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Economy and Business

Exploradio - A new age for whiskey
A Cleveland entrepreneur enters the tradition-bound industry with a new process that ages whiskey in weeks rather than years
This story is part of a special series.

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
Tom Lix wants to put Cleveland on the map as a whiskey city. His experimental process turns traditional years of whiskey aging into weeks.
Courtesy of Jeff St.Clair
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Every now and then an innovation comes along that dramatically changes an industry.  Tom Lix thinks he has such an innovation for the whiskey industry. He’s a Boston transplant who’s using a new process that could put Cleveland on the map as whiskey producer.

In this week’s Exploradio: A new age for whiskey.

Exploradio - New aged whiskey

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Quick-age process

The recipe for whiskey dates back to the Middle Ages.  Farmers could to reap the bounties of excess harvest  by distilling grains. In America, Bourbon whiskey is made from corn and other grains, then aged in charred oak barrels for as long as 12 years.  It’s a tradition-bound industry that entrepreneur Tom Lix says is ripe for innovation.

“They’ve been the doing the same things for hundreds of years and that’s fine. It’s worked; companies have made lots of profit.  … But now with the whiskey market growing so fast, and the idea that you have to make it faster, there is a market opportunity as well. So it’s a chance for technology to enter the picture and … it just came together all at once.”

Lix teaches entrepreneurship at Lake Erie College.  He’s out to demonstrate the power of innovation -- even in an industry that prides itself on doing things the old-fashioned way. He plans to cut the time it takes to produce aged whiskey from years to weeks.  He says his breakthrough came after long experimentation.

“In fact, I started this a number of years ago in my basement with a pressure cooker, mason jars, tubs of ice.”

Lix now experiments in his lab at the MAGNET incubator on East 25th Street in downtown Cleveland.  His whiskey is still aged with oak, but not in barrels.

“We’re building the second generation, but this is the first generation system: five gallon stainless steel tanks wrapped in copper coils that allow us to change the temperatures.”

Tubes run from the five-gallon tanks to water heaters, and a large chiller --  all controlled by a computerized system that allows Lix to heat and cool the alcohol inside the tanks.

 Also inside the tanks are strips of charred oak cut from used whiskey barrels. Lix’s innovation is speeding the extraction of flavoring chemicals from the oak using by changing the temperature and pressure inside his small whiskey kegs.

“By using pressure, we can make that wood work like a sponge. And you can imagine that sponge picking up a whole lot of alcohol and then letting it go, and then picking up a whole lot more.  (Ours is) the same process, a very natural process, but we’ve just learned to speed it up.”

The secret of whiskey's aroma

The fruits of his labors are all around us. Lix selects a gallon jar filled with dark amber liquid.

“I just opened up the top of this one.  You can smell…That’s a two-month-old product.”

The oak adds a complex aroma to the whiskey, creating its signature smell.  But Lix is not relying just on his nose to gauge success. 

Sujata Emani is director of research at Cleveland Whiskey, Tom Lix’s company.  She shows me a graph of a chemical analysis of their quick aged product.

The traditional practice of soaking alcohol in charred oak is what makes whiskey, whiskey.

“All the flavors, like vanilla and these kind of buttery flavors that you can get, all come from the wood and different pieces of the wood that chemically are broken apart when you burn it.”

Rather than letting time and nature extra these oak essences, Cleveland Whiskey enlists technology.

Disrupting whiskey production 

“We can make a wide variety of products because of this process, unlike a traditional distiller where there’s a 20-year development cycle. You’ve got to make something, put it in a barrel, wait ten years, and then you open it up and say, ‘Oh yeah that’s pretty good, let’s make some more.' Twenty years have passed until you have something available to the commercial public. With us it’s a matter of weeks or months.”

Tom Lix likes whiskey. But he’s really a tinkerer.

“I just like looking at industries that I think can be changed, that can be disrupted.  Taking an old process and applying science to it.  I’m not a chemist, but I remember my favorite toy was a chemistry set.  And I remember my father would get angry when I set our basement on fire. I’ve just always done those types of things.”

Whether the quick-aged whiskey succeeds in the market place is up to consumers.  Lix says they could be buying Cleveland Whiskey as soon as this summer.

I’m Jeff St.Clair with this week’s Exploradio. 

Related Links & Resources
Cleveland Whiskey website

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Listener Comments:

Cleveland Whiskey has a new Facebook page, if you want more info or keep up on them.

Posted by: clEvLndGal (Cleveland) on September 27, 2012 3:09AM
Hi Tom,

What a surprise!!! I am happy you are doing well.
You and your brothers always with something new.
Can we get your new whiskey right here, in Brazil?



Posted by: Neusa Silva Lix (São Paulo/ SP) on February 20, 2012 2:02AM
It's Great Innovative.When It comes to India.Where It available In USA.

Posted by: k.Janardhan Reddy (HYDERABAD
Very innovative. Where can I get it ?


Posted by: patrick donnelly (United States) on February 13, 2012 12:02PM
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