One Man’s Quest to Make 20-Year-Old Rum in Just Six Days
From the outside, the Lost Spirits Distillery is just another boxy, early-20th-century building along the frayed edge of downtown Los Angeles. At first the inside appears similarly uninspired: deep and unfinished, littered with cardboard boxes, plumbing fittings, spools of wire, inscrutable items made of copper, a forklift. The usual crap.
But what’s this then? A heavy black curtain bisects the industrial space from floor to ceiling, nearly from the front door to the back. Bryan Davis, the distillery’s founder and co-owner, pulls aside some folds and beckons me in.
It’s dark; my eyes adjust slowly. I’ve stumbled into a nighttime clearing deep in a tropical jungle—lush foliage and flowering vines lit by dozens of flickering candle lanterns. Are those crickets and cicadas and an occasional Jurassic Park bellow I hear? Yes. Yes, they are.
Davis allows himself a wry smile and then walks to a rough-wood bar at the far end of the … jungle, I guess, pulls out a bottle, and pours me a glass. “That’s our new Navy rum,” he says. But he seems a little distracted. He starts tapping at his smartphone screen. Most—but not all—of the faux candles brighten and dim at his command. “It’s buggy as shit,” Davis says. He excuses himself and slips behind another set of curtains.
I sip rum as I try to figure out how he has pulled together this Las Vegas–caliber fakery in the two short months since he and his girlfriend-slash-business-partner, Joanne Haruta, signed the lease. Lost Spirits rum has won medals in spirits competitions, and deservedly so. It’s good. But as I drink, I consider another question: What the hell?
Before I can arrive at an answer, I detect something moving, something substantial creeping at a pace slower than a walk. Through the dim candlelight I see a pair of golden Egyptian sphinxes, each a couple of feet high, mounted on the front of what appears to be a barge that is soundlessly floating down what I now realize is an elevated canal. Then I see Davis, standing amidships like a vanquishing explorer.
He invites me aboard, but I’m already scrambling a few steps up to the boat, using the flashlight on my smartphone to see what is going on. The “canal,” it turns out, is a 3-foot-high, elongated water tank—it holds 5,000 gallons and runs the length of the building, cooling the fermentors and the still. Davis built the barge, which seats about eight, to travel up and down the distillery. He tells me to put away my phone—I’m ruining the illusion!—and take a seat.
We slowly start down the waterway. “You know the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney?” Davis says. “You can’t just get off and drink with the pirates. That’s the problem we were trying to solve.”
Well, one of the problems. The other, which had brought me here to meet with Davis in the first place, has more to do with chemistry than with theater. The rum I’d just sampled tasted like it had spent at least a generation in a barrel. It had actually been aged only six days. “We’re throwing all the tools you’d use for curing cancer at making a mai tai,” Davis says.
Davis “aged” that rum in a high tech reactor of his own invention, which uses heat and light to try to do in a week what might otherwise take decades. He isn’t the first to try to find this Northwest Passage of booze; Davis is the latest in a long line of inventors, beverage chemists, and flimflam artists who have claimed to find ways to cheat time.
But his approach is different—at least according to Davis. His patented reactor sits in a room just ahead, so we float slowly, very slowly, on an unseen stream into an inexplicable heart of dorkness.
“We’re throwing all the tools you’d use for curing cancer at making a mai tai,” Davis says.
There’s a simple way and a complicated way of thinking about distilled spirits in a barrel. The simple way is to think of a barrel like an inside-out tea bag. The wood of a barrel—they’re almost always made of white oak—contains compounds that taste good when they degrade, especially when the interior has been toasted or charred. The lignin, hemicellulose, and other polymers that give the wood structure break down to produce sweet, vanilla notes. Alcohol is an efficient solvent, so it seeps into the wood and captures these compounds.
