Ageing, Accelerated Ageing, & Élevage ==> Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics

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Aging, maturation, curing, whatever you want to call it, is a hot topic these days. Many labels across many spirit categories are dropping age statements because they cannot keep up with soaring demand and many new entrants to the market are considering fake ageing techniques associated with a bygone era. I thought it may be fun to take a look at Arroyo’s progressive musings on the topic as he attempted to reform the sprawling rum industry.

The chapter on curing in Studies on Rum is pretty spectacular. For this conversation, it makes sense to start at the end:

We shall now close this chapter on the maturing of raw rums by touching lightly on the matter of accelerated curing of the raw distillate. Not all, or rather few, of the rums in the market have passed through a curing process such as we have outlined above. Our era of acceleration and impatience in all affairs of human endeavor would not allow of an exemption in the case of rum making. On the other hand, the ever increasing demands of the trade, the lack of adequate working capital, the anxiety for immediate returns, immoderate and unfair competition, and many other influences of business, compel the manufacturers to place their products on the market in the shortest possible time. As a direct result of the above-mentioned conditions, accelerated or quick aging processes have been developed, and are being developed all the time. There exist practically as many “secret methods” of artificial curing of rum as rectifiers are engaged in the business. Judging from what has been accomplished thus far, and from the nature and quality of the “rums” thus produced, the writer’s opinion is that the results obtained are very mediocre and unsatisfying; leaving the problem of artificial rum curing an open question.

What was outlined in the chapter was pretty much ageing as we think we know it, but as claimed few practiced it as of 1945. Puerto Rico was not the typical rum producing island as pointed out by Peter Valaer in 1937 so the local products being sampled by Arroyo are no exhaustive survey of the state of all rum production. Other islands were exporting tons of product to be aged in Europe so what was left for domestic consumption was likely another story.

Processes for rapid curing may be divided into two general classes: (1) Those merely tending to accelerate the reactions and changes occurring during natural ageing, and in this way accomplishing maturity of the raw product in a short time; but without the addition to the raw of extraneous substances, the so-called carriers of taste, aroma, and body. (2) Those intended to accomplish the results mentioned under (1); but using besides these extraneous matters, imparters of taste, aroma, and body. The method used under (1) will fall into four main divisions: (a) moderate heat treatment or intense cold treatment; or alternate treatments of heat and cold; (b) treatment with compressed air; oxygen, hydrogen peroxide or ozone; (c) exposure to actinic rays; (d) electrolytic treatment and use of catalysis. Methods under (2) above, may include all of the methods under (1), besides the addition of flavoring and aromatic substances for development of taste and bouquet. Among these added substances we may mention; (a) various types of sweet wines, among which the various “Moscateles” and “Málagas” from Spain; and prune wines from Scotland are much in vogue; (b) infusions of herbs, leaves, barks of trees, roots, etc. etc.; (c) alcoholic and aged fruit extracts, among which peaches, prunes, figs and apricots are much used; (d) artificial  essences of rums or brandy; (e) various natural and synthetic essential oils, and flavoring extracts as cassia oil, oil of cloves, artificial or natural vanilla flavor, oil of bitter almonds (free of hydrocyanic acid); and various sugars, as sucrose, dextrose, sugar cane syrup, maple syrup, and bee honey.

In this guise, beverages are made that although more deserving of the name of cordials or liqueurs, are labelled with the name of rum. We believe that all of this is avoidable and unjustified, should more and better attention be bestowed on the different stages of rum manufacture, and especially on rum yeast selection. Governmental regulations and inspection of the rums produced and sold in the local and United States markets wold be a great help towards fostering the interests of the industry, and securing the genuine article for public consumption.

Well, there wasn’t anything too new there, but it is a great organization of the concepts in the midst of when it was all going down by a scientist with a privileged vantage point. An item of trivia that I didn’t know about was that the prune wines came from Scotland. The paragraphs just tell semi specifics on fake aging and I caught most all of them in my investigation of Wired’s look at the Lost Spirits fake aging reactor. Not much has changed.

Lets back track to the beginning of the chapter and see if Arroyo gives anything helpful to frame rum maturation:

Is the expression “Aged Rum” equivalent to that of a “Matured Rum”?

