Cleveland Whiskey: Breaking Tradition for Innovation

Cleveland, Ohio – The middle child of the Rust Belt, home of Rock and Roll, and the location of what will always be known as Jacob’s Field, or “The Jake”, is now home to its very own whiskey company. There is a current boom in the whisk(e)y world as distilleries and companies alike continue to pop up across the globe. There’s simply a lot of demand out there as whisk(e)y continues to grow in popularity.

cleveland-whiskyFounded by Tom Lix, a former Marketing Executive here in Boston and student at Boston University, Cleveland Whiskey is not a craft distillery but more so an independent bottler with their own form of further maturation. Produced in a 3,000 square foot facility, the company currently sources their whiskey from an unknown distillery with a mash bill made up of 51% corn and an undisclosed portion of rye, wheat, and barley. Once received, Lix and his team put the whiskey through a patent-pending aging process that is made up of loose, cut staves from their own barrels and a large pressure vacuum. The already 6 month old whiskey is aged this way for 6 days to create what Lix describes as the equivalent of 10 to 12 year old bourbon. Lix even states, “it makes for a fuller body, better tasting whiskey”.

Cleveland Whiskey has begun their own distilling, but on a very small scale with small scale equipment. However, they are looking to expand into a larger facility.

stave-cuttingThe rapid “aging” process manipulates temperature and pressure and squeezes the wood like a sponge, forcing the young whiskey through the barrel segments stored inside Lix’s top secret pressure chamber. The result – an almost black in color bourbon known as, you guessed it, Cleveland Whiskey Black Bourbon. There is no color added and it is bottled at 50% (100 proof). At least they’re bottling it at a high ABV. Oh, and non chill-filtered I believe.

Cleveland Whiskey is no doubt turning some industry heads and causing a bit of an uproar with their new innovative aging styles. The question is, is this true innovation or is it just one man’s attempt at trying to dip his hand in the river of increased demand that is the current whiskey industry? Lix is quoted as saying, “whiskey is booming, with all forms of it generating $25 billion in sales last year. The Russians are drinking more, the Chinese are drinking more and consumption of imported whiskies rose 38 percent in India last year”.

It is difficult for new companies to begin earning revenues and profit due to the time it takes for maturation. Lix’s process is essentially bypassing the normal maturation process by using his rapid extraction techniques. Is this cheating the system, though? Not according to Lix who states his process is just as good. Sometimes fighting tradition is difficult, any Scottish distillery who has gone up against the Scotch Whisky Association can tell you that. It’s not only about tradition, though, it’s about what’s not taking place; the actual involvement and interaction between wood and spirit over time.

The whiskey itself is selling out, and selling out fast. The people of Northern Ohio are very passionate and supportive of their local companies, especially when it comes to alcohol. Just ask the Great Lakes Brewing Company, creators of some very tasty brew. Ohioans are so passionate about this new American spirit that stores can’t keep it on the shelves. “Every time it comes in, it immediately sells out”, a NE Ohio wine & spirits business says.

Currently, Cleveland Whiskey can only distribute throughout Ohio, but luckily for me I have a great deal of family out that way. A bottle for tasting and review will be coming soon, and at that time I’ll fill you in on whether or not this unique ‘aging’ style actually does what Lix says it does – We shall see.

(Update: See my Cleveland Whiskey review here)

What are your thoughts?

30 thoughts on “Cleveland Whiskey: Breaking Tradition for Innovation

  1. Interesting. Brings the whole conversation of aging in small barrels to the next level. Seems like the rapid wood aging process would sacrifice a lot of the natural elements of aging such as temperature changes and the gradual ebb and flow of the wood over time. I dunno, I’m skeptical. Interested to hear your thoughts on the juice, though, once you get a sample.

  2. I’m very skeptical myself, Terry. There is so much interaction between the wood and the spirit over time (extraction / injection) that is simply being eliminated.

  3. Hi there..I just had some and love it. Very smooth. And I normally drink Knob Creek. Also, had a couple friends do a blind taste test vs Knob and both picked the cleveland whiskey black bourbon.

  4. Hi Joe. Interesting – Knob Creek is no doubt a bourbon that carries a huge wood/oak influence. How would you compare that to the Black Bourbon? I’m really interested in trying it out, so hopefully my brother gets me a bottle soon.

  5. Hey Phil. I’ll definitely decant you some once I acquire a bottle. Regarding price, Lix has stated multiple times that one of the main reasons he is producing whiskey this way is so he can produce it at a much faster rate, which allows him to sell it at a much lower cost than other whiskies on the market. That being said, when comparing to the general market, which is what I believe Lix is trying to do, the price of Cleveland Whiskey is something I’d consider either average or perhaps even slightly above average. The price for a 750ml bottle is $35.

