Finishing refers to the practice of maturing a spirit, for short periods of time, in a cask that previously held other liquids. The process allows whiskey makers to add additional layers of flavor to a whiskey. The practice started with the Scotch whisky industry. The technique has become quite common in Scotland and is being adopted by other whiskey producers around the world. It has even been used by other spirit producers, ranging from rum to brandy to tequila.
The US whiskey industry was late in adopting this practice but has now accepted it enthusiastically. In addition, the US spirits industry has also experimented with ways of enhancing particular flavor profiles by using different toasting techniques on the barrels. Maker’s Mark and the International Stave Company, in particular, have led the way in experimenting with different toasting methods and the use of additional staves in a barrel and assessing their impact on flavor.
Enter the Sanctified Spirits Company, a Texas based startup, which is experimenting with putting a spiral of wood in each bottle of its bourbon and rye whiskey. Normally, the finishing of a spirit occurs prior to bottling. Once a spirit is bottled it remains static. In reality, a spirit will change over time, even if it is bottled in glass, but the changes are so small and take such a long time to manifest themselves that for all practical purposes it is unchanging.
The company uses spirals made from American white oak, but has also experimented with spirals made from different kinds of wood, including maple, French oak, cherry or ash. The five-inch-long spiral, called a spire, is approximately five inches long. The tight spiral offers a large surface area for the whiskey to interact with the wood. According to Joseph (Joe) Giildenzopf, the company’s CEO and co-founder, the effect of the spire is exhausted after six weeks or so in a bottle.
Sanctified Spirits whiskey and rye are bottled under the Oak & Eden brand. To date, four expressions have been released. A bourbon that is bottled with a toasted oak spire. A rye that is bottled with a charred oak spire and another rye, termed Rye and Rumba, which is bottled with a spire that has been soaked in rum. A fourth recently released expression, Bourbon and Vine, is a bourbon that is bottled with a spire made from French oak that has been soaked in Cabernet Sauvignon produced from Texas grown grapes. Is this a legitimate innovation or a marketing gimmick?
First of all, both the bourbon and the rye began as conventional spirits. According to Giildenzopf the company sources most of its spirit from MGP in Indiana. The bourbon is produced from a mash bill of 60% corn, 36% rye and 4% malted barley, while the rye is produced from a mash bill of 95% rye and 5% malted barley. Once distilled the new make spirit, or white dog, is matured for approximately two years in barrels of #3 charred American white oak.
Our business plan is quite simple. We curate, blend, finish and sell exceptional whiskey. We are sourcing, or as we proudly say, “curating.” We purchase our whiskeys from their native states of distillation. Most is coming from MGP in Indiana, but not all. We move barreled whiskey from Indiana (and other native sources) once the whiskey has reached full age, and not before. We only move it when we are ready to bottle it. We do not age whiskey in Texas. We have found the environment to be too extreme and difficult to manage.
How do we assess the impact of the spire on the whiskey in the bottle? According to Giildenzopf:
We are not introducing a wood-spirit interaction without intention. On the contrary. We are intentionally introducing wood to whiskey with the complete and full intent to produce change. Change for the better. We stand behind our products, our process and the outcome produced. Finally, the long-term effect of making the whiskey smoother over time is not accidental, but intentional.
Since the influence of the spire is exhausted after six weeks, does the spire provide an additional six weeks of maturation in addition to further flavoring the whiskey? The trick is how to translate this into conventional maturation. One way is to look at the ratio of the surface area of the wood to the amount of liquid being matured. It has long been recognized that the higher the ratio of wood to spirit, the faster the whiskey will mature, and the more flavor will be extracted from the wood. Whiskey matured in a conventional bourbon barrel of 53 gallons/200 liters will mature slower than whiskey aged in a 10 gallon/35-liter cask.
A 53-gallon barrel of whiskey holds approximately 200,000 ml of spirit. The surface area of the inside of the barrel is 6,535 square inches. That means the ratio of wood to spirit is 30 ml for each square inch of wood. I estimate that the spire has a surface area of approximately 38 square inches. In a 750-ml bottle that works out to about 20 ml of spirit for each square inch of wood surface area. That’s roughly the same ratio that you would get from maturing whiskey in a 10-gallon barrel. So, one way of looking at this process would be to say that from a maturation standpoint, it has the same impact on the maturing whiskey as giving it an additional six weeks of aging in a 10-gallon cask.
Of course, the comparison isn’t an exact one. Whiskey maturing in a cask is undergoing four separate processes. Compounds are being extracted from the wood. Liquid is evaporating, changing the proportions of water and alcohol and disproportionately concentrating certain congeners or flavoring compounds while dissipating others. Oxygen is seeping into the barrel and reacting with some of the compounds in the whiskey, both existing ones and new ones that have been extracted from the wood. In addition, there may be chemical reactions occurring between compounds in the whiskey that may create new congeners.
