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Madeira and Whisky at Sea

Aging whisky at sea is nothing new. I'll chart the history of sea maturation.

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Show Notes

What is that on John Hancock's ship the Liberty that is causing such a stir in Boston Harbor?

It's a favorite beverage of the colonists. And it is an alcoholic beverage that gained its reputation by being aged at sea. But is aging at sea really beneficial to wines and spirits?

I'll cover the history of sea maturation from wine to whisky. And you'll hear a teaser from my interview with Jay Cole, brand ambassador for Kaiyo Japanese whisky.

Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.

Transcript

On a chilly morning in Boston Harbor, early May 1768, a merchant sloop sat bobbing in the water, its two white masts radiating bright in the sunlight against a rich blue sky.

Although the ship had arrived the night before. The customs inspector had already closed the books and was enjoying his late supper by candlelight. Just another merchant bringing in the same old sundry items - he was sure inspection could wait until the light of day. 

Now for as long as anybody could remember, the process of inspecting a ship's cargo was a fairly simple affair. No need to take a highly detailed inventory. The official or tidesman would simply ask the captain for an accounting of what wares he had on board that were duty bound. The captain would give a less than accurate accounting and the customs official would likely walk away with a bribe.

But on this particular morning, the transaction wasn’t going to be so simple. A couple of suspicious tidesmen decided, because the owner of this particular ship had seen troubles in harbor in the past, it might be a good idea to spot check this particular ship and see how far off the inventory count might just be. 

What they discovered was a ship that was only carrying about one quarter of its capacity. And soon the boat's owner, 31 year old John Hancock was summoned to the docks for an accounting.

JOHN HANCOCK

The son of Reverend John Hancock, he lost his father at an early age and was raised by his uncle Thomas Hancock. Thomas was a self made man who had gained his fortune through profiting off of government contracts during the French and Indian War. He taught young John the ways of the aristocratic merchant class and the young man took to it like a duck takes to water.

But it would be two events in 1764, that would dramatically shift the future prospect and ambitions for the young man. 

First, would be the death of his uncle, which served to transfer the family business and fortune into John's hands. 

The second was the Stamp Act, an oppressive tax placed by the British Parliament on paper, wills, and other legal documents. 

The act was an attempt by the mother country to reduce the debts that she had incurred during the Seven Years’ War, which included the costly French and Indian War in the Colonies. 

Even though it was a burden on his livelihood, John initially took a moderate's position on the Stamp Act. Just being a middle-man merchant, he didn't initially see an economic reason to oppose the Act. But he couldn't help but see the frustrations it was creating among the people he was selling to. Frustrations that were leading to protests and mob violence decrying the lack of representation in Parliament. 

He decided it was time to take a stand and he became an outspoken supporter of a boycott on all British goods. And this decision would shift him from indifference to local hero. And when the pressure put onto British merchants became too much, the Act was repealed, making John Hancock Boston’s new favorite son. And soon, he added politician to his titles and he was easily elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

For John, all must have seemed right with the world at that time. Their voices seemingly heard, it felt like it was time to get back to business as usual. But some factions of the Parliament felt the Colonists might take advantage of their good will. And the government needed to do something to keep the Colonists in check. 

Their solution came in the form of the Declaratory Act, which gave the Parliament absolute control over the people and governments in the colonies. And as colonists read the rules, they realized they would have no representative and no future say in any of the rules the mother country might deem necessary.

To add salt to the wound, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend immediately went to work on a series of acts that would place a heavy burden on the colonists, under the guise of filling the financial void left by the repealed Stamp Act.

The Townshend Act would go well beyond that Stamp Act. And it's much more aggressive sets of laws and duties raised the ire of the new man of the people, John Hancock. 

Everything from paper to glass to the colonist's coveted tea would all face this oppressive tax. And the act basically encouraged British customs officials to get more aggressive with merchants that might be flouting the laws.

For John Hancock, the Declaratory and Townshend Acts were not only a slap in the face. There gave no recourse for merchants or citizens alike, apart from once again protesting in the streets and returning to a boycott of British goods.

And this, Hancock did.

THE LIBERTY INCIDENT

As a strong vocal opponent of British taxes and duties, the honorable John Hancock was now seen as a troublemaker, an inciter, and some even labeled him a smuggler. 

So it was no surprise that this new found scurrilous reputation would bring heightened scrutiny for the cargo of John’s own vessels. So when his sloop the Liberty sat overnight in Boston Harbor, the morning accounting, which showed only 25% of its cargo hold filled, easily led suspicious officials to assume that he had lightened the load by some 75% overnight.

But would Hancock be so foolhardy and so bold as to attempt to sneak barrel upon barrel off of the boat under the light of the moon - in, of all places, Boston Harbor?

