Can Time & Oak Re-Engineer Bad Whiskey With a Wooden Hack?

Well…
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All of the products you see at the checkout line of a liquor store – bottle openers, trays that make fat ice cubes, stoppers that prevent your wine from going bad – do, in essence, the same thing: make it easier to drink alcohol. Some are gimmicks and others live up to their labels, but few do anything to substantively change whatever you’re drinking. Enter Portland, Ore.-based start-up Time & Oak, which claims that six-inch, serrated oak sticks can imbue well whiskey with cask-aged flavor. 

“Looking at the history of whiskey and how it’s made, the color and flavor comes from the barrel and barrel-aging,” says Time & Oak founder Tony Peniche. “If I put the Jack Daniel’s back in the barrel, I’d have to wait three years. But what if I put the barrel into the whiskey?”

It’s a bit more complicated than it sounds: The wood’s natural capillary action, cycles the liquid and acts as a filter while adding flavor. The brand is still in the Kickstarter phase (part of the lifecycle of modern companies), but the plan is to eventually release sticks with different flavor profiles by tweaking their toast to bring out the notes of caramel, vanilla or maple already present in the oak. 

There’s really only one question that remains: Does it work?

I’m not a whiskey expert, so I turned to Washington, D.C. bar owners Jeremy Carman and Gavin Coleman and asked for their help in designing a test. These guys visit the Brown-Forman honchos in Kentucky each year just so they can custom blend a signature barrel of Woodford Reserve for their bars Sixth Engine, The Dubliner and Town Hall. They know what they’re doing when it comes to whiskey.

Carman determined the metrics. If you could add the sticks to a fifth of Brown-Forman’s entry-level Old Forester ($17.99) which has a similar recipe of corn, rye and barley as the fancier Woodford Reserve ($34.99), and get it to taste just as good, Time & Oak would have itself a winner and coopers would have a reason to be nervous.

You wouldn’t be wrong if you called Old Forester young and harsh. And even after being treated with the element, that harshness was still present, so we had to call its impact on the Old Forester negligible. It took a not-so-great whiskey and gave it a more smoky character, but the whiskey was still pretty rough. Tasting Woodford Reserve side-by-side backed that up. “This is so much better,” said Carman while sipping the good stuff.

Ultimately, a really good bottle of whiskey will still win out over a crap bottle treated with a whiskey element, and Peniche understands that. “[But] flavor and taste is all about personal preference,” he says. “You don’t have to let all these distillers tell you how to drink your whiskey. It’s not their whiskey anymore; it’s your whiskey now.”

Carman envisioned using the whiskey element to add a more varied flavor profile to a cocktail. “I think it’s kind of a cool product in that it’s imparting a specific flavor -- smoke and char -- and if someone was looking for that, they could use it.”

And while the experts were intrigued by the product, they figured it might only generate narrow interest in the larger market. “It’s an interesting product that imparted a lot more flavor than I thought it would in two days,” said Coleman. “As far as elevating a less expensive whiskey to something better, I don’t know if it’s something I would choose.”

Photos by Time & Oak