  6. The article has an error. CFR27,chap4 of TTB regulation defines bourbon and it can be stored in new charred oak barrels for any length of time (after 2yrs it’s “straight bourbon whiskey”). Many micro distillers sell <2yo Bourbon. Tom Lix in various publications suggests that he is buying bourbon from KY & IN aged for 6 months, then processing it. The label has no aging statement.

    I've tasted Cleveland whiskey (100pf, $35/750ml). If has a few good high pitched aromas, one similar to Bookers. Has a lot of barrel flavor, some sweetness, but also too many prickly phenolic raw wood notes. The grist has a good bit of rye. On the downside it still has some "new make" ethyl acetate solventy aroma & flavor, it has a constant "burnt marshmallow" char aroma, The finish is odd, woody/harsh. Also this whiskey is cloudy – they need a polishing filter to remove char particles.

    My opinion is that they've succeeded in extracting (perhaps over-extracted) more wood flavors, but both good and bad (raw-wood phenolic & char) flavors. They've failed to reproduce the congener evaporation and the various oxidation processes that happen over years of barrel aging.

    It's not insultingly bad, but in a market where Woodford Reserve sells for less, and has a better flavor profile – I don't see this as a successful product. More an interesting experiment.

  7. Hi Steve. Thanks for that correction – You are absolutely correct on the differentiation between Bourbon and Straight Bourbon. I’m still a bit on a learning curve when it comes to American spirits. In case anyone else is interested, though, it can be found under (CFR-27, Part 5, Subpart C-5.22).

    I’ve read a number of articles, but there didn’t seem to be much consistency when comparing information. Thinking it was already at least 2 years old I thought maybe it wouldn’t be too rough, but at 6 months, that’s very young. This makes me recall a recent article I read on “California White Slow Hand Whiskey” – It is aged for less than ten minutes. Love marketing sometimes.

    I’m going to have to wait until I taste it, but being over-extracted due to the spirit being forced all the way through the wood and having those rough woody notes is exactly what I’m expecting.

    You’re comment regarding Woodford is exactly right. The fact is there are a number of great bourbons at or below the $35 price point. I am looking forward to tasting it, however. All part of the fun I guess.

    • Thanks WmG. For the record I do not mean to imply that Cleveland Black Bourbon is not an interesting and tasty product. It’s certainly worth a tasting.

      Mr.Lix (I met him and his test distiller Andy ?? at last Friday’s Cleveland kickoff event) is very cagey about exactly what he is doing. Certainly he is cutting up the barrels he receives. I’ve been told these are not toasted or re-charred. They go into some sort of (patent pending, secret) process where pressure is varied to extract wood flavors. There is also a label note about adding oxygen (presumably to promote oxidation and creation of lactones from barrel FAs), tho’ without any detail.

      Mr.Lix did not confirm the source of the bourbon, tho’ LDI/MGP,, the only large distiller in Indiana. Perhaps FourRoses in KY is the rest as they outsource for Bulleit Bourbon too. He does not confirm the reported 6 month barrel age of the bourbon he receives (maybe it’s 6 days, maybe it’s 6 years !), and he will not specify how long his process takes. 2010 (Whiskey Advocate) reports and even some 2012 ones, claim he could age whiskey in 6 months. More recent news reports claim he ‘matures’ whiskey in a shocking 6 days.

      Just after prohibition there was a flurry of scientific papers and commercial work on “accelerated maturation” of whiskey. There was a second flurry after WW2. The big boys like Beam Inc, Brown-Foreman & Diageo employ scientists who continue to publish papers and receive patents on the maturation process. My skeptical-radar goes on high alert when a marketing person with virtually no credentials claims to have discovered the philosopher’s stone that has eluded diligent qualified seekers for three quarters of a century.

      I’ve tried to taste with an open mind, sincerely hoping for the best. He is not producing Evan Williams, Bookers or Woodford Reserve class of bourbon by this process IMO.

      .

  8. I bought a bottle on 3-1-13. They claim to attain the flavor profile that is as good if not better than most 10-12 year aged whiskey. Based on their claims this whiskey falls way short.

    Nose: Ethanol(alcohol). Past that nothing but sawdust, old wet wood. None of the notes that you would expect from an oak aged whiskey especially one that claims to be better that one aged 10-12 years. No sweet notes or spice notes.

    Tastes: At a 100 proof it’s a high alcohol entry but manageable. Then citrus pith, Iodine/soapy. No sweet note jumps out. No vanilla, no honey, no butterscotch, no maples syrup. These you would expect in a highly aged bourbon. The finish is slightly peppery. This first real spice note you get. No other spices that one would expect to find in a bourbon.

    Watered: Watering does nothing for this other than to water it down. There are no hidden flavors hiding behind proof.

