A while ago on /r/bourbon, someone used a word I didn’t know. A guy had several bottles on the shelf with barely a full dram left in any of them and was considering consolidating all of the whiskey into a single bottle. Someone else commented that he had been considering a similar course of action and then used the strange new word: solera.
Now I’m a naturally curious person and I couldn’t just let this fun new word glide by unheeded, so I headed out to Google, which led me to Wikipedia. I now know that the commenter had used “solera” when he probably meant something closer to “vatting.” And while I’m not terribly interested in vatting at the moment, I’m curious about the solera process and its possible application to bourbon whiskey.
The basic idea of the solera is that you have a series of barrels in a line, numbered 1 to whatever. Every year, you bottle some of what’s in the last barrel. They you top of the last barrel with what’s in the second-to-last barrel. You work your way down the line until you’re topping off barrel 1 with new make. The process is commonly used for aging wine, vinegar, brandy, and rum.
The downside of running a solera is that it can take years to “prime the pump”. If you start with 4 empty barrels, it’s going to be 4 years until you’re ready to bottle anything and what you’re bottling is only going to be aged 4 years. Also, you’re going to bottle less than a barrel’s worth every year.
However, once you have things up and running, the upside’s pretty cool. Every bottle you produce will have a little bit of every year’s input in it, from the very first to the most recent. Beyond that, the average age of what goes into the bottles will continue to go up for as long as you run the solera. Of course, the average age levels out over time, but every year the oldest juice in the bottle is older and older.
One of the reasons I think a solera would work well at a bourbon distillery (or NDP) is because there’s no need to prime the pump. Instead of starting with 4 empty barrels and filling them up year by year, you start with full barrels that are already a year apart.
Well-regarded but defunct distillers are another reason I thought the solera process would be well received in the bourbon world. Got one barrel of Stitzel-Weller juice left? Toss it into your solera and now every bottle that comes out has Stitzel-Weller juice in it, basically forever. Granted, all the Stitzel-Weller barrels are 20+ years old now and may well be worth more unadulterated than blended.
Finally, I’d like to point out that you don’t have to feed new make into your solera. If you put straight bourbon whiskey into the first barrel, you should legally be able to call what comes out of the final barrel straight bourbon whiskey. Of course, you may have a tough time putting an age statement on your bottles, but most people these days don’t seem to mind.
I put together a Google doc with some basic solera math. Have a look and let me know what you think.
EDIT: I suppose I ought to be more explicit about what I’m actually proposing. I would like to see an adventurous distiller (Buffalo Trace, perhaps?) take five barrels ranging from four years old to six years old at six month intervals and set up a solera. They should transfer half of each barrel every six months, topping off barrel #1 with four year old bourbon each time. The average age of bourbon coming out of the solera would start close to six years and eventually rise to nine years. They’re only going to produce one barrel of bourbon per year, but I bet they’d have no problem selling every bottle to those of us interested in being part of such an experiment.