What makes it seem highly unlikely is that this isn’t the first time one of John’s ships had been boarded. Just one month before, two tidesmen boarded Hancock's sloop Lydia - demanding to see what was in the hold. But neither man could produce a writ of assistance, allowing for a legal search of the vessel, so Hancock was legally able to turn them away. But he must have known they’d be motivated by revenge and would likely be more prepared for a future encounter.  

Hancock stood his ground, paid the duty on the accounted for cargo and the Liberty incident seemed like it might fade into distant memory. Especially when both tidesman gave sworn statements that they had not physically seen any product being offloaded overnight. 

But just seven days later, a British warship - the HMS Romney - suddenly appeared in Boston Harbor and the mood around Boston changed. 

It wasn’t the warship itself that caused frustration, although the Declaratory Act was likely still burning in people’s minds. No, it was the warship’s Captain Corner that elevated tensions. Seeing his ship short of men, he decided to impress some of the colonists. This forcing of everyday people into hard labor on a British warship was too much for some to take.

Then, whether emboldened by the ship's presence or put up to it by superiors, one of the two tidesman from the Liberty incident decided to change his story. It seemed that now he was suggesting he had been held by force on the ship while Hancock's men unloaded the ghost cargo. 

Two lawsuits were filed and while thanks to attorney John Adams, the charges against Hancock were dropped, in his other trial, his ship the Liberty was confiscated and pressed into service in the British Royal Navy as the HMS Liberty. 

It wouldn’t stay in active service for long though, as a dispute in Rhode Island a year later would result in a mob of colonists burning the Liberty in defiance of the King and Parliament.

Down a ship, Hancock would lick his wounds and carry on. 

When we learn about the events that sparked colonist’s interest in independence, we’re often told of the Boston Massacre or Samuel Adams, the Sons of Liberty and the Boston Tea Party. But before any of that, there was John Hancock, moving from loyal British citizen to defender of the people from the oppressive Declaratory Act and Townshend Act. 

Yet for all he did in igniting the spark for the revolution, one of the stigmas that has followed him through time is this insinuation that he was a smuggler. A label that only grew with the boarding of the Lydia and Liberty.

None of this was proven, of course - but even after being one of the Sons of Liberty, first President of the Continental Congress, and the person with the most prominent signature on the Declaration of Independence, some historians still refer to John Hancock as a smuggler. 

So, what was the precious cargo that Hancock was accused of smuggling off the Liberty? 

It was 25 casks of Madeira wine.

And if you think tea was important to the colonists, well, for all intents and purposes Madeira pretty much fueled our forefathers. George Washington, John Hancock, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson - they all drank it. In fact it was the very libation used to toast the Declaration of Independence and to christen Old Ironside, the unsinkable USS Constitution.

And while Madeira was a favorite of our forefathers, it also stands as the forefather to an aging technique that would eventually find its way to whisky. 

MADEIRA ISLAND

A few hundred miles off the coast of North Africa, sits the small island of Madeira. Formed by volcanic eruptions some 5 million years ago, the mountainous island they created has always made a great landmark for sailors and an excellent port of call. 

When it was discovered by the Portuguese in 1491, during the great Age of Exploration, it quickly evolved into a stop-off for ships traveling between Europe, the New World, and East Indies.

The word madeira is Portuguese for wood. And it earned that name thanks to the thick forested hills that cover it. But more than timber, it was also rich with sugar cane, which would become its first great export. 

But it would be a Portuguese Duke named Prince Henry the Navigator that would see the subtropic island’s biggest potential as a home for growing a sweet variety of wine grapes.

And wine was a critical part of every sailor’s cargo. Not only was it a fantastic export. It was also a dependable consumable, safer than water during long sea voyages.

All that was needed was to fortify the wine so it would keep indefinitely.

Madeira's namesake wine was initially fortified by adding distilled sugar cane. And while it lasted longer, unfortunately the taste wasn’t so great. So over time, they shifted from a rum-like spirit to using distilled grape spirits.

THE RETURNED CASK

Soon Madeira was being shipped all over the known world. And it would be the English in particular that would develop a great fondness for it, likely due to its easy accessibility and lower costs over Venetian wines. Long journeys would ensue as shipments would find their way across the equator, down to the Cape of Good Hope and on to India, China, and beyond. Customers seemed to like it and so demand grew.

Then, as the legend goes, a shipment of Madeira to India couldn’t be fully sold, so the barrels were brought back home to Madeira Island. 

When the producers decided to sample some of the wine, they were shocked to find that the product had aged beautifully in the cask and was far superior to what they were shipping out.

And soon, barrels of Madeira stamped vinho da roda (meaning round trip wines), started making trips, crossing the equator four times before being offered for sale. 

