April 18, 2019

Will the term ‘authentic’ still have meaning for wine and spirits?

Larry Wu // WTF VICE

For many drinkers, well-aged wine and spirits are the height of pleasure for their quality and smoothness. Now, entrepreneurs are using innovative technologies to speed up time-honored aging methods to mimic the qualities of beverages aged several years.

One of these entrepreneurs is Larry Wu, a former research and development expert for companies ranging from Starbucks to Brown-Forman, who now is co-founder and general manager of SpiriTech Logistics. He’s developed methods to rapidly age spirits, reduce alcohol levels and modulate negative flavors or concentrate flavors. When he thinks What The Future, he wonders if drinkers will accept rapid-aged beverages.

GenPop: Now that you’ve seen the survey results, did anything surprise you?

Larry Wu: Yeah, I really was surprised by the wine consumption with age 55-plus at 60 percent because I thought that was an area that the wine industry was counting on for growth and for maybe even high-end products. I was surprised to see [that age group at] less than 70 percent, whereas every other age group was about or over 70 percent. And 21- to 34-year-old Millennials really are consuming brown spirits, which was interesting as companies are mining for new consumers.

GenPop: What did you make of the other numbers of people who do not drink certain beverages?

Wu: That’s what we’re seeing as well. And anecdotally, it seems like a lot of young people just aren’t drinking as much alcohol anymore. It’s worrisome for the spirits, beer and wine guys. That’s why you’re seeing products like Fever-Tree tonic water. That’s why you see the big guys making investments in products like Seedlip, which are non-alcoholic spirits, but still have that cocktail experience, like making a Moscow Mule without the Moscow. We’re seeing Spain go crazy for 0.0 percent alcohol wines. There’s a company in Kentucky using ultrasound and oak staves and micro-oxidization, and they’re saying in an eight-hour period they can make six-month-old whiskey. There’s a guy in California who can make rum look and taste like it’s 10 years old.

Larry Wu

Larry Wu, Co-founder and general manager, SpiriTech Logistics


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GenPop: We were surprised that a majority of survey respondents were open to trying rapid-aged alcohol beverages. What does that mean for authenticity and collectability?

Wu: Look at the bourbon brand Pappy Van Winkle. The “oldest” Pappy Van Winkle has such a limited production, retailers are put on allocation and have been selling spots in line to just buy it, if and when it is available. That makes the collection of that brand more important than the drinking quality. Is there anything really behind the high quality of it? I’m inclined to think that if you tasted it blind against other bourbons you might not pick it first. We’ve taken six-month-old bourbon that we developed and put it in the regular bourbon competitions, and we’ve got six silver medals. That tells me that when a judge tastes it, they’re seeing it as a legit product.

GenPop: If it’s not about the age and authenticity, what is the social currency?

Wu: What we found is that maybe people aren’t that picky if it’s good bourbon and it’s a local craft. It’s still authentic, but it’s more like it’s an invention or a new way of making something that didn’t exist before. But the experience of the final product is still the same. It almost makes the old way archaic and less necessary, meaning that you do it by choice versus necessity. We’re still using the old way of putting it in an oak barrel. It’s still distilled at the same rate. All we’re doing is taking it out of bed earlier.

Age matters — when it comes to price

How important is the age of each of the following alcoholic beverages to you when purchasing them?

Beer Wine Whiskey/Bourbon/Scotch Brandy/Cognac Tequila/Mezcal

How important is the age of each of the following alcoholic beverages to you when purchasing them? How important is the age of each of the following alcoholic beverages to you when purchasing them?I am worried about accidentally consuming too much cannabis if it is included in my food or drink. 23% 29% 26% 17% 14%

How important is the age of each of the following alcoholic beverages when deciding how much you are willing to pay for them? How important is the age of each of the following alcoholic beverages when deciding how much you are willing to pay for them? 31% 42% 51% 42% 28%

Willingness to try rapid-aged (among those who were interested in trying rapid-aged beverages) Willingness to try rapid-aged (among those who were interested in trying rapid-aged beverages) 65% 74% 67% 56% 61%

Source: Ipsos survey conducted between March 5 and March 6, 2019 among 1,006 adults age 21 and over in the U.S. Note: half of the sample were asked if they were willing to try a rapidaged beverage if it "cost less". This produced no significant difference in the response.

GenPop: How might that change the drinking culture in the future?

Wu: The iGens and Millennials have something in common in that they always want to learn to be artisans. Whether it’s cooking or baking or forging metal, they have a desire to learn and make their own kind of thing. There’s a brand in Seattle called Heritage Distilling. You can go make your own whiskey now and age it in a mini-barrel, and you take it with you or leave it there. This guy can’t create enough classes or opportunities for people to blend, distill and build their own whiskey. It’s a fun experience for people to really understand where their favorite drinks come from.

GenPop: Let’s go to 2035. What might we be drinking at a great party then?

Wu: Maybe it’s a variety of bring-your-own additives and mixers and having base beverages available. Maybe you’ll have a bunch of non-alcoholic wines and beers that you can mix with cannabis that you bring, or your host provides to share. Maybe the host has made his or her own bourbon or gin for a tasting. And she gets to tell the story of how she made her bourbon or gin and it’s a signature she’s put in her own bottle and she printed off her own labels. There will still be traditional alcohol available and there will be 0.0 percent alcohol but reminiscent of old products like wine, beer and spirits. There will always be a place for Bacardi rum and Jack Daniels, but you’ll find a lot more smaller brands. What you’ll find at parties is people presenting themselves in a different way through products that they’ve made that they’re super proud of—if they’re still drinking.

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, Co-founder and general manager, Spirit Tech Logistics

Lawrence Wu, Jr. graduated with a Food Science Degree from the University of Washington and received an MBA from Bellamine University. Larry has over 30 years experience in the food and beverage industry working in the areas of product ideation, development and commercialization. Larry has held multiple leadership positions within Research & Development at Starbucks, Brown-Forman, Campbell Soup, Kraft Foods and Bossa Nova Beverages, Iconoculture and Sky Valley Foods.

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