We have observed that a great majority of persons use these two expressions as synonymous but they are mistaken. When one term is used as equivalent of the other we are merely confusing the end with the means, for really, maturity in the rum is the end sought, and ageing is one of the means employed towards the obtention of this end. Now then, although usually an aged rum is also matured, this sequence does not follow necessarily, nor there exists a definite lapse of ageing time at which the condition of maturity may be said to have been reached in all cases. On the other hand, a given rum may be matured without necessarily being what is commonly called an old rum. If the quality of maturity depended only, and exclusively, on the amount of time the rum had been kept aging, then perhaps the two expressions could be used indistinctly, but it is not so; ageing being only an important factor in the process of maturing. There are other, for instance, the potential capacity and adaptability of the crude rum or raw distillate to acquire the state of maturity. In our opinion, this factor is as important, or more perhaps, than that of ageing.

Profound! We want it so simplified, but it is not so simple. I am personally really enjoying the collapse of the age statements because it is really a test of the market’s ability to truly appreciate spirits. And, as usual, Hemingway would be siding with me. Can the market actually notice and evaluate maturity? No! Has it borrowed anything useful from wine appreciation? No!

With wine, we make our own pronouncement of maturity and as the age statement grows, so too does skepticism that it will be intact. We also value multiple levels of maturity. Luckily the bottle is its own curing vessel and we can leave our other bottles where they lie if they need more time. Wine gets too mature often and the majority of collected wines actually die in the cellar. I just drank an expensive Martinique rhum the other day that I thought easily spend too much time in wood. It was way too obviously tannic and that feature was a distraction from the aroma.

Notions of maturity will always be deeply personal (your own stance) and based on the idea that flaws only form when we have enough education to attach the symbolic tags of regrets or missed opportunities to specific sensory details. Maturity relates to the unsexy concept I use all the time that is the frequency of occurrence of sensory features. Wines become mature as they migrate from ordinary to extraordinary with a decreasing frequency of occurrence of sensory details. After a peak, they return to the ordinary but with a growing sense of regret and missed opportunity. With wine, many of us hold the same stance on maturity and there is consensus on what is truly great, but with spirits at the moment, few attain a vantage point to make sound declarations. Life is short, the art is long!

It may not be impractical to start differentiating a curing stage from an ageing stage and wine can help anchor the concept. Curing could be the stage when a wine or a spirit goes from inharmonious to a commonly accepted harmony. Wines cannot be enjoyed immediately upon the completion of fermentation and have to go through a stage (with its associated techniques) called élevage. Some will even say it is not wine, but merely fermented grape juice until it goes through the process. Ageing would come later and a true connoisseur should be able to appreciate the wine at multiple places in its ageing journey.

Spirits, some others maybe more so than rum, also go through élevage. This may most closely pertain to the transformation of specific congeners like the reduction of ethyl acetate and acetaldehyde. Where lees contact or micro oxidation are techniques of wine élevage, charcoal filtration or as we just found out, specific watering regimens (if not also reflective fermentation adjustments) are among the techniques spirits employ. It is probably safe to categorize caramel and added sugar as a heavy handed élevage technique.

As an illustration, let us take up an imaginary case of two raw rums and called them “A” and “B” respectively. Both raw rums are set to age in the same kind, size, and quality of barrels, and under equal conditions of temperature and relative humidity. At the end of one year the two rums are examined by the usual tests for maturity and it is found that rum “A” has already acquired the quality and general conditions inherent to a matured rum; while rum “B” has not quite reached this conditions. Rum “A” is then bottled, and the ageing of the “B” is continued, till at the end of another six months we find that it also has reached the state of maturity previously observed in the case of “A”. Would it be fair to consider sample “B” as more matured than sample “A” for the mere reason that is has aged for a longer period? Could we be justified in acclaiming rum “B” as superior to rum “A” for the mere fact that it cost more time and money to impart the characteristics of maturity to it? Evidently not. If at all, we could say that “A” was superior to “B” in an economic sense since it acquired maturity in two thirds of the time required by sample “B”.

This might be the example that the average consumer (where they stand now) needs, but hopefully we can quickly grow a little past that. In Arroyo’s era, rums were naively being produced without knowledge of options while the aspirations of each rum were roughly the same. Wine went through this phase lasting decades after prohibition ended and Amerine, Tchelistcheff et al. filled the role of Arroyo and taught us our options.

