Kentucky’s prized export, bourbon whiskey, is in high demand these days.
The increase in global appetite, coupled by a shortage of white oak for barrels, is making some companies turn to technology for solutions.
One company is preparing to make bourbon, in a fraction of the time it usually takes to make a spirit worth sipping. Its rapid-aging chemical process is a wrinkle in the industry’s image, which is long-soaked in history and tradition.
Two titans in the spirit business are meeting at an upscale seafood restaurant for lunch.
On one side of the white tablecloth sits Charles Medley, a master distiller, whose family has been producing bourbon here in Owensboro for eight generations.
Medley’s a traditionalist, and you can tell – he’s wearing suspenders, and he keeps a test tube of his family’s live yeast in his home refrigerator, for extra insurance he says.
His company produces three bourbons that tout his lineage: Wathen’s, Old Medley and Medley Brothers, which has five faces on the bottle.
"Uncle Ben, Uncle Tom, Uncle John, Uncle Eddie and my Dad Wathen, all five of them," Medley said.
Across from Medley sits Earl Hewlette, the CEO of Terressentia, an international spirits company, based in Charleston.
He likes the crab cakes on the menu at this low country eatery.
But he’s purchased something else here in Owensboro: the old Charles Medley Distillery grounds. That acquisition took place in May 2014.
When it happened, Charles Medley suggested Hewlette use another name for his product.
“And I said, I’m happy for ya and I hope you do well, but you don’t want to call it Terressentia or Terrepure, your distillery in the state of Kentucky,” Medley said.
But Hewlette doesn’t plan on making bourbon the traditional way.
“We don’t need to age it for years and years," Hewlette said. "After we’ve had enough aging, then we can put it through our process, it takes about eight hours, and we have replicated four years of barrel aging.”
That’s right, a four-year bourbon, made in those eight hours.
Hewlette calls his patented technology, Terrepure.
“It’s certainly the smoothest form of bourbon you can get," Hewlette said. "It doesn’t have as much burn, doesn’t have as much bite, and it’s very smooth, and it’s at a good price.”
A better price because it doesn't have the expense of aging all those years. In traditional bourbon-making, the barrel acts like a sponge.
As the liquid expands and contracts with the seasons, it penetrates the charred white oak, and the toasted wood imparts rich flavor and color that give bourbon its smokiness and notes of vanilla or caramel.
This time-honored process is at the heart of the craft, which is why some distillers are skeptical of Terressentia’s process.
Woodford Reserve’s Master Distiller Chris Morris says it shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“All I know is there is no way to shortcut time in a barrel," Morris said. "We’re basically making an 1830s product today. It’s stood the test of time, so I just don’t know how these new processes are going to pan out in the future.”
Hewlette says he plans to sell his product in Europe first, where consumers may be less wed to the notion of tradition.
"There are all different kinds of products, all different ages," Hewlette said. "There are consumers that want aged product, and there are consumers that age isn't as important as taste and value. I don't think we're a threat to anybody, I think we're just another source of bourbon."
So while the debate may boil down to tradition versus technology -- there’s one obvious question that could determine its fate: "how does it taste?"
Tom Fischer, is a bourbon connoisseur and the founder of bourbonblog.com. He visited Earl Hewlette’s facilities in South Carolina to find out.
"I blindly tasted I think five or six different whiskeys," Fischer said. "He didn't tell me which one was their bourbon. I ended up ranking theirs either number one or number two, and it was right around the top — I think it was right at the top. And these were some major bourbons."
Fischer says it’s not something for the traditional distillers to worry about.
“It’s not going to change what traditional distilleries are doing, but there’s innovations happening all the time," Fischer said.
And Charles Medley agrees. He says it won’t hurt the established Kentucky Bourbon industry, it will just be another option on the shelf.
But Medley and his son decided not to license their family’s name to the new company moving into the Charles Medley facilities.
Why do they say no?
They’ll answer only, "to protect the integrity of the Charles Medley name."
Hewlette says the company is deciding on a name and plans to announce it during the groundbreaking in June.
A shorter version of this story aired on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday May 17, 2015.