Lost Spirits Distilling – Meet The Holy Terror

Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits Distilling

Every religion needs its dogma, its holy relics, its saints and martyrs and fallen angels. And to emphasise the good in every believer, it helps to have a heathen. If booze were a religion, Bryan Davis would be its willing heretic, gleefully smashing up commandments carved in oak.

Since 2010 he has been trying to tinker with time itself, challenging the “inherently conservative” drinks industry by hacking the maturation process to produce, in a matter of days, spirits that are almost identical, chemically, to those that have been lovingly stowed in barrels for decades.

“People treat booze like a religion,” says Davis. “So it’s really fun to go play with it like you’re Dr Moreau, challenging its fundamental moral belief structure.”

H. G. Wells’s titular doctor, whose scientific ambition pushed him headlong through cultural and moral boundaries, is a recurring character in the Lost Spirits story. Davis jokingly describes Moreau, who created human-like hybrid beings from animals, as a “source of inspiration”, spurring him on to challenge the accepted rules.

Visitors to The Lab in Charleston, South Carolina, where Lost Spirits has recently relocated to partner with two other producers, enter a clinical white room with fingerprint-locked doors, a large two-way mirror and a single central plinth, upon which sits a first edition of The Island of Dr Moreau. They are greeted by the voice of the lab itself, Tessa (the computer system which runs the distillery), and eventually ushered into what at first appears to be a more conventional distillery space. Conventional, that is, before they later stumble upon the three time machines (the Targeted Hyper-Esterification Ageing – or THEA – reactors), the Egyptian Gods, the dragon’s skull and the megalodon remains.

“I guess Jurassic Park was the 20th Century remake of The Island of Dr Moreau, where scientific ambition overrides the moral sensibility of what is ‘a wise idea’,” says Davis. “But the beauty of this is that we’re making booze, so it’s not actually messing with the human genome.”

The drinks industry is a safe space to use his creativity and knowledge of chemistry to play God without the need to splice man and leopard …

But that’s not to say that there’s not a lot at stake for the future of the drinks industry – practically, financially and in how we measure and define quality. What has already been achieved, and what Davis is predicting is possible with the technology, has the potential to revolutionise aspects of the industry.

First edition of the Island of Dr Moreau

“People treat booze like a religion, so it’s really fun to go play with it like you’re Dr Moreau, challenging its fundamental moral belief structure.”

If you don’t have to wait 20 years for a spirit to taste like a 20-year-old spirit, would you still wait because that’s what has always given the sense of luxury and craftsmanship to the drink? Does the tradition and the patience, effort and forward planning of the maker contribute to our enjoyment of a drink? Perhaps more pertinently, would you be willing to pay the same luxurious price if the producers were turning the product round in a week with no costly barrels, warehouses and evaporation to worry about?

There will always be a debate about how completely one process can replicate the drinking experience you will enjoy through another process, though there have been plenty of educated palates convinced by the taste of what Lost Spirits has produced. However, one of most the exciting things about developing quick-fire maturation is the opportunity it presents for experimentation by reducing prohibitive overheads. Big producers can’t afford to invest in unusual new drinks and wait 20 years only to discover they don’t sell (one reason for their conservatism). But producers, including small-scale ones, using THEA reactors will be able to afford to try, and fail, and then improve. They will also be able to react quickly to changing tastes and trends. So, how does the process work?

The Time Machine

Davis’s method involves running new spirit through his THEA reactors with pieces of wood to try and force the same chemical reactions as those taking place during maturation in oak barrels, extracting new chemicals from the wood and bonding alcohol and phenol with acids (esterification) to produce the esters responsible for the flavours and aromas of aged spirits.

“We had to understand what the hell actually happens in barrels and it sounds really simple, but people didn’t really know,” he says. “We approached it by saying we need to understand systematically, piece by piece, what it is that makes a bottle of aged booze, a bottle of aged booze. What changed? How did it change? What were the steps? Where did the precursors come from? We did that by taking samples of different barrels, of rum in particular, that were different ages, running chemical analysis and mapping their chemical signatures.

“We mapped that through to see how it was evolving and started to come up with hypotheses for the different ways that was triggered chemically. Once we had our guesses mapped out we started to ask the simple question – how could you trigger that in a lab?

Bryan Davis at work in the lab

“There’s no one silver bullet for all. So we set up years’ worth of experiments to find ways to force each one of the reactions and then put them all in a sequence. First we force all the raw acids in the white spirit to bind to alcohols; that’s going to get rid of all our off flavours and create fruit flavours. Then we’re going to take that and the wood with it and we’re going to put it into a glass tube and fire a super high-intensity light at it which is going to break apart the polymers in the wood.

“Then we’re going to take that, put it back in an esterification reactor with the catalyst that we figured out how to extract from the oak, and warm that up to the right temperature where the catalyst can do its job. Then bind all those pieces of wood that were blown apart into everything else and dial it and tune it until it puts all of the pieces together in the right sequence and at the right proportions to match what would happen naturally in a barrel over the course of decades.”

