Whiskey and Other Spirits Shed Barrels of Years in the Making with Innovative Technology
Some spirits companies are venturing into using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to accelerate the aging of whiskey from years to days, actively control the process that determines aroma, color, and taste, and even produce new high-quality recipes for spirits based on sales data and consumer preferences. Here is a review of some of these innovations.
Spirits like whiskey are commonly aged in wooden barrels for a long period of time. Some companies are now venturing into the acceleration of aging, working on machine learning approaches that can actively control the process and deliver premium tailored spirits in days instead of decades. AI is also being used to complement the crafting of producing high-quality whiskeys, opening the door to a new generation of AI recipes for a variety of products.
Although the business of maturation-as-a-service prides itself on an artisanal approach, traditional barrel aging can be a wasteful process. About 20% of the product is lost through evaporation, and because the process is so long, its financial challenges can leave little space for companies to innovate.
Several startups, however, have begun experimenting with new ways of not only maturing spirits but also recycling excess or expired products (an issue worsened in large part accelerated by the COVID-19pandemic), repeatedly creating bespoke whiskeys without the need to wait for years of maturation, and even using AI to perfect products based on what consumers prefer.
Two excellent companies with examples of such innovation are Bespoken Spirits, a Silicon Valley spirits company that has developed a new data-driven process to create specific flavors and accelerate the aging of whiskey, and Mackmyra, a Swedish business that combines the expertise of Master Blenders with AI models to create new and original whiskeys.
How Whiskey Is Produced
The process of whiskey making consists of three steps, which have existed in some shape or form from the second millennium BC when the Babylonians in Mesopotamia distilled aromatics.
The first step for creating whiskey is the crushing, heating, and mixing of barley, wheat, corn, or a mix of the three with yeast and water. While submerged, the yeast converts the sugars in the grain into alcohol in 3 to 15 days. Once this fermentation has happened, the liquid is distilled to capture and concentrate the alcohol and flavor particles while leaving some of the undesirable by-products behind. This process can occur one or more times.
Finally, the whiskey is aged in charred oak barrels (or bourbon, sherry, or rum barrels for some Scottish distilleries) for anywhere between 5 to 20 years. The maturation makes the whiskey smoother, gives it flavor, and draws its golden color from the cask.
Whiskey is one of Scotland’s best known manufactured products, with the largest markets for its consumption being the United States and France. All scotch whiskey must be matured for at least three years, but in the US, there is no minimum time required for a spirit to be legally called whiskey.
Accelerating Aging: Bespoken Spirits
Bespoken Spirits was co-founded by former Bloom Energy, BlueJeans, and Mixpanel executive Stu Aaron and Bloom Energy alumnus Martin Janousek. The company is the first to use a machine-learning approach for what they’ve called ACTivation technology — the A, C, and T stand for aroma, color, and taste.
Instead of putting the spirit in barrels and waiting passively over the years for them to mature, ACTivation can better control chemical reactions and complete the process in just days. Customers can tailor the aroma, color, and taste of their spirit and accelerate the time to increase revenue and reduce financial and environmental waste.
Their customization services can tailor products for different markets and introduce new products quickly, something particularly important amidst the financial strains of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bespoken Spirits have won prizes in a number of competitions, including Double Gold at the 2020 World Spirits Competition, Best of Category in the 2020 Judging of Crafts Spirits, and 2019 Gold Medal at MicroLiquor Spirit Awards, among others. The company has just raised $2.6 million in seed funding and includes investors such as Clos de la tech owner T.J Rodgers and baseball executive Derek Jeter.
AI Whiskey Recipes: Intelligenz
Another company experimenting with AI and the automation of whiskey creation is Mackmyra, a Swedish distillery located next to a boulder with constant access to crystal clear waters that prides itself in offering “the first whiskey created with artificial intelligence.”
Mackmyra’s recipes, sales data, and consumer preferences are fed into a machine learning model powered by Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform and Fourkind AI cognitive services. With this information, the model generated more than 70 million recipes that predicted the most popular and highest quality product. The winner was called Intelligenz. This single malt whiskey is golden yellow and has notes of toffee, creamy vanilla, pear, apples, white pepper, and oaks casks.
Toward Smart Whiskey
The two companies mentioned are great examples of technology assisting a craft that dates back hundreds (if not thousands) of years. By pairing the best expert curators with the power of AI and machine learning, these models can work faster and deliver unexpected results.
The example of Mackmyra also opens the doors for AI to be used in recipes for perfumes, sweets, and beverages, among many other kinds of products. It’s exciting to see what the future can bring to the process of creating new and innovative solutions.