Tom Lix is ruddy-cheeked and barrel-chested, like his booze. And almost as fiery.
You can hear his passion above the din at Cleveland Whiskey's East 25th Street distillery, when he bellows about the new, speedy and noisy way he’s invented to make whiskey.
“These are our pressure aging tanks. So this is very different from a traditional distillery. You hear the aging process. That’s what’s giving the whiskey its flavor.”
The flavor’s in the aging
It gets old fast -- the noise and the whiskey.
But for the whiskey, that’s a good thing, because consumers who can’t get enough of it are impatiently waiting for more. Demand, worldwide, has been on a bender. U.S. bourbon sales alone climbed almost 70 percent in the last decade.
The popular bourbon Maker’s Mark cited supply issues early last year when it announced it would dilute its strength.
“And there was a big consumer uproar over that," notes Lix, "and they had to reverse their decision. But to give them credit, they were honest about it. They said ‘look we can’t keep up with demand.’”
A powerful global thirst to quench
Demand’s especially strong in the developing world. India consumed almost 40 percent more imported whiskey last year than the year before. Sales of imported spirits in China have grown by 250 percent in the last decade.
That has Tom Lix drinking to the future.
“Where there’s a growing middle class, whiskey is an affordable luxury. American bourbons and scotch whiskey, that’s one of the ways people can say, ‘OK, now I can try some of the finer things in life.’”
The old way is too slow
But Lix says the traditional aging process is too poky to slake the world’s growing, powerful thirst. “That’s why we’ve come up with the technology that actually accelerates the aging process to try to meet demand better.”
Traditional distilleries ferment grains, distill mash into a clear spirit, and pour that off into charred, white oak barrels.
“And then you wait for eight or 10 or 12 years. We do something very different. We use pressure-aging.”
It’s a secret
Lix can age his whiskey in less than a week. But he won’t say exactly how. “It’s a patent-pending process, but it’s also a very closely guarded trade secret.”
Lix got help developing his pressure-aging process from MAGNET, the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network, and established what he calls his test-kitchen at the non-profit incubator’s Manufacturing Innovation Center near Cleveland State University.
Magnet helped make the machinery.
“We had specialty tooling made, some of the equipment, some of the tanks and pumps and systems. The technology that we use isn’t something you buy off the shelf. It all had to be custom-made and they were able to design and make some of the prototypes here in this shop.”
The technology is heard but not seen. Lix keeps the whiskey-aging machines out of sight. But he’s willing to explain what he calls a very simple system.
He chops up charred oak barrels, chunks it into stainless steel vats, and drowns it in moonshine, the raw, unrefined spirits he imports from large distilleries in Kentucky and Indiana.
Then its shaken up and churned until the liquid soaks up the oak’s color and flavor.
“We squeeze it and we let it go using pressure and vacuum. That forces alcohol deep into the pore structure of the wood and then pushes it back out.”
He says each beat of agitation is worth 24 hours of time in a passive, stationary aging barrel.
“It makes it faster, but we think makes it better as well.”
Visit to ailing parent paid off
Lix came up with the innovation while tinkering in his mother’s basement. Her ill-health had brought him to Cleveland from Boston and the serial software and marketing entrepreneur was between start-ups at the time.
“I’ve always been a sort of basement chemist and have always been experimenting with things.”
He’d awakened in a hospital bed at 7 after getting a chemistry set for Christmas. Later, as a machinist’s mate, he discovered a different kind of fun with science.
Distilling at sea
“I was stationed on this old destroyer. Chief petty officers pretty much ran the ship. One chief on the ship who was fermenting fruit juice tapped into the steam lines for a heat source and the seawater lines for a cooling source and he was making hooch on the ship.”
Lix proved more than willing to help.
“I had also gone to a training school for making fresh water out of salt water using basic distillation equipment, so I like to say that the government really trained me in how to make whiskey right from the get-go.”
Lix is no scientist. His doctorate from Boston University is in marketing. But 40 years after his naval experiments, he’s back in the whiskey business, and doing very well after just one year.