As simple as that …

“We actually published the forensic chemistry … at a level of sophistication that would be court-admissible evidence in a murder trial”

Gas chromatography and mass spectrometry are used to demonstrate the chemical similarities between aged spirits and those which have been through Davis’s process. Writing in Wired magazine about the first product to undergo the rapid ageing process – the Colonial American Inspired rum – the tech (and drinks) writer Christopher Null said ‘The chromatograms that compare this rum to very old stock (like Port Mourant 33 Years Old) are uncannily similar’.

“We sent out bottles for all the critics to review and had them assess them independently before we told them what we did,” says Davis. “And then we told them … which was pretty fun. And that went well. We actually published the forensic chemistry and we did it using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. We did it using equipment and a level of sophistication and technique that would be court-admissible evidence in a murder trial. We figured, you can’t really take it further than that.”

But, of course, it remains a learning process. There are still questions over replicating different styles. Davis says they are working through whiskeys and each one presents different challenges. While he agrees it’s potentially lucrative to replicate these existing styles, he says it’s not his top priority.

“It doesn’t matter to me at all, except I feel like I need to, at least, make something that’s very close on each category that I go into, once, if not again, just to be able to run the analysis, put my data out and make the point.”

Two other areas where they are still trying to make progress are: degrading the polymers in the wood, so they can replicate stages in between 0 and 20 years old (“We don’t care but it could be particularly valuable to big players in the industry”); and recreating the angels’ share by sucking out the water and ethanol to concentrate all the flavour.

The Wonderful Visit

In New Orleans at the Tales of the Cocktail festival for the release of the first new products since the move to Charleston it is apparent that the success of early releases like Leviathan – a heavily peated whiskey – and the range of rums has certainly created anticipation. Davis and his business partner (and girlfriend) Joanne Haruta are returning to the week-long drinks industry shindig with new products for the first time since shutting down their Monterey distillery while they effectively became a tech company, licensing out their reactors to producers.

There’s genuine excitement from bartenders and distributors about the launch of new rums and whiskeys under the Lost Spirits, Rational Spirits and Rattleback Rye labels. In the company of other booze geeks, Davis is a bit of a rock star booze geek. You may know one end of a still from the other but you probably didn’t watch all of the MIT chemistry classes online and unravel the mysteries of rapid-fire ageing using Wikipedia and PubMed.

Spending time with him you can see an unwillingness to leave questions unanswered. Conversations are regularly stalled halfway while he consults his “second brain” to clarify some point with Google. This is probably torture to live with (as Haruta confirms) but it undoubtedly has an important part to play in his success to date and the myriad directions mapped out for the technology in the future.

When the Sleeper Wakes

A career in drink began for Davis with a simple, but unusual, need. At Burning Man he needed a way to bribe his way onto the art cars – and homemade absinthe was his answer. From here, he and Haruta set up a company making absinthe in Spain, capitalising on its legalisation in the US. The relationships forged during this period have endured, with a number of important spirits executives now sitting on the Lost Spirits board. But their Obsello brand struggled as the market for absinthe dipped and the couple sold up and focused their sights on the thriving brown spirits category.

The Lost Spirits fermenters and THEA reactors

Having announced their technological breakthrough to the world, the company spun off in a different direction

Davis says: “I have a sculpture degree, which is about as useless as you would expect in this task … or not, and that’s sort of the weird part. I’m a pretty creative person and I think when I came to this project and I realised that if I wanted to make whiskeys and rums and brandies, then this was different to the absinthe. Because absinthe was cooking. You’re mixing herbs and spices together – it’s like jam. You’re making a flavour the way you cook a dish at home. Whereas this was all chemistry. There are things you’re going to taste that are really bad that are precursors to things that are really good. And you have to know how they’re going to react and how things change in order to create a beautiful rum or a beautiful whiskey. My approach was I needed to teach myself how to use chemistry, but I really viewed chemistry in the same way that you view learning how to sculpt clay.

“I want to make something that’s really avant-garde that surprises people or takes you in a weird direction. But I want to have artistic control over my medium. I want to be able to say – ‘I want it to have this structure, I want it to do this thing’. So when we made the Navy [rum], that was the first project where we started really having artistic control. I needed to understand the chemistry as a means of being able to sculpt whatever I wanted to make.”

What he wanted to make was whatever the team thought the rum in Pirates of the Carribbean tasted like. But, having achieved this, having honed the control over several more releases, and then having announced their technological breakthrough to the world, the company spun off in a different direction. They went from producing spirits to producing spirit producers by licensing the reactors out.

The World Set Free

The Monterey distillery was shut and the team moved to Silicon Valley to build a machine to turn loose on the craft distilling world. “The initial thinking was, let’s watch the industry get shaken up a little bit – I mean, it’s overdue for it anyway,” says Davis.

They were approached by 90 different distilleries: a mixture of new or would-be producers, unsuitable or struggling distilleries and big players looking to stay ahead of the cutting edge. For a time Lost Spirits was replaced by Lost Spirits Technology.

