In Today’s Bad Idea file: Whiskey Elements – Better whiskey in 24 hours via wooden combs

So this popped up on my radar today. “Whiskey Elements” is a Kickstarter project claiming to be a radical new product that “filters” your whiskey in 24 hours, making your cheap bottle of whiskey as good as a $100 bottle. The product pitch includes a hand-drawn whiteboard video, teaching you how whiskey is made, why your inexpensive whiskey gives you hangovers, and how Whiskey Elements fixes it, all while folksy music plays behind the narrator.
What Whiskey Elements appears to be is strips of wood, cut with a series of notches, then charred. Different strips impart different flavors, e.g. smokey, vanilla, maple, peaty, allowing you to add “..your own personality to the whiskey.” Drop one or more strips in your inexpensive bottle of whiskey, wait 24 hours (ok, you’re advised to agitate occasionally) and voila – a much better tasting whiskey, free of all those nasty hangover inducing chemicals like you find in rat crap. 
Or so the claim goes… Here’s the problem: Barrel aging isn’t about filtering – the bad stuff you shouldn’t consume needs to come out during distillation. Beyond that, liquor is aged in wood for two primary reasons:
  • Converting shorter chained fruity esters into longer chained esters with notes like honey and spice.
  • Extracting flavor and color from the wood

I covered the first point in some detail in an earlier post about Lost Spirits and the science behind their rums.

The practice of accelerating aging via the addition of charred wood chips and barrel staves is a frequently used and occasionally controversial technique used by many distillers in many types of spirits. There’s even a US patent for “Accelerated Aging of Wines and Spirits” via “…finely pulverized wood of less than 1 mm size and in such quantity to achieve equivalent aging in one-tenth to one-hundredth of the time required for traditional barrel aging….” In other words, there’s tons of prior art here. And if it’s really this easy, wouldn’t the distillers of “well whiskey,”  as it’s called in the video, simply take an extra 24 hours to do this themselves?
This isn’t to say that Whiskey Elements won’t affect the taste of your whiskey, Scotch or Bourbon. I guarantee you, if you dunk some charred wood in whiskey, the solvent properties of the alcohol will pick up some amount of wood flavor. But 24 hours isn’t much time to do so. More importantly, in 24 hours you’ll get barely any short to long chain ester conversion. Long chain esters are a big part of what makes your high end whiskey (or rum, or brandy, or….) taste great. And that takes time.
Whiskey Elements isn’t a radically new idea, and it won’t give you anywhere near the effects of actual barrel aging that they claim. The only real innovation here (I use that term loosely,) is notching the wood stick to increase the surface area. The science they espouse sounds awesome, but I suspect you’ll be radically underwhelmed by the results.

Update (2/18/2015): Here’s one expert’s take on Whiskey Elements. 

6 thoughts on “In Today’s Bad Idea file: Whiskey Elements – Better whiskey in 24 hours via wooden combs

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  1. Attended one of their tastings in Portland, and know the founders well – they actually had lab testing done to ensure that the "well" whiskeys had significant decreases in those bad chemical compounds after the product was used (I believe they plan on releasing the data soon). It obviously won't transform Williams into Van Winkle, but there definitely is a considerable amount of filtration happening in those 24-hours, resulting in what I personally found to be a much better taste.

    I understand where whiskey purists are gonna get their feathers ruffled at this, but this is far from a bad idea.

  2. Going to have to agree with Mr. Wonk here. The science does not bear out what these guys are trying to do. Wood can only do so much to improve the character of a bad spirit and even with increased surface area the difference in time is a reduction of days, not months. Ask a distiller what the difference is between aging in a small barrel vs a large barrel. It does increase the surface area to wood but it doesn't remove the need for years of contact. At best you might turn a 12 year whiskey into an 11 year whiskey at the cost of seriously increased overhead. This is one of those "Sounds like a good idea" that will only work on kickstarter because the kind of people who can tell you why it won't work aren't the ones who police crowdfunding campaigns.

  3. I'm calling shenanigans on Whiskey Elements.

    I ruined two decent bottles of booze with these burnt Lincoln Logs.

    Now my whiskey tastes like a greasy popsicle stick.

    I've been duped.

    By the way, good luck trying to fish the stick out of the bottle opening after it soaks up some whiskey and expands.

    Seriously, this is a really bad product all around.

    Remember the old maxim: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

  4. I actually was laughing out loud at the so called "Expert" in this article. They have sold 100,000 units to Dewars for the release of their brand new, "White Label" Scratched Cask. Also, they have been covered in Esquire, Playboy, New York Times, Forbes as well as many other reputable publications. I am certainly not knocking a blog writer, but really you should actually do your homework and conduct a non-biased test. It is 7 Proprietary Patents that differentiate this product from any others currently on the market. The science is quite simple and actually has been used for many years just not with the same great results. Try it and THEN decide if your expert palette likes or dislikes this product.

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