Aiming bigger than micro
“Just shy of 50,000 bottles which was an amazing number for us. It was a great year. So we’re really happy.”
Major distillers probably spill more in a day than Lix bottles in a week, but he aspires to be more than a micro-distillery. “I hope ultimately to call ourselves a big distiller, making a good quality hand-crafted product, but we also blend science and technology with it as well.”
He feels a little like Lou Grant on "The Mary Tyler Moore" show.
"I remember watching that show and saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have a job where you could actually keep a bottle of whiskey in your desk drawer?’ Well now I’ve got whiskey throughout the place. You couldn’t ask for a better job.”
Six full-time and six part-time employees are jazzed about it, too.
Workers are his former students
“So this is the bottling line. We just finished doing a lot of labeling. Tyler here is just putting the hang tags on a bunch of bottles. It’s a fairly labor-intensive process.”
Lix hired Clevelander Michele Heinz right out of the entrepreneurship class he taught at Lake Erie College.
“I actually have a couple of now-deceased ancestors who used to distill back in the Prohibition era so I guess it runs through the blood lines. It’s a lot of fun. It’s out of the box. And it’s interesting to be with a start-up company and watch it grow.”
Jim Waltz of Cleveland, and Cleveland Whiskey, loves the name.
“It kind of agrees with what the culture of Cleveland is, which is a town that has really good food, really passionate products, kind of a beer town, now we’re kind of making it a whiskey town, kind of putting it on the map with something else.”
Not a homer, a marketer
Tom Lix loves his new hometown and plans to stay here. Still, it wasn’t sentimentality that led to the label’s name. He tested it in more than 600 interviews nationwide.
“To them Cleveland stood for something that was authentic and genuine, that it was hard-working and entrepreneurial, and that it was edgy. “
Clevelanders might want to drink to that. But how does Cleveland Whiskey taste?
“We had some professionals review our whiskey. Black cherry was one descriptor. Espresso and French roast coffee, but to me it was, ‘Gee. I like this one.’
A firebrand’s firewater
He sneers at critics who say you can’t hurry up a whiskey. That it needs time in the barrel. “The traditionalist, the so-called experts, they’re not crazy about us. They think we’re heretics; they think what we’re doing is sacrilegious.”
Lix made fun on his Facebook page of a critic who said Cleveland Whiskey’s Black Reserve 100 proof bourbon tastes like paint-thinner.
“Well that’s ridiculous. We said, ‘OK, if you want to say that obviously you haven’t even tasted it, and how would you even know what paint thinner tastes like?’”
Lix puts more store in what consumers say. He conducts blind taste tests at charity events pitting his Cleveland Black Reserve against Kentucky’s Knob Creek.
“It’s 100 proof just like our Cleveland Black Reserve. Done almost 2,800 tests. We’ve been preferred 55 percent of the time.”
A bottle of Cleveland Black Reserve sells for $34.95 at liquor stores in Cleveland, Akron, Columbus, Toledo, Cincinnati, Tennessee, and it's coming soon to Michigan and Virginia.
You can order it at fine restaurants, too, like Bistro on Main in Kent, Bricco in Akron, and Provenance at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where Chef Doug Katz advises you take this quickly made whiskey nice and slow.
“You want the aroma to really fill your mouth and you want to breathe, and if you taste it in small amounts you can really savor that flavor.”
Don’t rush it
Tom Lix heartily agrees. He says don’t act like you’re in an old western movie.
“Y’know the cowboy bellies up to the bar and he gets the whiskey and he drops it back as fast as he can. Well, that’s because the whiskey back then was awful. You wanted to drink it as fast as you possibly could. But whiskey today that we are proud to bottle, you should sip it like a cognac or a fine wine. You shouldn’t be belting it back.”
That especially goes for the new drink Lix is unveiling at Cleveland Whiskey’s birthday party at McCarthy’s right after the St. Patrick’s Day parade. It’s labeled “Cleveland Car Bomb.”
And that’s this week’s Quick Bite.
Next week we’re raiding the Quick Bites larder for a story about extending the growing season as we wait for spring.