The complicated way to look at maturation is through organic chemistry. Yes, an alcohol solution extracts flavor from the broken-down wood. But slower, more elaborate chemical reactions also happen among the esters and acids in unaged liquor. A barrel sitting silently in a dark warehouse doesn’t look like it’s doing anything, but that’s deceptive. Over months and years, compounds decompose and recombine in dozens of different ways—with the chemicals leached from the oak, with oxygen that enters between the barrel’s staves, and with the ethanol itself.
Consumers clamor for quality aged bourbon, which would be really good news for distillers if only they had a time machine and could travel back five or 10 years and ramp up production.
So you might start with traces of something like butyric acid. It’s not an especially desirable flavor—it’s partly responsible for the vomity smell you can detect in Parmesan cheese. But when it combines with ethanol, it forms ethyl butyrate, which smells like ripe pineapple. Skilled distillers have even learned to tweak the process to encourage some of these elements and discourage others. In Jamaica, for instance, rum makers often add fast-reproducing microbes to their fermenting mash. Yeast cells, competing with these microbes for sugar, produce acids to fight them—but during aging, those acids also react with alcohol to create new compounds. Their fruity, weird flavors are part of what makes Jamaican rum so big and funky and delicious.
All this happens naturally and over time. It’s the job of a distiller to find the ideal moment to bottle the booze, when the chemical reactions that make good flavors have taken place but before the flavor of the wood itself takes over and becomes too bossy. “Everything we’ve ever done says you cannot shortchange the double decomposition that goes on,” says Mark Brown, president and CEO of Sazerac, which makes bourbons including Buffalo Trace and cult favorite Pappy Van Winkle. “There’s this really peculiar thing that goes on over time that only time can deal with.” For bourbon, Brown says, eight to 10 years is the sweet spot.
But time is literally money when it comes to aging spirits. A single standard oak barrel sets distillers back $150 or more, and that’s only a down payment. They still need to store the barrels in expensive warehouses that require maintenance and incur taxes. Being semiporous, barrels lose some of their content, often around 5 percent a year, through evaporation. What’s more, the spirit inside that barrel has already consumed capital—in the form of raw materials, pricey distillation equipment, and the salary of a distiller. And then it just sits there, mocking investors by producing no immediate tangible return.
It’s without doubt one of the more idiotic business models ever devised, in no small part because supply and demand are wholly asynchronous. Consumers today clamor for quality aged bourbon, which would be really good news for distillers if only they had a time machine and could travel back five or 10 years and ramp up production.
“You know the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney?” Davis says. “You can’t just get off and drink with the pirates. That’s the problem we were trying to solve.”
Yet somehow that business model is not so idiotic that it keeps people out of the industry. In the past decade the US has gone from a few dozen craft distillers to well over a thousand. This has led to an age of experimentation, as the slew of newcomers scramble to move quality aged spirits more swiftly from still to shelf.
Many simply use smaller barrels—instead of the industry standard, 53 gallons, they use casks that hold between 5 and 30 gallons. With that increase in the ratio of wood to liquor, the alcohol takes on more barrel flavor more quickly. But the brief interlude shortchanges long-term reactions, which can often mean that a whiskey distiller will end up bottling something that’s nice and oaky but also plagued with a sort of cornflakes aroma.
Davis sent a bottle of superb 33-year-old rum from Guyana to a lab for chemical analysis. Then he set out to forge its molecular fingerprint.
Distillers have tried many clever tricks to speed up those advanced reactions. Tuthilltown in Gardiner, New York, and Copper & Kings in Louisville, Kentucky, have employed sonic aging—blasting barrels with high-volume music, especially heavy on the bass, to prod the contents to move along. Others, like Jefferson’s Bourbon, with its Ocean label, have put casks on sea-voyaging ships, thinking the constant rocking and sloshing will accelerate reactions. I recently tasted a sample of Jefferson’s that had been “aged” in this manner, in casks aboard a boat, down the Mississippi River from Kentucky to New Orleans. It was good, but the method probably doesn’t scale. Rocking—literally or acoustically—at present appears to make more sense for marketing than for production.
