When it comes to bourbon, Tom Lix doesn’t believe in age discrimination. Most bourbons might age in the barrel for eight to 12 years or more, but Lix figures his are ready to drink in under a week.
Lix makes Cleveland Whiskey, a new brand of bourbon that exemplifies two major trends in American whiskey-making today: the desire to speed up the process and the effort to establish a local identity.
His distillery is located far from the rolling hills of Kentucky — it occupies a large, ground floor space in a state-owned manufacturing incubator in Cleveland that’s also home to a couple of dozen other companies that make things such as artificial bones. Lix has taken advantage of his mechanical engineer neighbors to work on the custom machinery that makes his quick-aging product possible.
Bourbon is typically aged over a period of time in which fluctuating temperatures throughout the day move distilled liquor in and out of the pores of oak barrels. Lix uses pressure to speed this up. He pours distillate into a stainless steel vat and throws cut-up pieces of barrel in after it.
He wouldn’t let me see his machinery — “intellectual property,” he says — but it sounded something like an overloaded washing machine during the spin cycle. Each beat, Lix says, is roughly the equivalent of 24 hours in a stationary barrel. The agitation squeezes the wood like a sponge and the “aging” of each batch is done within a few days.
Lix is not the only small distiller seeking to cut the maturation process back as much as possible. Many are using smaller barrels, which work faster but end up costing more. Tuthilltown Spirits, in Gardiner, N.Y., blasts music through stereo speakers in order to get the barrels vibrating.
“Small distillers are always looking for ways to get their product to market fast,” says Frank Coleman, senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, who notes that the number of small distillers has doubled over the last three years. “There’s definitely a gold-rush mentality right now.”
No wonder. Sales of bourbon have increased by 69 percent over the past decade, Coleman says, while sales of so-called super-premium brands have quintupled. Exports of whiskey, especially bourbon, have grown exponentially.
That’s the market Lix entered into in March, with the release of his first batch of Cleveland Whiskey. Lix, who learned to make spirits during his Navy days, formerly owned Public Interactive, which makes Web applications for public radio stations. (I didn’t know about this connection before meeting him for this story.)
He let me compare a few sips of his product alongside Knob Creek, which is the brand we favor in our house for making sidecars. I should say that I don’t drink bourbon straight and rarely drink whiskey that isn’t Irish. To me, Lix’s mix tasted better than the Knob Creek, with less burn and less of an alcohol aftertaste.
Not everyone’s a fan. Matt Wunderle, a whiskey aficionado from Cleveland who now lives in Columbus, calls it “a disgustingly dark bourbon” and likens it to paint thinner.
“It smells like a woodshop,” Wunderle says. “It’s hard to describe how bad it is.”
You can’t fool Mother Nature, say the traditionalists. But the collective wisdom of crowds is what matters in sales. Lix sells out of his run of 1,000 bottles a week, which retails for about $35 a bottle. He intends to double production this month. “It’s not nearly enough,” he says.
Sam McNulty, who owns a half-dozen restaurants in Cleveland, says one or two of his bars will be sold out of Cleveland Whiskey at any given time. “They’re definitely coming back for seconds,” he says. “A lot of the traditionalists, quite frankly, are afraid of what Tom is doing because it’s a very disruptive technology.”
If Lix’s methods are novel, his branding is in keeping with a larger trend. The habit some people have picked up of asking for local beers is starting to catch on with spirits.
Lix says he test-marketed the Cleveland name in cities as distant as Boston and Dallas and got a good reception, but it resonates best among the proud locals.
“I always wonder what the sales are like in Pittsburgh,” says Chris Wilson, manager of a local outpost of an Ohio chain of taverns called Winking Lizard. “If they came up with a whiskey called Pittsburgh, I sure as hell wouldn’t try it.”