Presumably in a sealed bottle you are not getting any evaporation nor are you getting oxygen seeping in and oxidizing some of the compounds in the whiskey, so the comparison is not exactly the same as additional cask aging. You are, however, getting additional extraction from the wood spire and you may be getting additional reactions between some of the compounds in the whiskey. Moreover, the spire continues to have an effect on the smoothness of the whiskey even after the flavoring components are exhausted.
It’s hard to model. Maturation is more of an art than a science. We are not entirely sure of what reactions take place in a maturing whiskey and what catalyzes them. The spire does offer one significant advantage, however. It is a lot easier to make a spire out of a piece of exotic wood than it is to fashion a 10-gallon barrel out of it. In that case, the spire is an important innovation in finishing whiskey. The fact that it also has an impact on maturation is a bonus.
More importantly, is there a difference in the flavor and aroma profile of Oak & Eden’s whiskeys before and after they have been treated with the spire? Sanctified Spirit graciously sent me samples of their whiskey both before and after they had been treated with the oak spire in order to allow me to make a comparison. The tasting notes and conclusions are below.
Oak & Eden, Bourbon & Spire, Toasted Oak, 45% ABV, 750 ml, $40
The color is a medium amber. On the nose, there are sweet honey notes, along with vanilla some wood spice and a little caramel. It has the cooked corn sweetness typical of a bourbon and the cinnamon and nutmeg spice contributed by the rye. On the palate, it is smooth, at least for a two-year-old bourbon, with notes of sweet caramel accompanied by some dried fruit notes and toasted oak. The finish is long, with a bit of alcohol burn and some bitter notes that nicely complement the lingering sweetness.
The bourbon sample that did not receive the spire is lighter in color. On the nose, the aroma seems less intense and the alcohol is more noticeable. On the palate, the whiskey appears less flavorful, the alcohol burn more pronounced and the finish is shorter.
Oak & Eden, Rye & Spire, Charred Oak, 45% ABV, 750 ml, $40
The color is a bright amber with flecks of gold. On the nose, there is a distinctive cinnamon note, some dried floral aromas and a bit of a waxy element, along with a hint of caramel. On the palate, the whiskey is smooth, with creamy caramel notes, along with some cinnamon and a bit of nutmeg. There is a bit of alcohol burn. The finish is medium to long, with a lingering sweetness and a bitter note that fades quickly.
The rye sample that did not receive the spire was lighter in color. The aroma was less pronounced. While the wood spices were still evident, the sample was a little more herbaceous. There was also a pronounced black pepper aroma as the whiskey opened up. On the palate, it was flavorful, although less so than the spire treated sample, sweet with a medium length finish and just a hint of bitterness at the end accompanied by a lingering sweetness. Here too, the alcohol burn was more pronounced.
Oak & Eden, Rye & Rumba, Rum Soaked Oak, 45% ABV, 750 ml, $50
The color is a light gold. On the nose, there are sweet honey notes accompanied by hints of tropical fruit, vanilla and a bit of oak. On the palate, there is a notable candied sweetness, along with caramel and dried stone and tropical, fruit notes and vanilla. The finish is medium length, accompanied by a noticeable pepperiness that builds quickly then fades, some slight bitter notes and a lingering sweetness.
The sample that did not receive the spire was, surprisingly, darker. On the nose, it was less aromatic and a little more herbaceous, although it still had a distinctive sweet honey note. On the palate, it was less smooth, with a more noticeable alcohol burn and a shorter finish, although it still exhibited a lingering sweetness and the pepperiness was more persistent.
So, legitimate innovation or marketing gimmick? There is no question that the untreated whiskeys are different than the ones that were treated with a spire. The treated or “spire finished” whiskeys were noticeably smoother and more flavorful. Giildenzopf stresses that the intent of the company is to use the spire to impart more flavor to the whiskey and not as a substitute or as a proxy for additional aging. That may be true, and the spire certainly adds more flavor, but an unintended consequence is that it also mimics the effects of additional aging. Anytime you have wood to spirit interactions you are mimicking the effects of additional maturation even if that is not the producer’s intention.
Moreover, as Giildenzopf notes, even though the flavoring element in the wood is exhausted after six weeks, the spire continues to have an effect on the spirit in the bottle making it smoother with the passage of time.
I think this is a legitimate innovation and one to get excited about, even though I’m not usually the excitable type. As a finishing technique, the spire offers a lot more flexibility for finishing whiskeys and dramatically expands the options for different finishes beyond the usual approach of barrels that previously held another liquid.
It also begs the question of whether the company should sell spires independently of its whiskey. After all, you may have a favorite bourbon or rye that might benefit from the “spire treatment.” Additionally, should the company package additional spires with its whiskeys to allow its customers to make the whiskeys even smoother or flavorful and to shape the whiskeys to their tastes?
I intend to revisit these whiskeys in six months and see if and how they have changed. So, stay tuned. In the meantime, if you are intrigued by this innovation, and it is certainly that, then go out and get a bottle of one or two expressions and see for yourself.
This content was originally published here.