So what was it that made those wines so much better after their long journey? The producers put it down to the excessive heat and temperature swings, and the rocking of the boat, which was thought to increase the interaction with the wood grain - which in turn would speed up the age process and mellow out the rough edges. 

But taking wine on pleasure cruises across the equator soon became a very expensive proposition, so they started experimenting with different warehousing methods.

Setting a cask in direct sunlight on a tropical island wasn’t as big of an issue as trying to figure out how to rock the casks back and forth. 

But after much experimentation, they soon realized that it was simply the travel through warmer climates that was having the greatest effect on getting interaction with the wood, as well as the wine's exposure to more and more oxygen as the contents inside the cask quickly evaporated. 

So land aged Madeira barrels found their way into rooms called estufas, which is the Portuguese word for greenhouses. These wine saunas did everything required to make a beautiful Madeira wine.

THE COLONISTS DRINK

During the late 18th century, Madeira was extremely popular in the colonies, with over 90% of the island's production going to North America. But why didn’t the colonists just make their own wines? 

Well, there were attempts made. A man who developed a great fondness for wine while in France, Thomas Jefferson, did attempt to plant European grapevines at his Virginia home Monticello. But the Phylloxera aphid, prevalent throughout North America, easily consumed the weaker vine stocks and destroyed any early attempts at creating vineyards. So for the colonists, the contents from a sturdy barrel of Madeira was their best opportunity to enjoy fine wines. 

But tastes eventually changed, and the development of the Catawba grape and other varietals in America would soon lead to the decline in demand for Madeira. And eventually the Phylloxera epidemic would find its way on ships to Madeira island, crushing the industry. In the end, the plague destroyed over 80% of the native vines. To survive economically, the island went back to its natural crop - sugar cane. 

But Madeira never completely lost its fans. Including Winston Churchill, who revered Madeira, suggesting it was like "drinking liquid history."

But Madeira production techniques would change drastically over the years. No longer aged at sea, it has now evolved from boat aging to greenhouses to heated storage tanks. 

But the legends remain. Including one surrounding a style of Madeira called rainwater. This lighter version has several origin stories, including one where a barrel of Madeira in Savannah, Georgia was left out in the rain, delluting the contents. But the enterprising merchant, decided to pass it off as a new and improved lighter version of Madeira. 

But Madeira wouldn’t be the only libation to find its fame thanks to the sea. To the north and east of England, a less than popular medicinal spirit was about to get an injection of new life, thanks to another happy accident, an enterprising shipping baron and her nephew. 

THE SPIRIT OF THE SEA

Around the time that the former colonists were settling into their newly minted American government, a Norwegian woman named Catharina Lysholm (CAT-ah-ree-NAH LIEs-hum) was also enjoying the fruits of her life’s labors - having grown a shipping empire in the port town of  Trondheim, Norway.

In 1805, one of her ships, the Trondhjems Prøve was making one of its many journeys to the East Indies carrying a cargo that included a spirit called aquavit.

Aquavit, in its Scandinavian form, is a spirit whose origins go back to the 15th century and possibly before. As a medicinal potato based spirit, it wasn’t always pleasurable to the palate, so it would be doctored with plenty of added spices to improve its rugged character.

Sadly, no one in the Danish East Indies seemed to have a need for it and it was turned away. The ship, which had taken a year to arrive, turned around and made the long journey home with the cask in its hold.

When it reached Norway, like the Madeira centuries before, they decided to sample it and what they found was a wonderfully transformed, smooth, fruity and well matured spirit. 

But unlike the Portuguese, the Norwegians saw great benefit in the rocking motion provided by the boat. The aquavit seemed to thrive in these conditions. Add the extreme temperature swings and year at sea and Catharina had a hit on her hands.

To try to unlock the secrets of this barrel’s success, Cathatrina's nephew Jørgen (Yearn) B Lysholm, a student of distilling, decided to experiment further. He tried out several new paths for the ship to take and by 1821 he was confident enough in the quality of the spirit to brand it - calling it Linie, the Norwegian word for line - a reference to the spirit’s two trips over the equator.

Today Linie (LEE-nya) aquavit still uses the same spices it used in Catharina's day and it still crosses the equator twice, aged in oloroso Sherry casks. The only difference, the trips take around four months, rather than years. 

But like Madeira, Norwegian aquavit lost favor for some time. But a new sense of nationalistic pride hit the country when the 1994 Winter Olympics were held in Lillehammer and soon the historic drink had made a comeback. 

And today, modern technology has added a unique twist to the spirit. You can now actually watch the shipping container on its travels, thanks to a webcam mounted on the cargo ship that transports it.

