Take a seat and pour yourself a drink (no, no, a different one). You may need it to listen to this news.
If bourbon is your drink of choice, you may have heard quiet rumblings the last few years of something unsettling afoot: a possible shortage coming down the pipeline. A bourbon shortage would be an interesting type because — unlike other possible food shortages (the coffee shortage, for instance) — it’s not just a matter of not having enough of the ingredients. It’s a matter of people 20 years ago making some bad drinks-buying decisions.
Making bourbon is, in a sense, an attempt at trying to predict the future. What will the world be like 20 or so years from now, the whiskey maker must ask herself, and just how much bourbon might they want there? So to a large extent, our current shortfall is due to people in the 1990s underestimating how much bourbon we’d want to drink today — possibly because 1990s drinkers had worse taste in alcoholic beverages. (Curse you, Zima.)
The good news is, if bourbon-makers undershoot the mark with their production, they can always make more. The ingredients are not hard to come by. The bad news? Every new barrel starts its own new clock on the aging process. Is it possible to reset that clock, though?
There’s an interesting piece up in Nautilus today detailing some of the strange methods whiskey-makers are experimenting with to speed up the bourbon aging process, with everything from ultrasonic energy bursts to basically throwing in a whole bunch of oak chips and shaking. While the new methods certainly sound fun, this taste description sounds a little less fun:
Spirits aged for shorter amounts of time (four months instead of the two years minimum for federally approved straight bourbon, for example), have an edgy taste, often described as “hot,” “raw,” or “aggressive,” with a “shorter finish.”
Of course, not every bourbon is required to mellow for decades before it’s poured; plenty can and do take considerably less time. But, the longer it’s allowed to mellow, the more likely that any jagged notes in the flavor will have had time to soften. So much so that if the whiskey you’re selling is less than four years old, you’re required by federal whiskey law (yes, it’s a thing) to slap a label on the bottle alerting potential customers to that fact (let no one say they didn’t try to warn you).
The good news hidden in all this is that a bourbon shortage is by its very nature, a temporary thing. The bad news is that a solution, at least by traditional brewing methods, is always at least a decade or so away. But fear not! The future bourbon that will save us from a dispiriting future of offers of sad vodka-cranberries and weird little pickled onion martinis is already brewing. It’s just not ready to arrive quite yet.
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