From the Distiller...Cheers to Science!
You can take the scientist out of the lab (and put him to work at a distillery), but he will always be a scientist. This is true now more than ever. I have started some research collaborations with the folks in the Dept. of Food Science and Penn State. This will open up more opportunities for research as well as create some student learning opportunities here at the distillery. As an avid reader of scientific literature, I came across some interesting articles about the aging process and this gave me some ideas of a way to get more flavor into our whiskey during distillation. I did a first simple test – which is not for the faint of heart as it is a 150-gallon test batch. I felt pretty confident what I was proposing wouldn’t ruin a batch so I tried it and was pleased with the results, although it was not quite what I expected. Based on what I learned from that batch, I modified my technique on a later batch and did it again. Even better! I now have a simple method that gives me a nice result. I think my modification is boosting flavors a bit, but what is most notable is that the product is much smoother coming off the still. This is still experimental, as the real result will only be revealed after a couple of years of aging. At this time I am only using this new technique on the occasional batch as we await more aging.
Why is the distillate produced by the modified method so much smoother? This is where the research comes in. It is known that congeners with certain chemical groups are responsible for the bite of new make distillate (a congener is simply any chemical compound found in a spirit other than ethanol and water, some come from the grain, and some are produced by the yeast). There are two main hypotheses my collaborators and I are testing for. One is that I am reacting these chemical groups, modifying them into smoother tasting molecules, and the second is I am simply masking the harsh flavors with other flavors. The latter is what occurs during normal barrel aging. Compounds that are extracted from the wood have been shown to mask our ability to sense the compounds that cause the harsh notes. These harsh tasting molecules are still there, but our ability to perceive them is changed. We are still in the preliminary stages of experiments, but at this point, we are leaning towards the second hypothesis. We haven’t although, ruled out yet some currently unknown mechanism as we have some issues with how the masking would be taking place as the distillate comes off the still. The masking that occurs during barrel aging is not an instantaneous process and the smoothness is evident as it comes off the still, and not after is has sat in the tank for a while. Shortly I will be collecting more samples as the distillate comes off the still. Hopefully, an analysis of these samples will give us a better insight into what is going on. I feel confident though that we will have some ultra-smooth whiskeys in a couple years. We will keep you posted.