A Nespresso Machine for Whiskey - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Bespoken Spirits claims it can reproduce the taste of barrel-aged booze in days.

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because who has time for barrel-aging?

By Judith Evans

  • Bespoken Spirits claims it can reproduce the taste of barrel-aged drinks in days.
  • The company’s launch comes as booze has been a resilient industry during the pandemic.

A Silicon Valley-based startup is taking on the $500 billion global spirits industry with proprietary technology it claims can reproduce the taste of a barrel-aged whiskey, rum or brandy in three to five days.

Bespoken Spirits, founded by materials scientist Martin Janousek and entrepreneur Stu Aaron, has won awards in blind tastings with drinks made by exposing alcohol to “micro staves” of different woods under pressure, in what they likened to a “Nespresso machine on an industrial scale.”

Its public launch on Wednesday comes as spirits prove resilient in the pandemic, partly because of a trend for home cocktail making that helped compensate for the impact of bar closures on distillers such as Diageo and Pernod Ricard.

Aaron said: “Rather than putting a spirit into a barrel and passively waiting for nature to take its course over decades, our technology instils the barrel into the spirit, delivering a premium-quality tailored spirit in days rather than decades.”

Screenshot 2020-10-08 at 9.31.15 PM

Founders Martin Janousek and Stu Aaron.

If rapid “aging” proves popular with consumers, it could challenge the centuries-old process of barrel aging in oak casks.

The process uses a fraction of the wood and energy of barrel aging, Bespoken said, while avoiding the disappearance of the so-called “angel’s share” of spirit that evaporates during maturation.

Bespoken’s launch met with a frosty response from the Scotch whisky Association, which said many markets required maturation in casks for a spirit to be sold as “whiskey,” including the U.K. and EU, where it must be aged for three years. 

“Those quality definitions of whiskey protect the reputation of whiskey as a traditionally aged product, and other spirits produced with other techniques should be labeled in a way which doesn’t take unfair advantage of that reputation,” it said.

“The SWA will take action all over the world to stop the sale of products which seek to compete with Scotch whisky as ‘whisky’ but fail to meet the legal requirements of the country of sale.” 

The U.S. does not specify an aging process for whiskey, however, and other U.S.-based distilleries are also working on accelerated aging technology, often alongside an element of traditional aging.

California-based Lost Spirits uses a chemical reactor, while Ohio-based Cleveland Whiskey places its spirits in tanks together with barrel wood, then agitates the mixture and applies pressure.

Bespoken’s drinks are made from a base alcohol or by modifying existing aged spirits, including some that would meet EU “whisky” requirements.

If rapid “aging” proves popular with consumers, it could challenge the centuries-old process of barrel aging in oak casks.

Bespoken has achieved some early success in blind-tasting competitions, winning two gold medals in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition this year and a “best of category” award for craft blended whisky at the American Distilling Institute’s Judging of Craft Spirits. 

Aaron said the company had deals to make spirits for a U.S. grocery chain and custom drinks for bars and restaurants. It can identify and reproduce the “chemical fingerprints” of aged liquors, he said, or tailor tastes, colors and aromas to specific requirements.

Bespoken, backed by investors including the Cypress Semiconductor founder T.J. Rodgers, is talking to breweries about using expired beer that went unused during lockdowns as a base for its products.

Some analysts have argued, however, that accelerated aging may struggle to replicate processes such as oxidation and esterification, which produce fruity aromas. Not all drinkers are convinced. A reviewer at Portland-based publication Whiskey Wash labeled Bespoken’s bourbon “not bad” but said “there was very little that was exciting about this drink either.”

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By Judith Evans

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2020.

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