“I first opted to pick the guys I wanted to have a beer with and found interesting,” says Davis. They were Alex Burns, who founded Rational Spirits after a successful career in finance, and Wynn Sanders, a former airforce scientist who founded Rattleback Rye along with Théron Regnier. But it quickly became apparent that the time and effort required to create the conditions for the reactors to produce good-quality drink was greater than expected.

Lost Spirits' products

Davis says: “Pretty quickly we ran into our issues and they (Rational and Rattleback) ran into theirs. It created the need to have an alliance. They were new in the industry and making a lot of common mistakes. They’re really smart guys, they’re well funded – all that stuff, but they didn’t know some of these problems were problems or how to go about solving them. For us, the cost of on-boarding a new small distillery was far more than we could really afford to sustain if we were going to try and scale up the business.

“The market had done something interesting too. Consumers didn’t mind the reactor itself when we did it – historically they got excited about it. But they weren’t extraordinarily excited about spirits that they could already buy, but done a different way to match the chemistry. They were fine with the idea of the tech in an avant-garde distillery setting but the licensees are not guys who’ve spent their entire life around esoteric booze. They realised pretty quickly this was a problem.”

In the meantime Davis says he was under some pressure from people within the industry to “cool it” on taking on more licensees, and Rattleback needed a new location to produce in. The solution was for everyone to gather under one roof (Rational’s) in Charleston, joining forces to create The Lab – a place for science, art and innovation, or as Davis otherwise puts it, “a sculpture studio for booze”.

The Research Magnificent

“Let’s throw thousands of noodles at the wall and see which ones will stick and do something cool, and which are terrible. But without the economic risk of one mistake ruining the entire place. That’s what we’re building around. That has a right to exist,” says Davis.

Crossing the threshold of The Lab Davis is evidently in his element, as he is when discussing the most out-there of his ‘noodles’. The whole place is automated because it leaves more time to think of hair-brained schemes. While there is obviously considerable financial backing for the whole project, untold riches don’t seem to be the motivation. Financial success often comes from finding the right activity and repeating it until the money rolls in. But with Davis there seems no desire to iterate – it’s all about the next thing.

Discussing where his boundaries lie he considers ruling out some areas as too gross to experiment in, such as using the cadaver plant (titan arum), which smells of rotting flesh. But he quickly concludes that using the carboxylic acids in a carcass plant dunder to make a ‘cadaver flower liqueur’ would actually be worth a go.

Lost spirits using wood from antique furniture to flavour whiskey

Already underway is a plan to recreate mid-19th century whiskeys like those held in barrels made from American chestnut (before disease made the trees functionally extinct). Antique furniture was picked up at auction, pulled apart and stripped of its varnish to supply enough chestnut wood to run through the reactor. “We went through all this work and were gathered round,” says Davis. “We said, ‘This is the day, we’re about to be the first people to have had an American chestnut whiskey in more than a hundred years.’ And we poured four glasses and toasted and all promptly spat it out because it was horrible. I have no idea why, but it will be fun to figure it out.”

Undeterred, the experiment continues and Davis also has a list of oak trees from around the world to try out, most of which are unsuitable for making barrels, but suitable for his purposes. In a patch of land behind the distillery he hopes to cultivate Amazon fruits and carnivorous plants to make brandy. That’s unless the same patch of land is turned into a doughnut-shaped heat sink to allow visitors to float on boats to a tasting room in a glamping tent. “It all screams, why not?” says Davis.

The Dream

Davis’s dream project, and, he says, the hardest to execute is the resurrection of lost spirits by creating their chemical (if not spiritual) clones.

“This would be a cool opportunity to try this crazy esoteric, so rare, so expensive, so absolutely off-limits that even the person who bought it won’t drink it thing,” he says.

The example he gives is the Wray and Nephew 17, required to make the original Mai Tai. Remaining bottles sell for tens of thousands of dollars, so Davis’s plan is to syringe a sample before resealing (overseen by Sotheby’s). From an analysis of this he believes he can come up with an estimate of what the white spirit would be like, then run chemical analyses on white rums from all over the world to work out which blend would match the computer-modelled chemical signature of the original. All that remains is to run this through the reactor with every different possible kind of wood combination to come up with a blend that would be closest to the original. As simple as that …

“I could take a year of my life off to do this. How fun would it be to just make three or four pallets of the stuff, do a road trip to all the Tiki bars and have a show that you could buy tickets to, have Jurassic Park Mai Tais through the night and then make them extinct again?”

Samples of wood

The Undying Fire

You may not enjoy his drinks. You may doubt his methods or question the impact his findings will have. But you couldn’t accuse Bryan Davis of a lack of ambition or creativity. In The Lab each fermenter is named after a Hyksos king, the Hyksos being a tribe who invaded Egypt and conquered it with a small number of people using better technology. It’s a nod to Davis’s intent, which seems to me to be disruption for the mischief of it, experimentation for the creativity of it and having fun with booze because it’s one of life’s pleasures and not a religion.

Davis has hinted at plans to address the “misappropriation of his skills”, by turning his talents away from booze and towards developing a drug to address a very specific medical problem. If he does ever move on from booze, let’s hope curing disease is his new focus, lest his inner Dr Moreau is released …