RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Kentucky bourbon is in high demand these days, and that's led to a shortage of barrels. Bourbon is typically aged for years in wooden casks. Well, one company has come up with a chemical process that ages bourbon in just a few hours. As Cass Herrington of member station WNIN reports, the innovation is roiling the industry.
CASS HERRINGTON, BYLINE: Buffalo Trace, Knob Creek, Jefferson’s and Old Grand-Dad - these are the names of a few Kentucky bourbons you'll see at the liquor store. There's another brand hoping to compete for attention - Terressentia.
CHARLES MEDLEY: And I said, you know, I'm happy for you. And I hope you do well. But you don't want to call it Terressentia or Terrepure.
HERRINGTON: That's Charles Medley, a seventh generation master distiller. He says Terressentia doesn't quite have the same historic folksy ring to it as traditional Kentucky bourbons. And that's what he told Terressentia's CEO Earl Hewlette last year.
EARL HEWLETTE: You're a distillery in the state of Kentucky. And so we're working on that right now where he can use the name Charles Medley. We just talked about it today.
HERRINGTON: Not only does Terressentia want the Charles Medley name, which is known for its century-long history of distilling in western Kentucky, it bought the company's unused distilleries last year. The company has been producing its product in South Carolina. Hewlette says tradition is important, but he's not making bourbon the traditional way.
HEWLETTE: We still age in a barrel, but we don't need to age it for years and years. We can put it through our process. It takes about eight hours. And we have replicated more than four years of barrel aging.
HERRINGTON: That's right - a four-year bourbon made in eight hours.
HEWLETTE: It's certainly the purest form of bourbon you can get. And it doesn't have as much some burn, doesn't have as much bite. It's very smooth. And it's at a good price.
HERRINGTON: A better price because it doesn't have the expense of aging all those years. 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.
CHRIS MORRIS: All I know is there's no way to shortcut time in a barrel. What we're basically making - an 1830s product today. It stood the test of time. So I just don't know how these new processes are going to pan out in the future.
HERRINGTON: 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: And try several glasses. I mean, just don't do a sip...
HERRINGTON: Tom Fischer is a bourbon connoisseur and the founder of bourbonblog.com. He visited Earl Hewlette's facilities in Charleston, South Carolina to find out.
FISCHER: I blindly tasted, I think, five or six different whiskeys. He didn't tell me which one was their bourbon. I ended up ranking theirs either number 1 or number 2. I mean, it was right around the top. I think it was right at the top. And these were some major bourbons. I won't name which ones they were. I wouldn't want to upset anybody.
HERRINGTON: But Fischer says it's not something the traditional distillers should worry about.
FISCHER: There's innovations that are happening all the time, and I think this will just lead to a greater discussion about what is happening in the world of whiskey and happening in the world of spirits.
HERRINGTON: And Charles Medley agrees. He says it will just be another option on the shelf. For NPR News, I'm Cass Herrington in Owensboro, Kentucky.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE SCOTCH, ONE BOURBON, ONE BEER")
AMOS MILBURN: (Singing) Please mister bartender, listen here. I ain't here for trouble and have no fear - one scotch, one bourbon, one beer.
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