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International Spirits

Scientific Spirit: Bourbon and a Touch of Technology

Unlike ride-sharing, shopping, banking and TV-viewing, technology hasn’t “disrupted” the age-old art and science of bourbon making. There are, however, astute people in the industry making good use of smart tech to improve quality and efficiency. Future generations must be spared episodes like The Great Bourbon Shortage — irritatingly still in progress.

It’s universally agreed that you can’t rush great bourbon. Not when you’re drinking it, and certainly not when making it. As Buffalo Trace master distiller Harlen Wheatley told the website TechRepublic, “There’s just no way to cheat mother nature or father time. We’ve proved it over and over again. You can’t artificially get those true, balanced three-dimensional flavors…” of good bourbon by speeding it up. What you can do is improve process and preservation.

It’s been happening for several years, and the results are encouraging. Wild Turkey has been using a digital control room since 2010 to monitor everything from grains to mash to the concentration of sugars. Storage is another major area where bourbon makers are looking to technology. RFID beacons on barrels are helping some distillers keep track of their valuable stock. With close to 8 million barrels of bourbon now stored and aging in Kentucky alone (it’s worth billions), newer, safer, climate-controlled storage facilities are being built by dozens of distilleries. The cost of not upgrading was driven home in 2018 when The Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown, KY collapsed, smashing an estimated 9,000 barrels. Bourbon drinkers wept.

Meanwhile, major player Beam Suntory (Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark) has called on Rockwell Automation and Cisco to improve its operation—without affecting the nature of the bourbon itself, of course. 

As Beam Suntory senior network architect Amon Hogue told TechRepublic, “We’re looking at the future of automation and how that can help us with tracking and having our trucks and rolling out new business offices. We would like to see that whole dynamic completely automated.”

Prohibition? That’s ancient history. Bourbon is back, baby.

Cooking with bourbon is on fire.

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