictable, unsustainable and inefficient,” said Martin Janousek, Bespoken Spirits cofounder, a materials scientist. “The barrel aging process costs billions of dollars in lost product and limits ability to pivot along with consumer tastes and demands.”
The Scotch Whisky Association is less impressed by the concept. In a statement sent to the FT, it noted that markets including the UK and EU required ageing for three years in casks in order to be sold as “whisky”. A spokesperson said: “Those quality definitions of whisky protect the reputation of whisky as a traditionally aged product, and other spirits produced with other techniques should be labelled in a way which doesn’t take unfair advantage of that reputation.”
Bespoken cofounder Stu Aaron said his company’s “sustainable approach” helps customers go from concept to bottle in just days. This “levels the playing field” for craft breweries and distilleries, with cost savings of up to 70%.
Bespoken said it has already turned excess beer into a premium whisky for several breweries, produced spirits to meet consumer demand for Japanese-style whisky without imports, and created private-label whiskies for grocery chains and other retailers to meet the changing demand for spirits during covid-19.
Bespoken has also won gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and New York World Wine and Spirits Competition.