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.

Going back to the origins of rum at St. Nicholas Abbey in Barbados

Approaching the St. Nicholas Abbey mansion.

In April 2103 my wife Carrie and I visited Barbados for the first time. A few months earlier we’d won the bidding for a week’s stay at a home in Barbados after remembering that Barbados is considered the birthplace of rum. It went without saying that we planned to visit every distillery on the island, but the story of St. Nicholas Abbey made it the obvious first stop.

The Abbey has a long and storied history going back to 1658, which I won’t attempt to replicate here as it’s well documented elsewhere. What you need to know is that the Abbey was a fully functioning plantation and distillery, growing its own sugar and doing nearly everything else in-house. The owner’s mansion on the property is enormous, beautifully maintained, and would be worth a visit even if there wasn’t rum involved. At some point in the late 1900s you could visit the house as a heritage attraction, but the Abbey was no longer a functioning plantation after 1947.
Things changed in 2006 when Larry Warren, a Barbados native and well-known architect specializing in historical preservation purchased St. Nicholas Abbey. In addition to setting out to carefully restore the buildings, he also set forth an ambitious project to make Abbey a fully functioning plantation and distillery like it had been hundreds of years earlier.
Making rum is a time intensive process, primarily due to the length of time needed to age the rum in barrels. A three year aged is pretty much the minimum you’d want to do, and to compete with fine rums you’re talking 10+ years from harvesting the sugarcane to bottling the rum. Obviously this ties up a lot of capital for a number of years before you start earning back your investment. As such, Larry Warren did what lots of distillers do – He jump-started the process by purchasing existing stock from another distillery and continued aging it in barrels at the Abbey. This lets the distillery blender start working with the barrels earlier, as well as provides an income stream once the rum is deemed ready to sell.

In the case of St. Nicholas Abbey, Larry was lucky in that he purchased his starter rum from Richard Seale, owner of the Foursquare distillery in Barbados. The Foursquare distillery produces a number of highly regarded rums, including Doorly’s and more recently, the Real McCoy rum. Richard Seale is highly active in promoting quality rum, sharing his detailed expertise about the rum making process, and exposing companies that play games with their rums.

Barrels purchased from Foursquare Distillery to help get St. Nicholas Abbey launched.

Starting with the Foursquare originated rum while simultaneously starting their own sugar cane/distillation pipeline, the Abbey started selling aged rums around 2009. To date, they’ve sold Foursquare based rums at ages of 8, 10, 12 and 15 years. When we visited in 2013, they had stopped selling the 12 year, but had the 10 and 15 year available. In addition, they had an entirely in-house produced “white” rum aged for 3 years if I remember correctly.

In addition to Larry, his sons Simon and Shae are also involved in running the business. Since Larry is still busy as an architect, Simon handles much of the day-to-day business, down to pouring rums in the tasting room. Simon was there they day of our visit and we had a lovely half-hour-plus chat with him. Simon and I went in to full rum-wonk mode, such that Carrie had to bail out and browse the gift shop. Chatting with Simon about rum making and the distillery history was one of the trip’s highlights.
Simon Warren (L), and Cocktail Wonk (R) in the tasting room.
Upon entering the St. Nicholas Abbey grounds, your first stop is the mansion. You can choose to take a guided tour if you’d like.

Among the many curiosities in the mansion.

Behind the mansion is a small cafe/garden. From there you hook a right and after a short walk find yourself at the small bottling house, which you’re allowed to enter and look around as the worker process bottles. It was still a very small operation, done mostly by hand.

Bottling by hand!

Punch for making the leather stopper insets.

Continuing past the bottle house you’ll come to a barn-like structure that houses the Annabelle the copper hybrid pot/column still, aging barrels, and the sugar cane crusher.

Sugar cane crusher.
Aging barrels.
Aging barrels and tanks.

Annabelle, the hybrid pot/column still.

After wandering through the barn and marveling at its contents you head out back to the remains of a stone windmill. Past the windmill are lovely fields of sugar cane.

The windmill and barn housing the crusher, still, and aging barrels.

Remains of the original windmill.

Cocktail Wonk was very exited to be among his new cane friends.
Another view of the barn and smokestack.
You can wander around the rest of the beautiful Abbey grounds, lush with plant life and strewn with interesting artifacts.
All sort of interesting sites on the Abbey grounds.
As for the rum itself, I find the 10 and 15 very consistent with the other aged Foursquare rums, i.e. the classic Bajan style. The nose is fairly intense, in what I can only describe as “high octane” in a very nice way, and very different from Jamaican rums.  The taste is dry, as it has no added sugar, but very smooth and little burn. It’s a very different experience than something like Zacapa XO or El Dorado 15. Once you start sipping the St. Nicholas Abbey you’ll find it hard to stop.
The St. Nicholas Abbey bottles for their aged rums are works of art. Each is etched with a picture of the mansion, and you can have it personally engraved if you wish. The bottle stoppers are made from mahogany wood grown on the plantation, and have a circular inset of embossed leather.

Aged rum bottles showing the etched image of the mansion.
The cost for the Abbey’s rums is a bit expensive with the 15 year costing US $130 and the 10 year costing US $80.  However, having seen the history, attention to detail, and realizing all the labor involved, we happily snapped up four bottles – two for my collection, and two more for friends back home who had put in requests. We’d have bought more, but needed to save room in our suitcase for other Barbados rum treasures. As a bonus for being a repeat customer, if you bring your original bottle back, they’ll refill it for half price, something I aspire to do some day.