Photograph by Dorothea Schmid, laif/Redux
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Exactly how whisky ages in these single-malt barrels at Glenfiddich Distillery, Scotland, and elsewhere, is still a bit of a mystery.

Photograph by Dorothea Schmid, laif/Redux
The Plate

The Well-Hidden World of Whiskey Aging

It’s hard to understand and experiment with a process when purveyors keep their research under wraps.

As pioneers in the world of whiskey distilling take advantage of the brown liquor’s resurgence and try to speed up the traditional oak-barrel aging process, they face a big roadblock: an old guard of distillers who refuses to share their secrets.

An article from the tech news site, Ars Technica, does a deep dive into the whiskey production wars, complete with an explanation of what we know about the aging process (char, type of wood, and time in the barrel, etc., contribute to the flavor) and of some attempts to speed up and improve on the product. But it also highlights how companies are afraid to disclose details of their research for fear it could give a competitor an advantage.

And there’s not a lot of independent academic research outside the market happening, either. As funding has dried up, fewer academics are studying the aging process. Don Livermore, a master blender in a Canadian distillery, holds one of only two wood chemistry Ph.Ds in the world, notes Ars Technica.

The stakes are high and growing: U.S. sales of whiskey cases topped $2.7 billion in revenue in 2014, according to chief economist David Ozgo of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. The amount of rye whiskey produced has grown a whopping 536 percent since 2009, according to the council, although we drink about one-third of what we used to (see Our Historic Relationship With Alcohol: It’s Complicated.)

For a nation that has experienced renewed interested in heritage spirits—Mount Vernon recreated George Washington’s rye whiskey distillery in 2007—it would seem to be in our interest to speed up the whiskey aging process in order to keep up with demand. But for now, sharing information doesn't seem to be in the cards.

Heather Brady is a digital producer at National Geographic. On her time off, she loves porch-sitting with a well-made Old Fashioned cocktail (rye whiskey base, not bourbon). Follow her on Twitter.