OLD BEFORE ITS TIME
7 Seals recreates the barrel-ageing process used by the best Scotch single malts
Few traditions are as jealously guarded as that of making whisky, where distillers value the importance of leaving the spirit to age in barrels to create unique tones and flavours. Challenging that consensus is Dr Dolf Stockhausen, who has developed a new method that accelerates the maturation process from many years to little more than three or – if need be – even a matter of weeks without sacrifice any taste, character, aroma or purity. The result is Switzerland’s 7 Seals Whisky, an award-winning dram that shatters preconceptions. “Some people are horrified,” he admits. “They think I should be burnt at the stake. But then people taste it and we win them over. We have converted quite a few that way.”
Dr Stockhausen’s method replicates the chemical process of barrel-ageing: the differences are exclusively of a physical, not a substance-related nature. A lover of Scotland and whisky, who had spent many holidays visiting Scottish distilleries with his wife, Dr Stockhausen was invited to make whisky by a Swiss businessman who had acquired an old fruit brandy distillery. “I was 72,” he says. “I know that if we used the traditional method with barrels I would be 82 before I got the chance to broach the first barrel! Something needed to be done and I knew that in the wonderful world of natural science there was usually a solution.”
After studying what takes place during the barrel-ageing process, Dr Stockhausen realized – after considerable trial and error – that he could effectively improve upon the traditional method in a fraction of the time. Basically, in a traditional whisky barrel, the liquid and the wood interact – some things, mainly wood sugar and vanillin, are added to the liquid, and others are removed, all of which combine to give whisky its flavour and smoothness. Barrel interiors are also heated during barrel manufacture, or “toasted”, to break down wood compounds and impart additional textures and flavours. But the barrel is not the ideal piece of equipment for this – the surface-to-liquid ratio is not great – and the aroma offered is not ideal due to the temperatures used during the toasting. Dr Stockhausen’s method corrects these flaws.
“The maturing reactions are exactly the same as what happens in a traditional barrel, it’s just cleaner and faster,” he says. “What happens in terms of substance is exactly the same. There is contact between liquid and wood – things move from one to the other, and that is what provides the taste. I have tasted them and our whisky is purer than those from the barrels and they are more hygienic. We do use distillate that has been aged in a barrel for three years – otherwise we are not allowed to call it whisky.”
After the original plan was changed by the businessman selling his distillery, Dr Stockhausen brought his method to Switzerland’s biggest whisky distiller, Langatun. Initially nervous, Langatun eventually agreed to start a secondary company, 7 Seals, thanks to connoisseur Chris Lauper, who became Dr Stockhausen’s business partner in the venture. Their current range includes peated single malt with port wood finish, a sherry wood finish and a double wood finish with more to come: the potential is endless.
“It is clear that there is more than one way to do something and our method is getting results that are as good if not better than traditional methods,” says Dr Stockhausen. “One of the leading whisky writers has said our whisky is better than 97 per cent of whisky made in Scotland. We have shown there is another very promising way to make world-class whisky.”