“With today’s science and tech, we have tools to engineer and control a spirit’s aroma, color and taste, and do so in a sustainable matter.”
It’s the not the most poetic booze pitch I’ve ever heard, but the philosophy behind the just-launched Bespoken Spirits isn’t about the hidden magic of a barrel or a wistful tale of a pre-Prohibition distillery that’s been revived or a secret recipe.
No, this spirits brand — well, tech brand that happens to work in spirits — is about disruption. And the environment. And mostly science. Their goal: take what’s now a multi-year process in aging whiskey, rum or any other spirit (or liquid that needs barrel aging) and get the exact result you want instead in just days through the use of a UFO-shaped device called an ACTivation machine.
“This isn’t a passive, roll the dice scenario like other distilleries,” explains Stu Aaron, the co-founder of Bespoken along with Martin Janousek (the two met 15 years ago when they both worked at a sustainability-focused fuel cell company — again, not poetic). “We’re using proprietary tech to install the [flavor of the] barrel into the spirit quickly.”
Bespoken’s idea of using material science and data analytics for boozy maturation instead of toasting barrels and placing them in rickhouses certainly wins on speed, consistency and necessary real estate. Basically, the company is combining their tech with “microstaves” (essentially a toasted barrel deconstructed into 25,000 pieces) to craft spirits in under a week that seem like they’ve been aged for years. Bonus: No lost angel share.
The duo compare the process, a bit clinically, to both a Pantone color wheel and Dippin’ Dots, noting that with their tech they can precisely create 17 billion unique and precise combinations of flavor and aroma.
The company cites a few use cases: The tech has been used to help some craft distillers “tailor” both young and mature spirits to a specified profile, and it’s also helped a few retailers create custom booze brands from scratch. (During our Zoom call we were able to see and hear about a few of them in more detail, but were not given specific brand names.)
A more specific example: Bespoken helped a brand that had purchased 200,000 gallons of a Canadian whiskey they loved when they initially sampled it, but the full batch they received tasted wildly different. “So they asked us to refine spirit to that profile they fell in love with,” says Aaron.
The company is also working with breweries to help up-cycle expired or excess beer (because COVID) into whiskey.
The founding duo has also launched an actual line of spirits called Bespoken, which utilizes their technology sourced from barely aged hooch from drinks giant MGP. We tried a Bespoken whiskey distilled from a bourbon mash that was infused with American charred oak microstaves. It had a nutty profile that revealed hints of maple and caramel as it evolved. It reminded me a bit of peanut brittle, but also of a well whiskey that I used to know very well from a now-shuttered East Village bar.
It’s not a flavor profile I love, and it did taste a bit young. But had you placed it before me in a blind tasting, I wouldn’t have guessed it was a whiskey speed-crafted via some crazy technology. It also did fine in an Old Fashioned, where I used a 1:1 honey syrup and two types of bitters.
Conversely, since the company had mentioned Maker’s Mark as a comparison due to that brand’s work with staves, I tested it against the recent MM Wood Finishing Series 2020 Limited Release. For now, the imprecise nature of aging is still a clear winner.
Bespoken does have one big name fan already: Derek Jeter is an early investor. “Derek and I had worked together in the past, when he was starting The Player’s Tribune,” says Aaron. “He’s an advisor, a brand ambassador and he’s offered a lot of feedback.” Aaron notes that the baseball icon’s interest is probably “more about company tech and innovation” and not about “liking any particular spirit or taste profile.”
“I’m committed to partnering with innovative companies that disrupt the status quo in a positive way,” said Jeter in a statement. “With sustainability at its core, Bespoken levels the playing field for craft breweries and distilleries, retailers and sports and entertainment entrepreneurs to create premium spirits brands quickly and ecologically.”
To credit Bespoken, it’s already racked up nearly two dozen awards at six different tasting events (via its own product and ones they’ve helped develop with other distilleries), including a rum they hadn’t even conceived until two weeks before one competition’s deadline.
In the end, Bespoken might serve best as a hidden but eminently useful piece of technology for established, old-school distilleries who need to make some discreet adjustments or want to test out a flavor profile (side note: there is plenty of precision, science and technology at a major distillery — it’s not all romance and intuition).
In a way, the Bespoken team agrees with this assessment. “We’re happy to be behind the scenes,” says Aaron. “And I our customers want us there.”
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