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Top 10 unusual drinks ageing methods

Some might believe there is nothing better for a bottle of wine than good handling and time spent in a carefully managed cellar. Others meanwhile are experimenting with ageing methods that push the boundaries of tradition.

ageing bottlesWhile debate on the optimum conditions for ageing varying drinks will continue, with shape, altitude, temperature and motion all important considerations to a drink’s development, producers’ experimentation makes for an increasingly diverse and evolving drinks market.

From the depths of the ocean to outer space, it seems there are no limits to when it comes to exploring the possibilities and effects of different ageing methods. Most recently Ardbeg sent a vial of whisky into space to taste the effect of zero-gravity on ageing whisky.

Following the distiller’s assessment of its out-of-this-world experiment, we round up some of the most innovative, interesting, time-honoured and wacky drinks ageing methods out there.

Scroll through for a look at some of the more world’s most unconventional drinks ageing methods…

Have we missed any? Please leave a comment below.

Ardbeg’s space whisky

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Last month the results of Ardbeg’s three-year whisky-ageing experiment were released. Having tasted a vial of whisky that had spent nearly three years in space, the distiller confirmed it had a “dramatically different” flavour profile to its earth-bound counterpart. The vial of unmatured whisky was blasted to the International Space Station in 2011 as part of a study to test the effect of near-zero gravity on flavour, with a second control vial kept for comparison on earth. The distiller declared the results to be “as remarkable as they were unexpected”.

 

Dr Bill Lumsden, Ardbeg’s director of distilling and whisky creation, said: “We have demonstrated that in micro-gravity terpenes behave differently in this environment compared to those on earth. This observation alone has implications for not just the malt whisky industry, but those of the food and drinks industry in general. Secondly the results have proven that in conditions of micro-gravity, the pattern of extraction of components of oak wood into spirit is different, with a degree of inhibition observed. This has given rise to the intriguing possibility that a database could be established detailing a ‘normal’ ratio of wood extractives covering a range of ages of spirit/whisky, which could then be used for comparison against potentially spurious samples.”

Meteorite-aged wine

An Englishman working in Chile launched what is believed to be the first wine aged with a meteorite, formed during the birth of the solar system, in 2012.

Ian Hutcheon’s Cabernet Sauvignon, called Meteorito, was aged with a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite from the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Belonging to an American collector, the three-inch meteorite is believed to have crashed into the Atacama Desert in northern Chile around 6,000 years ago. The wine was held in a wooden barrel with the meteorite, with Hutcheon believing the meteorite to give the wine a “livelier taste”.

 

The extra-terrestrial wine was created at Hutcheon’s Tremonte Vineyard in the Cachapoal Valley in Chile, which he bought in 2009.

 

Egg-shaped ageing

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There has been much debate in recent years on the benefit of using egg-shaped concrete casks to age wines. Chilean organic and biodynamic producer Emiliana was one of the method’s eary converts, relaunching its Signos de Origen range in 2012 after switching to vinification in “concrete eggs”.

Believing the concrete eggs to be the “perfect shape” to better express the fruit producing wines that are “softer” compared to their barrel-aged counterparts. Alvaro Espinoza, Emiliana’s consultant winemaker, first brought these vessels to Chile in 2009, which have emerged as an increasingly popular choice for winemakers around the world.

In 2012 Drappier became the first Champagne house to use egg-shaped oak-fermenters to produce its wines. While egg-shaped vessels have become increasingly common for fermenting and ageing wine – with Nomblot credited with producing the world’s first concrete egg in 2001, and Taransaud the pioneer of a wooden equivalent exactly 10 years later – Burgundy’s Domaine Leflaive became the first producer to create an egg-shaped cellar in 2014.

Last year a tasting of wines aged in the producer’s new egg-shaped cellar were found to be superior to those stored in its old facility. Following the tasting, which comprised “14 very well known winemakers”, as many as 90% of those present “thought that the wine aged in the egg cellar was a more elegant wine”, according to the late Anne-Claude Leflaive.

Amphora-matured wine

Amphorae_stackingLong-used by ancient winemakers, amphora are a type of container with a distinctive shape descending from at least as early as the Neolithic Period. The vessels were used to transport both liquid and dry products, but mostly wine.

Amphora-matured wines have been making waves in the wine world in recent years, with top Bordeaux producer Pontet-Canet one of the method’s most prolific converts. The estates’ technical director Jean-Michel Comme spent three years trialling different sizes and shapes of amphorae, resulting in around 15% of Pontet-Canet’s 2012 vintage to be matured in this way. The concrete vessels are intended to provide a more neutral flavour effect than oak, allowing better fruit expression.

An alternative to concrete eggs, whose purpose is similar, Pontet-Canet aren’t the only ones to have used amphorae to age their wines. South African producer Hamilton Russell Vineyards reported in 2012 that its experiments with clay amphorae had created wines with improved structure than those matured in barrels.

Experimenting with its Chardonnay, Hamilton Russell said the amphorae “enable the wine to develop without vanillins and tannins.”

To the equator and back again

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Aquavit is a Scandinavian-based spirit first whose origins date back to the 1500s. It is a flavoured spirit distilled from either grain or potatoes, similar to vodka, and then flavoured with herbs, spices, or fruit oil. Common flavours include caraway, cardamom, cumin, anise, fennel, and lemon or orange peel. The spirit usually has a yellowish hue, but this can vary from clear to light brown, depending on how long it has been aged in oak casks (specific to Norway) or the amount of colorant used.

While there are several prominent Aquavit brand, including Løiten, Lysholm and Gilde, it is Norway’s Linie Aquavit that has the most unusual, and elaborate, ageing method.

