On alcohol-related press junkets, where brands push their product to the media, distributors and industry reps, after about the third drink someone quietly mentions Lost Spirits. The response is generally the same. Some say it’s impossible and then laugh quietly into their drink. Some people get angry. They see it as cheating, as sacrilegious. They are the new kids on the block with a fancy machine, and they are doing in six days what it takes the legacy brands 20 years. But the taste tests don’t lie. Lost Spirits is already disrupting the industry with technology that mimics the aging process for spirits, rapidly reduces the time needed for mature-tasting alcohol — and soon they may turn the industry completely on its head.
After finding moderate success distilling absinthe in Spain, Bryan Davis founded Lost Spirits in Monterey, California, where, most notably, he produced Leviathan, a well-regarded, if young, peated American whiskey. But Davis faced the same problem as any craft startup in the distilling industry: time. Legally speaking, a spirit like straight whiskey requires two years of aging before it can be sold to customers. And in order to be competitive on taste, it needs to be aged another three to five years. Craft distilleries like High West and new ventures from big name companies, like Bulleit Rye, typically rely on blending whiskeys from other distilleries, like MPG of Indiana, until they have their own stocks. Davis wanted to change that.
In 2008 Davis began work on “speeding up” the aging process. Then, just last April, at the American Distilling Institute Annual Spirits Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, after seven years of work, Davis publicly unveiled the Thea One Reactor. In an interview with Wired, Davis explains that “it just seemed like something doable and with a massive benefit and need. I didn’t — and still don’t — think the craft spirits movement could survive without someone hacking the process.” Each Thea One can process 4,000 bottles per month of rum with its original “Caribbean protocol,” or more recently, rye and bourbon, with the additional “American South Configuration,” which costs a bit more to set up. The monthly finished product shows chemical indicators almost identical to spirits aged 20 years.
Davis’s machine utilizes two processes: extraction and esterification. The first esterification process occurs with the new make — a newly distilled clear spirit — in which short-chained fatty acids are turned into fruity, short-chained esters. Then extraction occurs as the new make draws out the aldehydes and phenols from the wood. However, the flavors will still be offensive without the next, more complicated step of esterification, which is when alcohol bonds with molecules from the wood, like phenol. This bonding lengthens the short-chain esters, creating medium- and long-chain esters which are associated with the flavors drinkers expect from good, aged spirits, while the short-chain acids in the original, un-aged new make are responsible for that harsh, rubbing-alcohol taste. Simply: Davis is taking short-chain molecules and lengthening them, a process that may take decades under natural conditions, but which takes only six to eight days when coaxed by his machine.
While the proof of his machine is already available — at the end of last year Lost Spirits Colonial American Inspired Rum became available commercially, to praise from critics — wide acceptance among drinkers is still up in the air. Davis will be working on bringing the Theo One to distillers around the nation, with an emphasis on keeping those producers transparent about the actual age of their product. This could cut down on the space, materials and time needed before a spirit is ready to be put on the market (the Thea One costs $4,000 a month to rent and $31,000 to set up), or at the very least help legacy distilleries cut down on costs of R&D. Whatever comes next, the proof of his concept is out for all to taste, and the demand, as long as the boom in whiskey continues, will be there. Legacy brands sitting on stocks of 25-year-old bourbon, rye and rum have reason to fear Bryan Davis’s revolution. lostspirits.net
Monthly Output: 4,000 bottles @ 40% ABV
Angel Share: None
Terroir Available: Caribbean and American South
Controlled By: iOS app
Step One: Short-Chain Esterification
Step Two: Photo-Catalytic Degradation
Step Three: Medium-Chain Esterification
Cost: $4,000 a month to rent plus $31,000 to set up and $5,000 to reserve