Older practices, contrary to Arroyo’s, were not without merit, and that was only realized as the aspirations diverged to where there was a fine market alongside the commodity market. A big flag to be raised was whether anything was compromised by designing a rum to be matured quicker? And how does it compare to wine design? There is a wide spectrum between building a wine like a brick house that can age forever and building a wine like a FEMA trailer. Rum aspirations are finally solidly diverging and we can now reflect back on all the available options like the wine industry has done in the last leg of its renaissance. Some of Amerine’s teaching had staying power across all styles of wine while others were relegated to low risk, massive volume, jug wine production. Rum has gone through all the same phases, we just haven’t noticed. With enough scholarship, some day we will be able to get really specific.

This example has been presented so that the reader may clearly grasp the meaning of ripeness or maturity of product as distinguishable from that of age of product. It is not fair to use solely the time a rum has been in the curing barrel as a criterium of its goodness or of its pretended superiority over a similar rum that has been less time ageing in the curing barrel. Hence, any standard of rum quality based solely on the lapse of time the different products have been aged, would be not only unscientific and erroneous, but also decidedly unjust. It is not the age of the rum that is bought and paid for by the public, but the genuine characteristics of body, aroma and taste that on reaching maturity a rum acquires. The time required by different rums to reach this state of maturity during ageing will depend, other conditions being equal, on the type and the quality of the product as a raw distillate.

This is where we need to get to. We get stuck on age statements and then we get stuck on what type of still was used yet rarely delve deeper into the parameters of still operation. Sadly, we never get to fermentation parameters or yeast type. I was really surprised that when I started writing about Schizosaccharomyces Pombe as a rum yeast, not one enthusiast in my circle knew of it as an alternative to budding yeast.

But this is rum and it is so varied, does any of this apply to Bourbon which is not so varied but losing its age statements? I do not know the answers but these are things we can start to think about. Bourbon has privately if not secretly seen astonishing technological advancements in the last twenty years. From what I gather, all the advancement were about monitoring traditional practices in an effort to stay consistent as production grew to meet global demands and hit sustainability targets. There may be a new effort from all the data to sculpt next generation products. Bourbon producers may have finally gone through all the Olympic trials with prospective yeasts as well as mastering congener creation to hit maturation targets faster. Bourbon producers may have taken the hard road, the Arroyo road, through massive research efforts and arrived at the 21st century.

Our researches on the question have demonstrated that great variations and difference exist in the capacity and adaptability of different raw distillates to acquire maturity. There are some capable of reaching this desirable condition in from one to two years of ageing, while others may require twice, and even thrice this time.

It is really amazing the little importance that is generally conceded to the quality of the raw distillate in most rum distilleries. Instead of trying to produce a raw spirit that would need the least trouble in treatment during rectification before finally bottling the product, producers spend their energies and efforts in finding new, more complicated, and laborious methods of curing the defects of poorly fermented and worse distilled raw spirits.

This may still be the case, but that will change when we all go post-Kavalan! I promise to some day elaborate.

And yet, to our view, the future of the rum industry is dependent, in its technical aspects at least, on the production of better raw spirits, raw rums that on account of their well-balanced chemical composition and excellence of physical and organoleptic characteristics, will require but little ageing time to acquire maturity.

Towards that goal a great part of our efforts have been directed, and we have found that the obtention of maturity is not due to one single cause, as for instance ageing; but that this final result is obtained through a happy combination of many factors which begin operating with the choice of fermentation agents and raw materials and end with the bottling of the product for public consumption. Every one of the different stages through which the product must pass before reaching the bottle, shall impart to it favorable or unfavorable conditions and characteristics towards the obtention of maturity. Hence, the final success or failure will depend on the manufacturer’s ability to employ those methods and technic that better and more efficiently contribute to the rapid acquirement of maturity.

Of some such methods we have been treating in the past chapters, and in this one we shall consider the phase of rum manufacture that supposedly bears the greatest influence on the subject under discussion.

Having thus obtained the rum in the raw state through the process of distillation it becomes necessary to develop to the utmost the inherent characteristics of a good product. This is secured by the process known as curing or maturing. Here we wish to state emphatically that by this process we do not mean converting a bad product into a good, wholesome one. Not by any means. The rum which is bad in its raw state will continue to remain so, no matter which is done with it, or to it. Proper rum curing is not a process to change or transform, but to develop and further enhance the latent qualities already existing in the right kind of raw distillate. Of course, a poor raw rum may be made to improve, but it will never be converted into a first-class beverage with distinctive seal of excellence through the curing process, whether the natural or slow, or the artificial or rapid curing be employed.

We all know, not all wines are age worthy. I probably don’t need to say much more so it is probably safe to stop there.

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