It responds to commands on its iPad app with the voice of the South African Siri. When you press “tour mode,” you hear the ominous horns of Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra”–the theme from the movie 2001–and get a light show to match.
Are you looking at the rickhouse of the future?
Lost Spirits is betting big that you are.
“The question has always been: How do you get unobtanium in the bottle for $30?” says Bryan Davis, who co-founded the California distillery-turned-innovation lab with his partner Joanne Haruta. “We want to hand the little guys nuclear weapons.”
Even the suggestion that the spirits maturation process can be “sped up” gets many people’s hackles up. So Bryan knew he was courting controversy when he started work on a “flash-aging reactor” meant to reproduce the effect of decades of barrel aging in a matter of days.
His grin alone tells you that’s half the reason he did it.
“I have a hard time with orthodoxy,” Bryan said as he led Thane McDram and me on a recent tour of Lost Spirits’ hillside laboratory/startup headquarters in Morgan Hill, CA.
Morgan Hill, for those of you playing along at home, is in Silicon Valley–as the “Made In” declaration emblazoned on the Thea One reactor proudly proclaims. Where better for a project using advanced technology to try to disrupt the aged spirits industry?
Bryan says: “My approach has always been: Conventional wisdom says X? Let’s test it. Oh! They’re wrong!”
Whiskey makers have been trying for decades to cheat time–to find shortcuts to the depth, complexity, and deliciousness of spirits aged in oak barrels for years. (See Reid Mitenbuler’s brilliant book Bourbon Empire for a historical account.)
Many whiskey makers, especially startup microdistillers who need to get product to market fast, have experimented with small barrels. Rather than the 53-gallon standard, they’ve used 25-, 5-, or even 1-gallon barrels to increase the proportion of wood surface area to spirit. Others have substituted stainless steel tanks for barrels entirely, and thrown in oak chunks, staves, or spirals for the same effect. Either way, more oak means faster maturation, right?
Wrong. Unless by “maturation” you mean a dram that tastes like a liquified Home Depot aisle.
Once you get past the breathless click-bait pieces in the popular press, it turns out that barrel maturation is an extraordinarily complex process that even organic chemists still understand imperfectly. But the infusion of oak compounds into new make spirit is only part of the process. It also includes the extraction or filtration of bad compounds out of the spirit by the barrel walls, oxidation, the degradation of oak compounds over time, and more.
When it comes to cracking that code, Lost Spirits has two major advantages over rivals like Terressentia. First, they’ve actually been distilling truly delicious spirits for years now, from their early single malt experiments (born of a quest to an American Octomore) to their more recent overproof rums.
Second, they’re not stabbing in the dark. They’re collaborating with U.C. Davis chemists. They’re using gas chromatography to match the levels of ethyl octanoate (and many other flavor compounds) in their flash-aged spirits to those of 33-year-old control spirit’s. And they’re remarkably transparent about their results–which, granted, is easier when they look this good.
Bryan’s goal is to commercialize the Thea One to change the game for the 600+ microdistillers that have exploded onto the American scene in recent years. If they can try out different recipes of new make and “aging protocols” in a matter of days rather than years, they have a shot at getting truly enjoyable products to market fast enough to survive their early lean years.
“This lets people experiment in ways the traditional model doesn’t allow,” Bryan says.
Helping the little guys get a toehold is one thing. But at its most ambitious, Lost Spirits’ project is aimed at shaking things up for the major distillers, who have billions of dollars invested in their current aging stocks and infrastructure.
“The only thing you really fear if you’re Jim Beam is someone like us,” Bryan says.
It may come as little surprise that “several multinationals” are sending Bryan new make samples of their own to see what Thea One may be able to do for them too. Or that there are dozens of producers on their waiting list once beta testing’s done. Or that venture capital investors have swept in to get a piece of what they hope is the next big thing.
Lost Spirits cracked the flash-aging code with rums first. South Carolina-based Rational Spirits is about the release its Santeria, a Thea One-aged product, and is installing its own Lost Spirits reactor for beta testing right now. We got to try the Santeria, and it’s fantastic–dense, rich, and buttery–and it took just days to make.
The holy grail, given the current bourbon boom, is flash-aged bourbon and rye. Lost Spirits is still fine-tuning its whiskey aging protocols, as it turns out there are additional nuances to the whiskey maturation process that make it even trickier to reproduce than rum’s.
“We had to duplicate the effects of bacteria living in the barrel walls in the rickhouse,” Davis says. “To do that, we row bacteria in dilute whiskey, then feed their filtered byproducts to the reactor with the spirit. The reactor then ages those compounds out like they would in the barrel.”
Is that all?
“Plus a few secrets,” he added with a grin.
Thanks again to Bryan and Joanne for their time and generosity. Cheers, friends! -BO