Two Lorain County Community College students are helping Cleveland Whiskey combine science and tradition to create a better tasting bourbon whiskey.
The students, Aubrie Thompson, 31 of Elyria, and Chris Kazee, 21 of Avon Lake, conducted independent research under the direction of LCCC chemistry professor Regan Silvestri. The students developed a method to analyze bourbon whiskey samples in the chemistry lab and generated an analytical profile of the whiskey’s flavor. The spring semester project allowed the students to go beyond textbooks, Thompson said.
“It is fun and interesting to apply chemistry to a product from our own back yard, in order to see it and understand it from a molecular standpoint. Just as a fingerprint identifies an individual, the molecular makeup of whiskey is what gives it its distinct flavor,” Thompson explained.
Cleveland Whiskey founder and CEO Tom Lix developed a technology that accelerates the aging process of whiskey from a few years to a few days. Traditionally, a process where a grain mash is fermented and distilled into a clear spirit makes bourbon whiskey. The new spirit is then aged in charred oak barrels for up to 10 years or more. During the aging process the spirit becomes flavored with meeting of the Cleveland Section of the Society of Applied Spectroscopy. Silvestri had arranged for the society to have a tour of the Cleveland Whiskey facility, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the tour guide was the founder and chairman of the company himself.
“When I first met Tom Lix, I immediately thought that if we could put this project together it would be a great opportunity for students to work on something practical and real-life,” Silvestri said. “Education can too often be ‘by the textbook.’ Aubrie and Chris worked on this project independently, with minimal intervention from me. In contrast to routine academic chemistry lab work where students follow pre-set recipes, this work was unstructured such that Aubrie and Chris navigated their own path.”
The project benefitted both Cleveland Whiskey and LCCC, Lix said.
“Working with the College provides a series of benefits, not the least of which is the actual analysis which helps us with a continual improvement process,” Lix said. “Importantly this work also provides us with greater visibility to an extremely well trained and skilled workforce. The College benefits the entire region and I’m happy to have this connection.”
As the project progressed, the students encountered challenges along the way and learned to find solutions, Silvestri said. Stepping away from those typical “recipe” chemistry situations was eye opening, Kazee said.
“It’s very exciting as a student to learn real-life applications of the classes you take at school. This experience has expanded my horizons and I am now seeking other opportunities because of this experience,” Kazee said.
Kazee and Thompson conducted their whiskey research using an instrument called a gas chromatography-mass spectrometer, a sophisticated analytical instrument that can routinely detect and identify substances, which are present in quantities as small as parts-per-million. The state-of-the-art instrument is one of many advanced tools in the instruments lab of LCCC’s chemistry department.
“This project has benefited not only Chris and myself as students gaining practical knowledge, skill, and experience, but has also benefited Cleveland Whiskey as they gain the information to help analyze, compare, and refine their products on an empirical level,” Thompson added.
Students routinely conduct independent research at LCCC. In the division of Science and Mathematics, students conduct research in many areas of chemistry, environmental science, polymer engineering, physics, biology and microbiology.
Cleveland Whiskey is located in the MAGNET business incubator downtown Cleveland. The MAGNET business incubator houses startup manufacturing companies. Learn more about Cleveland Whiskey at www.clevelandwhiskey.com.
Learn more about science and mathematics programs at LCCC, visit www.lorainccc.edu/science.