When Davis started experimenting with fast-aging liquor, he tracked down a bottle of superb 33-year-old rum from Guyana and sent it to a lab for chemical analysis. The gas chromatography/mass spectrometry results he got back gave him a rough outline of the rum’s molecular fingerprint, a breakdown of what decades of aging had created. The results showed prominent spikes of ethyl dodecanoate, sinapaldehyde, and other compounds that had formed over time. Davis set out to forge that fingerprint.
As a cult-favorite craft distiller, Bryan Davis has been experimenting for more than a decade with ways to make young booze taste old—or at least weird. Now Davis says he has a contraption that can make rum or whiskey seem like it has spent 20 years in a barrel after just a few days. It might even work.
Davis is slightly stocky and has a shaved head. From across the room he can look like Mike Myers playing Dr. Evil. When he gets excited, which is often, particularly if you introduce a subject like the eons-long war between microbes and yeast, his eyes flare. Sometimes this seems like a visual exclamation point to accent his comments; other times it has me wishing for a foil hat to prevent a secret force field from taking over my controls. He can be very convincing.
Davis grew up in the central-California hills between Monterey and Salinas. When he was in high school, he built his first still—an empty whiskey bottle, a hot plate, some copper tubing, and a 5-gallon cooling bucket. The nasty rum he made from white sugar was good enough to enhance his status among thirsty fellow students. While studying sculpture at the San Francisco Art Institute, Davis started dabbling in making absinthe, which was emerging from a decades-long nap. It was better than his rum, and he found it to be a useful offering for rides on art cars at Burning Man. After graduation Davis worked for a design firm making elaborate faux environments at theme parks and malls. If you’ve ever been to Grizzly Gulch at the San Francisco Zoo, you’ve seen the work of Bryan Davis.
Davis began infusing oak into spirits, steeping it in various forms and at various temperatures, to see if he could coax out better flavors.
Davis and Haruta started dating when he was 21. Four years later they moved to Spain to make absinthe, which was then legal in Europe but not yet in the United States. They ended up in Lleida, a city two hours outside Barcelona, where they leased a building, grappled with arcane regulations in a language they didn’t speak, and built and operated their own still, producing and selling Obsello absinthe and Port of Barcelona gin.
Getting a distillery up and running was a daunting task, but after spending some time with them, it’s not hard to imagine how they pulled it off. Davis and Haruta are a sort of bookend couple: Davis seems to do most of the talking and idea mongering, with Haruta from time to time interjecting with a recap—with more context and a less-staccato delivery. She seems to be the one who anticipates complications before they arise, a center of gravity for Davis’ flights of fancy.
Their absinthe and gin proved a solid if not raging success. After nearly five years abroad, Davis and Haruta decided to head home. They set up shop on some land Haruta’s parents owned near Salinas and built a new distillery for $80,000, including an outdoor still that vented steam through a metal dragon’s head. They first produced a peated whiskey. But after early experiments in speeding up the formation of esters by adding wood chips to the casks, they switched to rum—which they’d started making only as an agent to season barrels before putting whiskey in.
Davis didn’t stop tinkering. He read that early distillers sometimes add banana and jackfruit into fermenting rum to introduce microbes, so in Salinas he started cultivating bacteria on bananas and adding it to the mash. He began infusing oak into spirits, steeping it in various forms and at various temperatures, to see if he could coax out better flavors.
The Newton-and-the-apple moment came one afternoon in 2013. “I was walking out to the still and thought, ‘Geez, I need to repaint my deck,’” Davis says. “I got about a hundred yards, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute.’ So I ran back and looked at the deck again.” The wood was cracked and splitting. The relentless California sunlight was doing just what alcohol does to a barrel—breaking down polymers that give wood its structure—but the sun was doing it pretty efficiently. “If we re-created this effect, but with the wood inside a tube filled with booze, all those degradation byproducts would get trapped in the liquid,” he realized.