Named after the tradition of ageing oak barrels of aquavit on ships, its producers send barrels of the spirit on ships from Norway to Australia and back again to ensure their cargo passes the equator (“linje”) twice before being bottled. The constant movement, high humidity and fluctuating temperature is thought to cause the spirit to extract more flavour, resulting in an accelerated maturation period. Boats loaded with “Line Aquavit” still regularly set sail from Norway to Australia and back again before they are sold.

Oak bottle ageing

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For those too impatient for their 2014 vintage bottles to reach their full potential, an oak bottle could perhaps be the answer.

Launched on Kickstarter in January, Oak Bottle is the brainchild of 30-year-old Canadian entrepreneur Joel Paglione, and claims to replicate the effects of oak ageing on entry-level wines in a day. Users need only pour their chosen beverage into the bottle and wait a couple of days, depending on the intensity of the oak flavour they desire. Made from sustainably sourced American oak, the £50 bottle can also be used to enhance the flavours of Bourbon, Tequila, brandy, vodka and gin.

In January a similar bottle called the Pinocchio Barrique was launched on crowdfunding website Kickstarter. Made from European oak, the bottle is designed for any drink with an abv of at least 12%, from wine and whisky to grappa, and promises to enhance its flavour. However, the Pinocchio Barrique Bottle takes 10 days to replicate the effects of six months in an oak, while the Oak Bottle allegedly takes just two.

db is yet to test either product.

Whisky ageing stick

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Working along a similar line this innovation promises to do for whisky what the previous oak bottles do for wine.

Whisky Elements, launched last year by US-based group Time & Oak, is essentially a wooden, laser-etched stick of wood which claims to be capable of replicating the flavours gained from ageing whisky for three years in an oak barrel in just one day. Promising consumers the chance to turn their entry-level whisky into a top-shelf spirit in just 24 hours, the product is designed to be placed inside a decanter of whisky, altering its flavour to recreate the effect of a long-aged spirit.

Time & Oak’s Whiskey Elements are cut in a way that, according to its manufacturer, allows the liquid to gain more exposure to the wood’s capillaries, a process it calls “accelerated transpiration through capillary action”.

Madeira’s hot maturation

MadeiraWineryThe Portuguese island of Madeira is known for its fortified and sweets wines, but is also home to a unique wine ageing method, originally intended to protect wines from damage during long sea voyages through tropical climates. 

Historically, Madeira winemakers would subject their wines to a hot maturation process that saw bottles aged in the hulls of ships carrying it to export markets. The heat accelerated the ageing process caramelising the sugars in the wine and leading to the phrase “Maderised”. Today, this process has been replicated using two main methods, Canteiro and Estufa.

The first sees wines left in racks called canteiros in the lofts of merchant’s lodges, where temperatures can reach 30 degrees centigrade. All single varietal and vintage wines are aged in this way. Canteiros must be aged for at least three years before they can be sold.

The second method, Estufa, is used for younger, non-varietal, commercial wines. Wines are pumped into stainless steel containers (estufas) and heated for a minimum of three months to temperatures if between 45 to 50 degrees. These wines can only be sold after at least two years ageing.

Shipwrecked treasure

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In recent years there has been much debate on the benefits of ageing wine underwater, a possibility that has been explored further following the discovery of several centuries-old wines and beers in long-forgotten shipwrecks.

In 2010 168 bottles of 170-year-old shipwrecked Champagne were found unusually well preserved 50m below the Baltic sea. Produced by Champagne Houses including Heidsieck & Co, Ponsardin, Veuve Clicquot and Champagne Juglar, three Veuve Clicquot bottles were opened by a team of scientists led by Prof Philippe Jeandet from the University of Reims in Champagne-Ardenne.

While the bottles were found to contain high levels of sugar along and traces of arsenic and much of the CO2 had dissipated, much of the wine’s chemical features were preserved thanks to the “close to perfect” ageing conditions of the cold and dark seabed. Such conditions had allowed the Champagne’s “intrinsic features” to be preserved, allowing the team to shed light on the winemaking practices of the 19th century.

Publishing their findings in the journal PNAS, the team noted that the “composition of 170-year-old Champagne samples found in a shipwreck in the Baltic Sea constitutes a remarkable and unprecedented example of long-term combinatorial chemistry, which can occur in such sealed 750-ml microlaboratories.”

Speaking to the BBC, Jeandet explained how he was only able to taste  0.1ml of the wine as part of his analysis. He said it was “impossible to smell” because of the tiny quantity, but that the taste remained on his palate for “two of three hours”, recounting flavours of tobacco and leather.

Underwater ageing

aquaoirwine-155x491The discovery of such wines has led to further experimentation and discussion on the potential of underwater ageing, using the seabed to age wines under more controlled circumstances.

Several wineries across the world creating their own underwater wine cellars to test the affects compared to land-aged counterparts. Once such winery is California’s Mira Winery in Napa, which has been ageing its Aquaoir wine 60 feet underwater for several years. It believes ageing wines underwater causes the liquid to take a “divergent ageing path” and taste different to their land-based counterparts.

Most recently, the winery sunk eight cases of 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon 60 feet under the sea for six months. Pulled up last year, lab tests confirmed a similar chemical makeup to land-aged wines, but a blind taste test resulted in two sommeliers asserting that Aquaoir did taste different. Meanwhile Veuve Clicquot has consigned several bottles of its wine to the Baltic Sea, close to the spot where the shipwrecked bottles that helped spark the mini-craze for underwater ageing were found in 2010.

Despite enthusiasm from some corners of the wine trade, US federal authorities have taken a dim view of ageing wine underwater, warning it may be illegal. Taking its cue from the Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, authorities warned that potential contact with ocean water could render the wines “adulterated” under federal law and thus illegal to sell because they have been stored in “unsanitary” conditions.

 

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