When Whiskey isn't Whiskey
I recently attended a tasting led by the famous, charismatic German producer Ernie Loosen. He talked about how he loved to read old wine textbooks, guides to making wine from very different ages. He recalled that when he first started making wine, he read in one such book that Riesling was best left for at least twenty-four years in large old oak barrels before release. Researching more, he discovered this was common practice in the nineteenth century, even continuing into the 1940s. He wanted to do the same and managed to persuade his father to let him keep a barrel from the 1981 vintage, which he finally bottled in 2007.
In talking about this wine and why he aged it, Loosen made an important point about how attitudes to time have changed. In the nineteenth century, there was no rush to bottle wine; instead, producers were happy just to let it age. Now, wine must be bottled and released as soon as possible, partly for financial reasons but also because neither producers nor consumers have the patience to wait.
This changed attitude to time and the patience required to age a wine is being taken to its extremes by researchers who are attempting to make wine artificially by replicating molecules found in wine so that no ageing is required whatsoever. There are, in theory, two advantages: as much “wine” can be made as consumers want in their preferred style and it takes no time.
This goal has not been achieved yet, the researchers still unable to make something that tastes quite like the real thing. But it isn’t just in wine that these scientific experiments have been occuring, and in whiskey an artificially created whiskey has just been successfully released. It’s called Glyph, made by a Californian company called Endless West, and I got to try it recently.
Glyph is a project in which the whiskey’s creators have scientifically researched the aromatic and textural compounds found in different styles of whiskey, isolated them as molecules, and created their own molecular blend with a neutral corn spirit as the base. Think of it as gin made with aromatic molecules instead of botanicals. The point of this project is that the flavour profile of any drink (or food for that matter) can be replicated, without nature slowly weaving its course to create something flavourful and complex: it takes just 36 hours to make.
As a money-spinning exercise, it’s brilliant. The whiskey has been featured in many mainstream magazines, raising interest in the drink (which is why I tasted it). Financially, it of course required investment to research and make the whiskey. But after that, given it takes less than two days to make, rewards are immediate.
The important question is, What does it taste like? Well, it looks, smells, and tastes like whiskey, which is an impressive enough feat, but it has none of the depth or concentration of flavour of a true whiskey, its finish full of alcohol rather than taste and texture. The aim of Glyph is to replicate aged Scotch and Japanese whiskies, even though they’re using corn as a base spirit and the bottle is labelled “whiskey,” but I don’t understand how anyone could confuse it with an 18-year-old Lagavulin - as has, apparently, happened.
We will never return to the days when Riesling is regularly aged for more than twenty years before release, but tasting this artificially-created whiskey proves that it’s the natural products as well as time that gives drinks like whiskey and wine their flavour and complexity - in essence, their taste! I don’t look forward to trying the first artificially-created wine.