The three-chambered reactor Davis ended up with seemed to do what all those hucksters had only promised. His newly distilled rum tasted … old.
It had taken about 10 years for that deck wood to start falling apart, but Davis figured that more intense light would speed up the process. That night he filled some jars with liquor and small blocks of oak and then tracked down “every kind of light bulb we could think of, used in an ever-increasing concentration until we blew the breaker in the garage.”
That’s when the tinkering got intense. Davis figured out how to gang together a container full of wood blocks—the “tea bag” portion of the aging process—and blast it with light at different frequencies and intensities. The three-chambered reactor he ended up with seemed to finally do what all those historical hucksters had only promised. It still needed some tuning, but his newly distilled rum tasted … old.
On April 1, 2015, he gave an hour-long presentation on his findings in Louisville, at the annual meeting of the American Distilling Institute. He revealed the results of his intensive, years-long experimentation and, in general terms, the workings of his not-yet-patented reactor. (The patent came through in March 2017.) Davis ended his talk by telling the audience he was seeking craft distillers for beta testing.
The distillers bum-rushed the lectern to sign up. The booze press—along with WIRED—wrote stories about his claims, and venture capitalists started beating a track to Salinas. Within a few months, Davis says, three craft distillers had signed on to be his first test group, and 90 were on his waiting list.
Davis imports young whisky from Scotland but makes his own Lost Spirits Navy rum from molasses.
After a five-minute ride through the stygian darkness, the barge eases up to a low dock. Davis taps his phone and large, pendulous, red lanterns gradually illuminate, revealing a row of 250-gallon copper fermentors. We disembark and walk on boardwalks alongside the tanks, past the still (another dragon), and into the aging room.
In most distilleries this would be a dim rickhouse lined with rows of time-scarred barrels. Here it’s a whitewashed concrete and brick room, empty save for the reactor. This is not a device to inspire astonishment. It looks a bit jury-rigged, with two appliance-like boxes, one with a stout glass tube poking up from the middle of industrial lighting elements, the other housing switches and controls. In a distillery, this reactor looks as out of place as a Univac computer in a bedroom.
The reactor isn’t yet licensed when I visit, but Davis launches into how it works. “Turns out, if you increase the light to two or three times the brightness of the sun at noon at the equator, the polymers degrade infinitely faster than in regular sunlight,” Davis explains, managing to be both vague and hyperbolic at once.
Still, it’s not crazy to think that light could break down oak. A 1974 patent awarded to George Robert Weber of Switzerland asserted that “continuously passing actinic light into the beverage” in wavelengths of between 400 and 550 nanometers would produce “the same chemical constituency and characteristics as the conventionally aged product”—which is to say, it would taste like it had spent years in a barrel. That patent also noted that longer wavelengths produce a “skunky” taste in spirits. But Davis thinks that skunkiness is the taste of precursor molecules that eventually hook up with other molecules and turn into better flavors. “It sounds ridiculously simple,” he says. “But it’s hard to control. It’s a finicky bitch.”
Davis’ enthusiasm makes it sound almost possible. Yet Christian Butzke, an enologist at Purdue University to whom I sent Davis’ patent application and a white paper he wrote about the reactor, says that Davis may be making a mistake by focusing chiefly on reproducing the larger spikes in his original gas chromatographic analysis of the 33-year-old rum. “Esters are by no means the most relevant of aromas in an aged spirit,” Butzke says. Worse, he thinks the chemical analysis looks fairly crude. By missing or ignoring critical molecules that show up at lower concentrations, Davis’ reactor could lose much of the subtlety of a traditionally aged product. The noise, in other words, may be as essential in whiskey as the signal.
Some taste testers say the flavor does indeed stand up to well-aged booze, although they reported stability issues with earlier versions of Lost Spirits rum. If left out in a glass for a night or two, it can become cloudy and leave a disconcerting residue on the glass. “What happens, I think, is that when you blow the molecules of the wood apart, you get a whole bunch more dissolved solids in the soup,” Davis says. He could filter—although this would come at a cost of diminished flavor, as desirable fatty colloids would be winnowed out—but for now he’s racking the distillate for a month or two, bottling after the sediment has fallen out.