    Overall Impression: The label say that the whiskey rested 6 months in charred oak prior to its processing and it taste like it. This is still simply a young whiskey with very little flavor. I am very disappointed. I was really hoping that this would be good but I have to follow my palate.

    • Pretty on point tasting notes. Definitely young. No telling what was put in this juice to make it even palatable. The color is indicative to artificial tinkering b/t barrel and bottle. Marketing horse piggy backed on ‘local proud’ consumer ethos. Too bad the customer gets treated like this in these situations but without an industry standard, who knows what’s in this so-called whiskey.

      • Black Bourbon’s color is a result of the rapid pressurized system that Lix is using. When they first created the whiskey they were actually surprised at how dark the resulting product was. Definitely turning revenues on consumer (Cleveland) pride.
        I would say that this is a worked, young bourbon that’s bottled the way it comes out of the chambers (with no additives, infusing, etc.). Now as far as future Cleveland Whiskey products, who knows what they’ll do…

  9. My name is Bruce,i have been a bourbon man for 35 years,the best i have had is woodford .I have tried almosy every bourbon out .My wife just called me ask me to look this Cleveland bourbon up and she pick me one up.So ill let u no what i think of it.

  10. Hi Bruce, thanks for visting. Still waiting for my brother to snag me a bottle. He lives not too far from Cleveland, so it’s still a little hard to find. Apparently the demand is still quite strong up that way. Woodford is one of my favorites as well. It wasn’t until recently I tried the Double Oaked; great stuff!

  11. I’m a native Clevelander, and avid bourbon whiskey drinker, and decided to look up this product and find any reviews. Although I have not sought out Cleveland Whiskey, I have yet to see it on any of the local liquor shelves – whether in the stores or bar. I’m hoping to try it sooner than later, but like any new alcohol product, I would expect the quality and complexity to improve over the next year or two. As more reviews arise for Cleveland Whiskey, the product itself will likely change.

  12. Hi Brian. I’m originally from the Cleveland area myself, which is why I still have a lot of family out that way. My brother has still yet to get his hands on a bottle. I know distribution is limited, but it seems to sell out the same day these stores receive a shipment.

    Regarding quality improvements over time, I certainly hope you’re right. From what I’ve read in the whisk(e)y community, this one is highly frowned upon. Very few rapid aging techniques have actually worked, and there have been several that tried.

    • The black color of CLV-Bourbon may be from the extraction of charred oak BUT several sources (“Whisky Science and Technology” by Piggott et al) state that just a few ppm of iron in whisk[e]y impart a black color. One of the local news vids for CLV whiskey show the DeWalt chop saw used to cut up barrels and hint at some (soft steel ??? ) pressure vessels used for the 6-day aging process. If they didn’t neutralize the iron around the barrel hoops and nails – then iron could explain the weird color.

      • Very interesting theory, Steve. Thank you for the source share – will have to check it out.
        It wasn’t regarding iron deposits on the staves, but I was previously curious as to whether or not they cut or wash the outside of the staves prior to placing them in the pressure chambers. I will reach out to CW to see if I can obtain some more information.

    • If you want the improvements mentioned (traditionally aged) w/o delay, then you can buy it off the shelf today as Four Roses bourbon or from an MGP/LDI bourbon rebottler like Belle Meade or Angel’s Envy (reportedly from MGP tho’ may be finished in other barrels). Cleveland Whiskey does not make the whiskey they ‘treat’, so aging the same barrels they can buy pre-aged is not a value-add proposition.

      • Steve, you’re absolutely right. Although, it’s not that I personally would like to have traditionally aged Cleveland Whiskey, it’s more that they would need it in order to survive post interstate distribution (in my opinion).

        I say source it, batch it and bottle it, just like Belle Meade in your example, or trick it in a different way. Say like with Angel’s Envy or WhistlePig where they source it then finish it in different casks prior to batching.

      • I like the entrepreneurial spirit. Unfortunately, for Mr. Lix he involved himself in an industry thats core philosophy is patience. No precept holds greater truth in the whiskey/bourbon business than allowing things to happen. For years. Either to distiller err or triumph. Good thing for Cleveland Whiskey is at 6 months aging, he should be losing .5 to 1.5 percent a barrel. Lotta bottles. Being an opportunist makes for great products sometimes and other times not so great. I find that i get a lot of satisfaction when i drink say a William Larue Weller, bc I know that 12 years ago (or so) a young man or woman dumped that juice in beautifully crafted cooperage cut from some tree by some proud man or woman somewhere in the Ozarks of Arkansas and so on. I expect when I bend an elbow with a pour of the stuff a strange thought of college aged chemists, air conditioned rooms with plastic tubes and scenes from 2001: Space Odyssey “HAL, is the whiskey ready?”

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