The Impact of Elevation on Enhancing Liquor Maturation

The Impact of Elevation on Enhancing Liquor Maturation

ACE Copper Distillery

The ACE Copper Distillery is located at the Dead Sea, which is a salty lake that borders Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank. It holds the record for being the lowest land elevation on Earth, sitting approximately 1,385 feet below sea level. You cannot go any lower without sinking into the sea. The Milk & Honey Distillery in Tel Aviv is taking advantage of this unique location to explore the effects of low altitude on aged whisky.

“The extreme location is our strength,” says Tomer Goren, the Head Distiller at Milk & Honey. “We’re trying to make the most of this opportunity.”

Terroir, loosely defined as the characteristics of a specific place, has become an important aspect of spirit production. There is a growing focus on the cultivation of raw materials and the aging process in barrels. However, altitude has not received much attention until recently. That may change as more producers experiment with the effects of extreme altitudes, both high and low, in creating spirits.

According to experts, the impact of altitude can be particularly significant when it comes to barrel aging.

“Barrel aging, in general, holds a lot of mystery and magic,” says Karen Hoskin, the founder and owner of Montanya Distillers, a rum distillery located in the Colorado mountains at an elevation of 8,800 feet above sea level. “For me, being at a high elevation, one of the factors that affect the flavor profile development in a barrel is the penetration of the liquid into the wood.”

However, Hoskin points out that elevation alone is not enough. It also affects temperature, barometric pressure, and humidity.

“Temperature fluctuation had the biggest effect on Montanya,” says Hoskin. Her rackhouse in Colorado experiences a 20°F temperature difference between day and night, as well as significant variations between summer and winter.

The expansion and contraction of wood pores due to heat and cold influence the interaction between rum and oak, resulting in faster flavor development. Hoskin describes this kinetic process as dynamic aging. Some distillers attempt to simulate this effect by agitating barrels to increase liquid-wood contact.

Such temperature variations are less common in rum production in the Caribbean, where temperatures tend to remain stable.

“In some cases, at sea level, you put rum in a barrel, and after that, nothing changes,” says Hoskin. “There’s not much dynamic action going on.”

Hoskin also notes that different temperatures, humidity levels, and climatic conditions near the ocean produce different substances from oak, which can influence the flavor of the final spirit. For example, her casks produce sweeter aromas like vanillin and sucrose, while casks in the Caribbean may yield more fruity notes.

Altitude can also affect the alcohol content of spirits. “At my altitude, most of the water evaporates, so the alcohol level in my barrel increases,” says Hoskin. In a wetter environment at sea level, ethanol is more likely to evaporate, leading to a lower alcohol concentration. “You’re just losing your booze,” she adds.

Other distilleries are also curious about how different climates and elevations impact the aging process. Mitchael Mahar, a distiller, and Meghan Ireland, a blender at WhistlePig Distillery, embarked on a cross-country journey to study the effects of aging whiskey under various conditions.

To conduct their experiment, they filled 80 used barrels from Jordan Winery with rye whiskey. The barrels were then transported along Route 66, through the Arizona deserts, to southern California. There, the whiskey was transferred to barrels previously used for Firestone Walker beer. The journey continued through flatlands and the Colorado Rockies before returning to Vermont, where the distillery is located.

While it’s challenging to isolate the impact of elevation on the final “road trip whiskey,” the resulting rye had a distinct fruity and bright character, with hints of baked pear, almond, and spice.

“With Roadstock, we knew that barrel aging would involve many factors,” says Ireland. “During the journey, the whiskey was agitated a lot. And there were altitude changes: passing through higher elevations, drier climates, which affected how the whiskey interacted with the barrel. We also experienced significant temperature differences during the drive from Vermont to California and back.”

So far, there have been limited studies comparing the effects of altitude on spirits. It remains a largely experimental concept.

That’s why empirical evidence discovered by producers like Milk & Honey is so exciting. They recently released a whisky called Apex Dead Sea, an intense variation of their flagship single malt that was aged on a hotel rooftop located on the arid desert coast of the Dead Sea. The distillery is also working with “comparative casks,” identical single malts aged at two different locations: their facility in Tel Aviv (16 feet above sea level) and the Dead Sea project (1,385 feet below sea level). The difference between the two versions is immediately noticeable: the Dead Sea-aged whisky is darker, murkier, less honeyed, with an herbaceous quality, more pronounced oak notes, and muted spice tones.

There are more elevation-centric terroir experiments on the horizon.

“We’re exploring different places,” says Goren. “I’m excited to continue our geographical experiments with the Sea of Galilee and the Jerusalem Mountains.”

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