Thursday, April 4, 2013 at 9:00 PM
A Cleveland entrepreneur has uncorked a new contender for the thriving whiskey market. Aptly named, “Cleveland Whiskey”, it’s being touted as a 60-day bourbon that rivals brands aged ten years or longer. Ideastream’s Brian Bull looks at the trend of “quickie whiskeys”…and their potential as game changers in the multi-billion dollar whiskey industry.
On a recent Friday night, Clevelanders squeeze shoulder-to-shoulder inside the Market Garden Brewery and Distillery. They’re here for the launch party of Cleveland Whiskey. It’s available straight on the rocks, or in a number of cocktails.
Sam McNulty is Market Garden’s proprietor.
“People are loving it. The only problem is, we’re running out of it right now. So we’re running to the store and getting some more.”
Just 4,400 bottles were released in the first batch. Demand has outpaced supply already, thanks to flocks of curious drinkers lining up in bars, supermarkets, and liquor stores.
Drinkers like many gathered here tonight.
“It’s smooth, yeah…it’s good,” says Dave Matreau.
“I drink tequila, but this is very good. It’s a little bit hot…but when they put it with a sugar rim, it’s awesome!” adds his wife, Sue.
“Very smooth, and ah, comfortable," says their friend, Cindy Murphy. "If you’d asked me a week ago, I’d have to say it’d have to be aged.”
That’s music to Tom Lix’s ears. He’s the proprietor of Cleveland Whiskey. Using a computer-controlled, alternating pressure device, he forces the alcohol in and out of oak staves, to replicate the traditional whiskey aging process…only about 20 times faster.
“We really take a natural process that occurs right in a barrel, but we apply a lot more pressure," says Lix. "That squeezing forces the alcohol deep into the pore structure of the wood. Gives it a bolder but smooth flavor, we’re really happy with the way it turned out. It’s great that it’s a little bit faster, but age is really sorta irrelevant. The way we do it, makes for a better whiskey.”
Lix says his whiskey will compete with many of the larger, longer-aged brands in the market. He’s not alone in producing what some call “quickie whiskeys”. In fact, says Lew Bryson…
“It’s pretty common.”
Bryson is managing editor of The Whiskey Advocate magazine. He says a growing number of distillers have done everything from aging alcohol in smaller barrels to running it through industrial microwaves, in order to create a whiskey on par with those aged for years on end. A South Carolina chemist even claims to have a process that ages whiskey overnight.
So what does Bryson make of this spirited alchemist’s quest?
“I haven’t seen one that works yet. But if a whiskey like this works, it’ll change the market.”
A $20 billion market, worldwide. A fast-turnaround whiskey would create a bigger and more immediate supply, as seen with vodka and gin. Storage and distribution would also be affected. But Bryson warns that on top of nailing just the right flavor and texture, a “quickie whiskey” distiller would also have to overcome consumer bias.
“I remember the joke when we were in college. `What vintage is it?’ `Tuesday’. You’re going to have a hard time selling something to a luxury product buyer. I mean, you say `Hey, we made this in only five days, compared to…ten years!” That’s not going to go over well.”
“If you can do the process and do it right, I mean, age really shouldn’t matter," counters Andrew Gordon. "It’s really all about taste.”
Gordon and his wife, Adrienne, are whiskey aficionados. Intrigued by Cleveland Whiskey and its 60-day aging process, they open a bottle in their Reminderville home.
“It’s nice and mellow…definitely got some woody….” Gordon sniffs his tumbler and gently rolls the amber whiskey inside it.
“Think a little caramel….” adds his wife. Gordon suggests some vanilla taste as well.
”The flavor’s very good," continues Adrienne. "The only thing I’m missing is a little bit of that aftertaste when you exhale. So maybe it’s a little bit overpriced at this point, where the bourbons usually around that 30-(dollar) plus range, they do have that aftertaste.”
But Cleveland Whiskey’s Tom Lix says the $34 bottle price was based on intensive market research, to compete with similarly-priced brands like Knob Creek, Elijah Craig and Bulleit.
"And it’s just through the use of science and we do this in a lot of industries, and now we’re finally catching up in the whiskey industry and using some science so that we don’t have to wait for 12 years for a premium product.”
Lix says he expects Cleveland Whiskey to grow into a competitive national brand, then move into emerging whiskey markets in China, Russia, and India.
When asked if they were concerned about losing their customer base to Lix’s 60-day elixir, whiskey giant Jack Daniels declined comment, while a Jim Beam spokesman says they welcome another option for whiskey drinkers.