Stand inside the barrel room at Tuthilltown Spirits long enough, and you will witness something strange. The walls begin to flutter. The roof rattles. The barrels lightly vibrate. They do so in a cacophonous pattern, highlighted by thumping tones and reverberations, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Those who are in the know, however, understand that the unsettling display is simply another cog in the wheel of Ralph Erenzo and Brian Lee.
Erenzo is a small, bright, quick-talking man with round, thick-framed glasses. By contrast, his partner Lee is tall and soft-spoken, his stoic face framed by wire-rimmed glasses. Appearances are not the only thing that differentiates the two founders of Tuthilltown Spirits, the award-winning distiller of popular 375mL bottles of Hudson Whiskey, located in the town of Gardiner in the rolling hills of New York‘s Hudson Valley. Lee is the engineer of the operation, wearing many hats that include twisting and turning the knobs on one of their three stills. Erenzo is the creative mind, constantly tasking Lee with executing his next revolutionary idea. One of the most important of these ideas is what Erenzo calls “Sonic Maturation,” which was developed in an attempt to reduce their whiskey’s barrel-aging time.
It takes whiskey many months inside of a charred barrel to take on the color and flavor profiles desired of a quality product. “One of the things that happens inside a barrel is, over time, long-chain molecules form. And that is part of the reason that whiskey tastes so good, is that there’s this complexity,” Lee said as we sat inside what used to be the old rickhouse and is now the tasting room and retail shop. When Erenzo and Lee first started Tuthilltown, they tried to figure out a way to get a quality product to market as quickly as possible. “We were using small barrels, because if you look at the surface-area-to-volume ratio of the small barrels, that ratio is in favor of wood extraction,” Lee said. “We were trying to get a product out and see what else we could possibly do that would increase the rate of aging.”
An audio geek friend of Lee’s suggested that they might be able to agitate the barrels by using low-frequency sound or subwoofers. So they set up a pair of subwoofers on either side of a glass carboy and let the music rip. When they saw that the bass tones of the song agitated the barrels just enough without over-agitating, they decided to implement the system in their rickhouse. “When we first started doing it and the speakers were mounted in here [the old rickhouse], I was living in the little white house [just down the road] with my wife. And there would be nights where I would wake up at three in the morning. Boom, boom, I could hear it. So I would get up and go down there and turn it off,” Erenzo said.
The system drew people from all over the globe, who came to try the whiskey aged via sound. That was, until a fire tore through their rickhouse in 2012. “There is a piece of the still, that’s normally used to clean the inside of the still. It’s a check valve, a gate, that swings open to let cleaning solution go into the still. One of those castings broke while the still was operating,” Lee explained. “And within three or four minutes the room filled with vapor.” That vapor was then ignited by an electric source (potentially the speakers, a fan or light) in the building causing complete devastation. The fire charred the outsides of all of the barrels and damaged the stills.
When they rebuilt the rickhouse and started up again, they did so without the speaker system. Any electrical source could cause a fire if something went wrong. Then, Erenzo did what he does best. He pestered Lee to bring the system back. After continuous prodding, Lee came up with a plan: the shakers used in home stereo systems. The shakers are ultra-low frequency speakers that most people attach to the bottom of their couches in their home theater systems, but Lee had a different destination for them. “I was like, OK, I can mount the speaker on the outside, and since we put up buildings that had tin roofs, I said, I’m just going to turn the whole side of the building into a diaphragm and shake the whole thing up,” Lee said.
His plan worked. So well, in fact, that after testing one shaker, he installed five more. When they’re all on, the entire side of the building flaps like a flag blowing in the wind. The aluminum siding ripples and pulses with the thump, thump of the shakers. Being inside the rickhouse is something of a sensory cacophony.
Their choice of music to play through the shakers isn’t exactly what you would expect from a small farm distillery in upstate New York. “We needed something that had a lot of bass in it. And dance music, electronic dance music, is set up to basically pound at your heart rate for when you’re dancing. So I said, ‘That’s the most bass that I can possibly find,'” Lee said. “Classic music just doesn’t do it.” Tuthilltown tries to stay current with their selection and mostly uses dubstep tracks, like “Android Porn” from artist Kraddy. At one point, Tuthilltown enlisted a sound engineer to measure the inside of their barrels and find out the ideal frequency for shaking. The resulting track, designed specifically to agitate the barrels, though it worked well, was monotonous. “It’s boring. So we went back to the music,” Erenzo said. “It’s more fun. It’s an experiment.”
In the future, Tuthilltown might expand the system to one of their larger rickhouses. They feel that the system works, though they haven’t conducted any sort of scientific study. “I did a very unscientific comparison,” Erenzo remarked. “What I sensed was that the color and the aroma were coming out quicker. The flavor and the mouthfeel needed the time in the wood.” But that won’t stop Erenzo and Lee from continuing to experiment with the system. Simon Hunt of William Grant & Sons once remarked that the whiskey likes it. “The whiskey is happier,” Erenzo said. Lee added, “Who doesn’t like happy whiskey?”