Good things come to those who wait, like a Net-a-Porter sale or the world’s greatest sandwich at the end of a long queue. Spirits like whisky and rum used to belong in that list, but times have changed. With smarts and science, it is now possible to make a six-day-old rum taste as old as 20 years. You no longer have to put it in a barrel and wait a good portion of your lifetime to get to enjoy it.
The man who found the way to cheat time is Bryan Davis, the co-founder of Lost Spirits Distillery. Previously an art teacher and designer for amusement park rides, Davis always had a keen interest in distilleries. After dabbling in absinthe in Europe, he returned to the USA with Joanne Haruta, his girlfriend and partner-in-crime. They set up an amusement park-like distillery, with the unusual addition of a canal that runs through the property. It is modelled after the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean and Jurassic Park, something you’ll never get in a traditional Scottish or Japanese distillery. Anyone is free to tour the grounds and taste its flash-aged spirits, including Abomination, one of Jim Murray’s recent favourites.
What got you interested in the business of spirits?
I’ve worked in distilleries my whole life. Almost. And I always wanted to open my own theme park. (laughs) It’s strange. I don’t really know how exactly it happened, but it just happened. We were trying to figure out what would be the modern 21st century analog in comparison to the traditional 19th century barrel house. How do you take the romance of the 19th century and update that to the 21st? You know, and merge it with the idea of technology and futurism and all those things.
It sort of started with, ok, we’ll start up a laboratory and let people tour it. The lab will take the place of the barrel room, where we will have our stills built with dragon heads. Which reminded us of that scene from Pirates of the Caribbean that was shot in Singapore. The distillery floor began to look exactly like that, and we thought, hey, we should have a boat that sails through a jungle! So we kept going, letting our imaginations run wild. In fact, we are currently building a whole new section inspired by Alice in Wonderland.
Were you guys high on alcohol?
Probably. But you know, the whole team is made of engineers. It’s kind of like the engineering challenge of the project that’s exciting. Figuring out how to make the walls of a room move is somehow as much fun as developing the spirits.
Did you study science back in school?
No, but I make my living based on science. I was an art student, and in life I turned out to be a better scientist than artist. (laughs) I was teaching art back in school and I took a job as a designer for amusement park rides. Joanne and I later decided to move to Europe and open a distillery, which was slightly crazy. But you know, we were young, and when you are young, you can be crazy.
When we moved back to the USA, the market had changed. It became a brown spirits market. The thing about brandy, whisky or rum, is that they are different from the way you’d make gin or absinthe. They are completely flavoured through the chemistry, not through the flavour of the ingredients. Whisky doesn’t taste like grain and brandy doesn’t taste like grapes. It’s all formed through the chemistry and biochemistry during the process. I told myself, if I’m going to try and make this, I will probably need to understand the chemistry and what I am trying to control. So I spent seven years reading chemistry and applying it to the distillery. The 10,000 foot view was basically the need to understand how to manipulate the process and chemical engineering patterns.
So you didn’t explore Scotland in the process.
Nope. If you go to Scotland and walk through the distillery tours, you’re getting the consumer marketing version. It’s all romance and painted with a pretty brush. I wanted to understand from the point of view of an engineer, how to manipulate the DNA, if you will, as opposed to hearing the story.
I remember reading an article Suntory published years ago. They had identified a bacteria that lived inside the distillery. They figured out how to culture this bacteria that was part of their product, a part of what made Suntory’s products Suntory. I thought, interesting. This isn’t some bulls**t marketing story. If you could understand that, you could understand how to change the bacteria if you wanted to.
That got me started on exploring the process of why. Why would the bacteria change the flavour? During fermentation, bacteria produce different short-chain fatty acids, and these taste bad. But during the barrel-ageing process, the fatty acids convert into esters, and these esters taste good. How do they do that? And how do you do this in a laboratory? A lab process calls for a catalyst, but a barrel doesn’t. I thought, maybe there’s a catalyst in the wood. We needed to try to isolate the catalyst from the wood. So we built an experiment in the garage and it went on for seven years.
How many tries did it take before the eureka moment?
Oh god, I have no idea. The closest thing to a eureka moment was when I was trying to figure out how to break down the polymers in the water. Inside the barrel, there are these polymers made of phenols and carboxyl acids. These are big complex molecules, and they dissolve as the booze ages. When they dissolve, they shed all these flavour compounds to the spirit, and they don’t dissolve evenly. A different part of it will dissolve in your 15 Year Old and another will dissolve in your 10. You can’t just add more wood. It takes time. So I was trying to understand how we could break these polymers apart. There must be a better way than to wait 20 years.
Then one day, I was standing on my deck, and the wood in the deck was falling apart. The wood was cracking and splitting from the sun, and I thought the sunlight must have been able to break it at a molecular level for it to fall apart. What happens if I put the wood in a jar filled with alcohol and turn the light up much higher? Instead of having one day’s worth of light, we put on 30 days’ worth in a day. And it worked.
Isn’t it? The spirits industry is very, very conservative, because it has to be. You can’t afford risks. If you try something new and if it doesn’t work, you wouldn’t know for seven years. That’s seven years of inventory that you have to throw away. You experiment and you go bankrupt.
Name one spirit you successfully distilled.
October 2014 was the first time we ever matched the same chemical signature of a 20-year-old rum. This was the Lost Spirits Colonial American Inspired Rum. The rums that we currently make are very similar to rich, heavy British Navy. Our whiskies on the other hand, are very smokey. Like a bottle of 16 Year Old Laphroaig.
Is this the general direction that you’re planning for your spirits to go in?
I don’t know! (laughs) I’m always experimenting and they are always improving. We don’t run a traditional business, so we are really not interested in repeating the same things over and over.
The whole thing about spirits is that a lot of aficionados are sticklers for tradition. While you’ve got a lot of accolades, do you also get flak?
Yes, of course. If you’re not making someone angry, you probably aren’t doing your job. I mean, if you’re doing something interesting, transformative and radical, somebody is going to hate you. There are people who think what I’m doing is cheating or immoral. You know, how far is too far? At what point does our technology outgrow our wisdom?
There are collectors and aficionados who think Lost Spirits is the most interesting thing they have seen in a decade. Then there are others who don’t care what it tastes like. “My whisky is my vacation from a changing world outside and I like it just the way it is.” But to me, I love the idea of fiddling with the code in the world, and figuring out how to put a cheat code into Mario and get 99 lives.
Think Lost Spirits will take over the industry eventually?
Not for another hundred years. It’s like Tesla. It started making electric cars a decade ago. But today, they are maybe one quarter of one per cent of the cars in California. They are very successful, but are they going to disrupt the automobile or gasoline industry? Yes, but that’s going to take a long while. The world changes very slowly. A billion-dollar industry isn’t going to risk everything they have put into.
Lost Spirits Distillery’s spirits are distributed in Singapore by Liberty Spirits Asia. Pop by The Secret Mermaid at 10 Collyer Quay, B1-09, Ocean Financial Centre for a taste.
Photo credit: Dario Griffin