So since aquavit can be improved through sea maturation, then what about whisky?

WHISKY AT SEA

In the early days of American distilling, farmer distillers were more concerned with selling the product than trying to age it. It’s true that barrels of Old Monongahela and Kentucky corn whisky would be sent in barrels down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, improving in color and character along the way, but no one was willing to take the time or expense to experiment with maturation on a boat.

It wouldn't be until the end of the first decade of the 21st century before a blender and distiller named Trey Zoeller would have a spark of an idea hit him while he was enjoying his birthday with some friends, on a research ship in Costa Rica. 

A big fan of the curious nature of Thomas Jefferson, he had created his first whisky in 1998 and named it Jefferson’s Reserve in honor of his creative hero. Now he was ready to try his own experiment. 

Sitting on the boat, watching his bourbon slosh around inside the glass, he started wondering what impact that agitation of the spirit might have if it was still in the barrel. 

So he took five barrels of new make and sent them out to sea with a schoolmate Chris Fischer - the head of the marine research organization called OCEARCH. After three and a half years at sea, covering over 10,000 nautical miles the clear new make spirit had become almost black during its voyage. And the flavor was filled with a briny character, reminiscent of the scotch single malts from the island of Islay.

He decided it was time to go a step further and create a repeatable process that would yield a very unique bourbon. 

The result is Jefferson's Ocean Aged At Sea. A 6-7 year old bourbon, loaded onto an OCEARCH vessel, stored in a container on the bow of the ship, and then sailed across the equator 4 times, touching five continents. And each voyage is documented online, so you can read the captain’s log and know the exact journey your bottle made, including weather conditions, path, and ports of call.

The recent bottling I had tasted like a well-aged bourbon full of oak, char, salted caramel, and big vanilla scents and flavors. The finish was long and juicy filled with notes of citrus, caramel, and cinnamon.

Of course, you don’t necessarily need a boat to capture the scents and flavors of the sea in your whisky. A trip to Wick, Scotland and a couple of whiffs in the air will let you know where Old Pulteney single malt scotch grabs its character. And a trip to Islay in the Scottish Inner Hebrides will find you discovering the scents of Loch Indaal encased in a dram of Bowmore or the briny sea air and iodine present in the water in every bottle of Laphroaig. In the US, Portland, Oregon brewers turned distillers Rouge places their barrels of pot distilled Dead Guy Whiskey in their Newport warehouses by the sea. 

But because of the lack of agitation, these techniques can take a much slower pace.

But bourbon isn’t the only spirit getting this treatment. 

Another creative and curious master blender decided to go halfway around the globe for his attempt. Keeper of the Quaich Jeffrey Karlovitch, who gained fame for blending whiskies to match the Lost Distillery’s of Scotland, decided to head to the Land of the Rising Sun for his next experiment.

The result is Kaiyo, a whisky blended in Japan, first aged on land and then stored on a ship using delicate and pricey Mizunara Oak barrels. 

Appropriately, the word Kaiyo translates into “ocean” in Japanese. 

There are plenty of doubters as to the sea effect on aging, some people see it as a marketing ploy and Jeffery was apparently one of those doubters. But the whiskies that returned on those boats changed his mind.

And as Kaiyo brand ambassador Jay Cole points out, if this were just a gimmick it would be a pricey one. 

And I’ll be talking more with Jay about Kaiyo, Japanese whisky, and aging at sea later this week on the all new: Whiskey Lore: The Interviews podcast. 

From Madeira, to Linie (LEANya), to Jeffersons and Kaiyo, the world has had quite a few examples of seafaring spirits. Whether happy accidents or created through a curious mind, there is no doubt they do have their markets.

Yet to some consumers, the idea of putting whisky on a boat and then publicizing it on a label, easily leads them to believe this is all a bunch of marketing fluff. How could waves, salty air, or excessive heat during a few months or years on a boat really make a difference in the taste of a whisky? 

Well, to become an educated consumer, you have a couple of different ways to help yourself. First, you could use your own nose and palate and taste it. You could learn and review the science of barrel aging. Or you could get a better understanding of the history and success of the technique - which you did. 

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life, LLC

Research, stories and production by Drew Hannush 

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And don’t forget to look for the brand new podcast called Whiskey Lore: The Interviews, where I talk weekly with distillers, historians, authors, and more about whisky and whiskey history. This week you’ll get a chance to learn more about Japanese Whisky from Jay Cole of Kaiyo. Just look for the podcast wherever you listen to whiskey lore and make sure to subscribe so you can catch the episodes when they launch each Wednesday.

Thanks for joining me for Season 5 of Whiskey Lore, next week starts my mini-series on the Whiskey Trust. Don’t miss it. 

And until next time.