The Ritz-Carlton’s Quadrant bar is using sound waves to simulate the effects of traditional barrel-aging on whiskey, producing what staff says are temporarily well-rounded spirits that taste just like their seasoned counterparts for a fraction of the price.
“We aren’t actually aging them — we are taking characteristics of what happens with aging and implementing them in spirits,” says Chris Mendenhall, the drink maker turned mad scientist at the West End bar (1150 22nd Street NW).
One creation, dubbed Bourbon Style #1, takes an undisclosed 120-proof, 9-year-old Kentucky bourbon “base” spirit that’s exposed to 20,000 pulses a second from a custom homogenizer housed behind the bar. While Mendenhall can’t calculate the exact “age” of the sonically shaken beverage, he estimates that the end product is similar to a whiskey that’s been mellowing for nearly 20 years.
“Instead of sitting in the barrel another decade, this takes the time of watching a TV show and you’re getting a similar profile,” he says.
Quadrant’s tastings are offered in two-ounce pairs: one tasting of the original spirit, called the “base,” and the “aged” variation, called the “change,” so guests can smell, see, and taste the differences. Pairings vary by style and cost $18 to $20. Its new “Travel Journal” summer cocktail menu, coming in June, will detail the scientific process involved.
“Purists are going to have a hard time wrapping their head around this. But for those who want to try whiskies in their high teens to low 20s and don’t want to pay $200 a shot, this shows you what time does,” Mendenhall says.
Other varieties use different ingredients to mimic flavor profiles drawn out through cask aging. Whiskey Style #1 tweaks a “base” of 90-proof Tennessee sour mash whiskey with the sound treatment and French oak chips soaked in sherry; Mendenhall says the “change” produces a smooth whiskey with notes of corn and vanilla. Another bourbon is sound-aged with American oak chips soaked in a 10-year-old port, which Mendenhall says results in a sweet and richer bourbon with caramel notes.
Mendenhall has been experimenting with the technology for over a year in his makeshift drinks “lab.” His inspiration: whiskey consumption has grown more rapidly than any other spirit in the industry, and man-made techniques to speed up the spirit’s aging process are on the rise. The time-tweaking process is pretty much still in its infancy, aside from a few players out there. Cleveland Whiskey is using pressure to replicate aging techniques, while retired U.S. chemist Orville Tyler combines whiskies with oxygen and applies ultrasound to the casks.
Right now there’s no other D.C. bar doing what Mendenhall is doing. Studies have found the sound-blasting results are temporary, so each bottle at Quadrant is labeled with its birth date (the current lineup behind the bar was created in January).
“It begins to revert back to its original state in about a year,” Mendenhall says. “It’s like milk — you need to keep an eye on the expiration date, and if we don’t use it you can throw it away.”
The Ritz-Carlton is still very much a player in the high-end spirits game; Teelings’ newly released 34-year-old single-malt Irish whiskey — kept locked in a vault alongside other rare selections — runs $1,200 a shot.