The Start of the American Chestnut Project

At Lost Spirits, we made history in late 2014 by proving, for the first time, that it was possible using photocatalytic degradation of oak polymers, and forced esterification, to replicate the chemical signature of aged spirits in a lab.  More about that at the technology blog here


Now that we are past the question of if it can be done, the new question is what to do with it.   And for that we drew inspiration from those who have gone before us (at least in fiction).



Over the centuries there have been many styles and types of distilled spirits that have gone the way of the dodo bird.  Sometimes because they were simply inferior.  Sometimes because they were economically challenging to make.  And sometimes, as is the case here, because the raw materials became extinct.  


Fortunately, thanks to our new capabilities as spirits makers, we have the opportunity to do lots of things that were not possible or practical before.  At the moment we are working on recreating several legendary spirits from the ground up, tediously, molecule by molecule.  But while we wait for those difficult and time consuming projects to complete, we thought it would be fun to go after some low hanging fruit. 


Enter chestnut. 


In the 19th century, spirit barrels were made of several types of hardwood.  It wasn't until the January 1968 that congress made oak the only wood allowable for American whiskey. 


A bit of internet sleuthing turns up lots of interesting facts about chestnut barrels. 



From Page 3:

 From Page 6:



This is a interesting text when read in it's historical context.  The 1906 coopers journal was the oldest copy we could find.  By 1906 the chestnut blight had already decimated the population as described in the NY Times article below.  Therefore the author is making reference to the now prohibitively high cost of oak for cooperage as approaching the price of chestnut.   


Detail of page 6:

 And if that anecdotal evidence wasn't enough, here is a 1866 NY times article talking about market prices fluctuating in the run up to the Austro-prussian war



As you can see, rum in chestnut casks was a publicly traded commodity, right next to rum in oak casks.    For the full NY Times article click here.


Given the amount of evidence we dug up, it seems obvious that some number of rye casks from the 1800's would have been made of American chestnut.  Which raises the next question, will it taste good?


We were able to pull modern data on the aromatic chemical composition of European chestnut casks as compared to oak.


Papers can be found here and here.


The data looks fascinating showing that the wood should produce  more phenolic compounds, including higher concentrations of vanillin than oak, while not producing the whiskey lactones (coconut aromas) found in American white oak and so central to modern American rye.  Also absent in the chestnut was the majority of the fruity terpenic compounds found in oak, only floral terpenic compounds such as α-terpineol and methyl dihydrojasmonate showed up in the chestnut. 


All told the data shows that the European chestnut should make a fascinating idiosyncratic whiskey or rum.  However, notably absent was data on American chestnut, which became effectively extinct shortly after the turn of the 20th century, and would have been the wood used in these ancient spirits.  



 So now we have the task!  We just need to figure out how to get our hands on an extinct wood, to make an extinct rye or rum. 


Stay tuned for the next episode.













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                               Photo credits to Juliet Frew, Dario Griffin, Greta Tuckute