Kentucky bourbon is in high demand these days. Sales and production of the whiskey have surged in recent years.
The demand has created a problem: a shortage of barrels. Bourbon is typically aged for several years in wooden casks.
But one company has found a work-around. It's come up with a chemical process that ages bourbon not in years — but in hours. The innovation is unsettling an industry that is long-soaked in history and tradition.
Buffalo Trace, Knob Creek, Jefferson's, and Old Grand-Dad: These are names of a few Kentucky bourbons you'll see at the liquor store.
Another brand name, Terressentia, doesn't quite have the same historic, folksy ring to it as traditional Kentucky bourbon names, says Charles Medley, a seventh-generation master distiller.
When Medley sold his company's unused distilleries to Terressentia last year, he said as much to Terressentia's CEO, Earl Hewlette.
"And I said, 'I'm happy for you and I hope you do well, but you don't want to call it Terressentia or Terrepure: You're a distillery in the state of Kentucky,' " Medley says. "So we're working something out where he could use the name Charles Medley. We just talked about it today."
Terressentia, which has been making bourbon in South Carolina, would like the Charles Medley name, which is known for its centuries-long history of distilling in western Kentucky, says Hewlette.
He says tradition is important — but he's not making bourbon the traditional way.
"We still age in a barrel, but we don't need to age it for years and years," Hewlette says. "We can put it through our process. It takes about eight hours, and we have replicated more than four years of barrel aging."
That's right, a four-year bourbon, made in eight-hours.
In traditional bourbon-making, the walls of the charred white oak barrel act like a sponge, imparting flavor and color. As the bourbon expands and contracts with the changing temperature of the seasons, year-to-year, the taste gets more complex and rich.
Woodford Reserve's Master Distiller Chris Morris says this part of the process shouldn't be taken lightly.
"All I know is there is no way to shortcut time in a barrel," Morris says. "What we're basically making is an 1830s product today. It's stood the test of time, so I just don't know how these new processes are going to pan out in the future."
Terressentia's website says its process uses ultrasonic energy and oxygenation, which "finishes chemical reactions that failed to complete in the distillation stage," and results in a "smoother mouth feel."
While traditionalists in the bourbon world may have their misgivings about the new technology, the question that could determine Terressentia's fate is obvious: How does it taste?
Tom Fischer, a bourbon connoisseur and the founder of Bourbonblog.com, visited Hewlette's facilities in Charleston, S.C., to find out.
"I blindly tasted I think five or six different whiskeys," Fischer says. "He didn't tell me which one was their bourbon. I ended up ranking theirs either number one or number two, and it was right around the top — I think it was right at the top. And these were some major bourbons."
But Fischer says it's not something the traditional distillers should worry about.
"There's innovations that are happening all the time, and I think this will just lead to a greater discussion about what's happening in the world of whiskey and happening in the world of spirits," he says.