For all the attention (and investors), Davis insists that cheating time isn’t his chief goal. “I think the biggest thing we’re trying to do is gain artistic control,” he says. “The whole idea was to rapidly prototype—so we could get an idea of what different types of barrels were going to do to the booze.” But the fact that his idea for making 20-year-old rum in six days occurred at the same time as a global drought of superior aged liquor? “The timing was spectacular,” Davis admits.
Inside the brains of the booze-aging reactor.
We leave the reactor room and reboard the barge. Midway downriver we make another stop, at a tasting room that Davis calls the Island. If the Pirates of the Caribbean is one lodestar guiding Lost Spirits, another is H. G. Wells’ 1896 mad-scientist tale The Island of Dr. Moreau. (Davis has a rare edition on display.)
The Island looks like the encampment of an erudite Edwardian adventurer on a months-long safari, a room-sized canvas tent set around a heavy dining table. There’s a brass telescope and a paleontological display of a Spinosaurus tooth and a massive, wholly convincing horned skull of what appears to be a dragon. Extinction seems to be the predominant theme here—a not entirely subtle allegory suggesting how Davis sees an antiquated liquor industry. If you need a bigger serving of metaphor, there’s also a gory, 3-foot-high statue depicting the beheading of John the Baptist.
Davis’ new peated whiskey, Abomination, has a flavor profile with no known natural relatives, like one made by a team of Disney engineers.
We sit at the table and chat over glasses of his new peated whiskey, Abomination. Davis has also named variations after chapters in Wells’ book: “The Crying of the Puma,” “The Sayers of the Law.” He makes his own rum from molasses, but he imports 18-month-old whisky from Islay, a Scottish island, to make Abomination. Running the import through the reactor gives it far more flavor than one would expect from a young whiskey. Abomination’s got the familiar smoke of an Islay whisky, but it’s as if the volume has been turned up to 11, nearly to overpowering. Yet it seems oddly hollow in the middle, which makes it slightly disconcerting, like a person without eyebrows. It has a flavor profile with no known natural relatives, like a whiskey made by a team of Disney engineers.
Which is sort of what Davis has in mind for his little Los Angeles workshop—a place to create a new spirits palette and come up with flavors nobody has tasted, ever. While he’s in talks to license his reactor technology to big commercial distilleries to create flavors for blending, and that’s likely to please his investors, cashing in isn’t the point. “Nobody builds anything cool for the love of a bunch of cash. It’s never happened. It’s more important to ask, ‘What do you want to do, and why?’” he says.
Will Davis’ technology eventually disrupt a stodgy and ancient industry? Or will it be consigned to an interesting footnote? The signs are encouraging. “I like what he is doing, and his explanations make sense,” says Antony Moss, director of strategic planning at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in London. Moss was at Davis’ presentation in Louisville two years ago and has followed him from afar. “He has the right combination of a problem-solving scientific curiosity, aesthetic vision, and commercial astuteness, and this gives me confidence … He will make better and better things.”
Meanwhile, relaxing in the Island’s canvas tent, deep in a tropical forest of his imagination, Davis is thinking about the future. “I’m sitting here dreaming up the next distillery,” he says. “I want to do one with flying, like Peter Pan. I’d love to figure out how to fly over the distillery somehow while you’re drinking.” He looks around his Edwardian encampment. He smiles. His eyes flare. “At the end of the day, I’m mostly just entertaining myself.”
He’s wrong, of course. Sipping synthetically aged spirits on an artificial island in Davis’ Willy Wonka booze factory—he started giving tours this spring, permitting just 16 people a week to come through—it’s hard to imagine other people won’t be entertained too.
Wayne Curtis (@waynecurtis) writes frequently about alcohol and is the author of And a Bottle of Rum.
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