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First ever sonic maturation

Sonic maturation is literally the act of agitating maturing whiskey using sound. The sound itself can be anything so long as it’s got a good bass frequency, so music like heavy metal or dance music are good. These vibrations are said to help develop a whiskey’s colour and aroma quicker by allowing the liquid to interact with the oak cask more.

It’s certainly an experimental idea, first thought up and used in 2001 by Ralph Erenzo and Brian Lee, owners of Tuthilltown Distillery in Hudson Valley, New York State, about 80 miles north of New York City.


This pair are the epitome of craft distillers, setting up Tuthilltown with no experience, no plan and no real equipment. Heck, Ralph Erenzo hadn’t even wanted to be a whiskey maker. An ex-professional rock climber, he’d bought the land hoping to set up a rock-climbing retreat – but the locals objected so vehemently he’d had to think again. (The site was once home to a grist mill from 1788, which might have influenced his final decision).


But what they lacked in experience they more than made up for in energy and unconventional ideas. Not bound by the same regulations as Scotch (with its strict Scotch Whisky Association production rules), they were able to push bourbon boundaries to fun new places. They use small barrels, for instance, to speed up the maturation of their whiskey – but also get the coopers to drill ‘dimples’ into the inside of the casks, to increase the oak to liquid ratio.


They’d also heard that regularly rotating their barrels would help the whiskey age better and quicker. But the thought of manually turning all those heavy casks every month filled them with dread (not to mention they didn’t have the manpower to make it happen). So instead, they came up with the idea of sonic maturation, with ex-engineer Lee bringing a truckful of bass speakers and subwoofers to a maturation warehouse (rickhouse) and pressing play.


It is said those first barrels enjoyed rippling away to dubstep and A Tribe Called Quest. In those early days, Ralph Erenzo used to live in a house just down the road and was regularly woken in the small hours to the thump of hip-hop music (he used to walk over and turn the noise off so he could get some sleep!).


The experiment was such a success that they even asked a professional sound engineer to explore the perfect frequency to shake their barrels. After many calculations, a long-playing track was designed, playing a varying range of bass rhythms to agitate the different-sized barrels. But while effective, the two founders declared it “boring” and went back to the music they knew and loved.


It somehow seems appropriate that the first whiskey distillery in New York State since Prohibition should make their Hudson Bourbon in such an innovative and experimental way.

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