Of Goliaths and Dragons – A visit to Lost Spirits Distillery

Lost Spirits Warehouse – Wonderful secrets within!

It’s 5 PM on the Friday of Labor Day weekend. I find myself not manning a grill or lounging in the sun on a Santa Cruz beach, but rather, driving a rental car through the agricultural fields of Monterey County, California. Into Castroville we go, past the giant artichoke, and back out into more farmland. Mrs. Wonk and I are headed to visit Lost Spirits Distillery, one of the more unconventional and unconventionally located distilleries you’ll likely come across.

A bit of backstory before continuing: Lost Spirits has quickly made a name for itself in just a few years, producing first whiskeys and then rums that win awards and cause spirit aficionados to gush about the incredibly bold flavors and unusual production techniques. The very short synopsis is this:   Distiller and co-owner Bryan Davis is a biochemistry hacker who deeply understands the chemistry of spirits flavor and has developed a number of innovations to hyper-accelerate the production process and accentuate whatever flavor profile he targets in a given release. I’ve written quite a bit about Lost Spirits in the past, so will simply point you to a few recent posts that contain a large amount of scientific details:

The picture doesn’t do Goliath’s size justice.

After a few turns away from the coastline and inward toward the artichoke fields, we pull up to a brick and wood gate. Without the GPS we might never have found it. James, the distillery’s only
employee beyond Bryan and partner/co-owner Joanne Haruta (and Joanne’s brother), opens the gate and we pull in. As I exit the car, an enormous German shepherd wanders up and begins to take my spot in the driver’s seat before being called off. Goliath is 140 pounds and I imagine a very effective guard dog when called upon. He takes an instant liking to us, rolling on the ground for belly rubs.  (Never mind that he could likely pin any of us to the ground with little trouble…)

Fermentation vat platform on the left. The still is behind it in this photo.

A scan of the surrounding grounds shows the distillery property surrounded by fences and walls; beyond in all directions is agricultural land, with the nearest building way off in the distance. To the left is what we came to see:  A raised, covered platform with a very large dragon head and neck sculpture attached to one end, as if it were the bow of a Viking ship. (More on this—the Lost Spirits still—a bit later.) Directly in front of us is a small stucco barn, the Lost Spirits logo hand-painted on the doors. Between the two structures is a cement walkway and a Japanese-style garden in-progress, including an above-ground swimming pool. To the right is a single-story structure, housing the small tasting room used for the occasional tour and tasting, but also where Bryan and Joanne stay sometimes when working late.

Steam vents from the dragon’s mouth – Quite a sight, especially at night.

But, back to that dragon head. As I approach the tarp-covered platform, I can see the spirit production process laid out linearly from left to right. First is the raised platform, upon which sits a unique square wood and copper vat.  The vat holds a dark, thick liquid which I correctly guess is molasses–a batch of Polynesian-inspired rum is just starting, slowly warmed by coils to aid the eventual fermentation process.

Copper fermentation vat on pedestal.
Baking grade molasses warming up on its way to becoming rum!

Moving to the right, you see the unusual looking still – It doesn’t look anything like those used in Scottish distilleries or like the shiny copper and chrome bulb-headed stills you might find in many modern distilleries. The Lost Spirits still is relatively small at 600 gallons and was constructed by Bryan out of sheets of copper roofing.

Current homemade copper still at Lost Spirits Distillery.

Still cap, found on Ebay.

Prior to our visit, I had learned from Bryan that he had studied sculpture, and now seeing the still and its dragon head, it suddenly made sense: Bryan has a very strong “build it yourself” ethos. In fact, the Lost Spirits site itself was originally not much more than a “mud pit” with a small building on it, as Joanne described it. Joanne and Bryan spent an enormous amount of their own time preparing the land, pouring concrete and building things by hand to get their distillery going.

Lyne arm, headed to the cooling coils/mock spirits safe.

Continuing to the right, a mock “spirits safe” like those used in Scottish distilleries is fed by a long lyne arm resembling a dragon’s tail coming off the top of the still. It’s in this area that the distillate is cooled before being piped over to an area to the far right, where it’s collected in tanks. The tank area is off limits to everyone, including yours truly–a requirement for the patent process that’s under way for several of Bryan’s innovations.

But what about that dragon? It’s more than just an idle curiosity. Both the fermentation vat and still are heated by steam created via natural gas powered boilers. In a stroke of good luck, the land where the distillery is located is very close to a natural gas distribution point. As a result, the boiler used to heat the still and vat costs only a few dollars an hour to run. And what of all the steam that’s created? It’s piped over to the dragon head where it emerges from the mouth, a very impressive sight when the boilers are running full out, and even more so after dark, when it’s lit from below.  Needless to say, a few gawkers pull off the road to peer over the fence when the still is running at full power.

Japanese-style garden with pool in near background.

As for the swimming pool, it has its own interesting if unfortunate story. In the past it was used as a giant source of cooling water for the still operations, and could reach temperatures of up to 105 F, creating the side benefit of an oversized hot tub. Unfortunately, at one point the pool developed a leak, and when the water mixed with the underground organic materials, TCA (aka cork rot) was formed. TCA is a foul-smelling compound that can completely ruin wines and spirits in very small quantities. To make a long story short, the TCA found its way into Lost Spirits’ original wooden still, rendering it useless, which is why Bryan and Joanne now use a copper still.

Prior to my visit, I had obtained two of the Lost Spirits whiskeys, the Leviathan III and the Seascape II. Both are in short supply and I asked Bryan why he didn’t simply make more to capitalize on the demand. He mentioned a few reasons: For starters, rum is easier to produce. Most of the hard work of processing grain for whiskey (including moving it around and milling it) aren’t required with molasses, which he buys from a supplier. Also, the fermentation for some of the whiskeys uses salt water. While the salt water helps create a better environment for distillation, it’s hell on the stills and other equipment. As Bryan related to me, the Scotch distilleries in Islay replace their stills far more frequently than other Scottish distilleries, and Bryan speculates that salt water in their mash is at least partially responsible.

A new batch of empty bottles has arrived!

After quite a long time exploring the main production area, we wandered over to the barn area. Much as I wanted to see the barrels and goodies within, it’s also off-limits for now due to those patent law requirements. Instead, we stood around palettes of molasses buckets and boxes of soon-to-be-filled bottles while Bryan told us all sorts of interesting stories and factoids about the distillery, potential future projects, and general spirits industry scuttlebutt. Eventually we made our way into the tasting room/laboratory where we continued to chat while tasting some of Lost Spirit’s exceedingly rare products, including the Fire Dance whiskey and the (hopefully soon) forthcoming Anejo Blanco rum, which is based on the current Cuban-inspired rum.

I’ve toured a number of distilleries, big and small, as part of my interest in spirits. I’ve seen my share of big warehouse buildings, enormous vats, and gleaming stills. The Lost Spirits distillery is the opposite of that, reminding you that in the not-too-distant past, spirits production used to be just another agricultural process, and not a particularly glamorous one at that. It becomes clear that while basic distillation of consumable spirits isn’t rocket science, the bio-hacking that Lost Spirits performs behind the scenes makes all the difference between a $10 bottle of whiskey or rum swill and something that blows you away with its flavors and intensity.

Clockwise from left: Cocktail Wonk, Bryan Davis, Joanne Haruta, Goliath.

Although we were lucky enough to be invited to the Monterey compound for a tour, the Lost Spirits distillery is not currently open to the public for tastings or tours.

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