Mystery Isle or Distillery? Unveiling Lost Spirits’ new Los Angeles Location

In his 1895 book, The Time Machine, H.G. Wells posits a tabletop device that takes people backward and forward in time. Even if you can’t literally travel through time (yet), the ability to compress it has nearly limitless appeal. With his disruptive, rapid aging technology for spirits, Bryan Davis is doing just that: A way of forcing the chemical reactions that occur during barrel aging to happen orders of magnitude faster than Mother Nature would allow in her own sweet time.

It’s no surprise that Davis has latched on to a time machine metaphor for his rapid-aging spirit reactor (“a time machine for booze”), even using it as the title of his TEDx presentation about it.  Now, I realize this may be old news to many of you, as the story of Lost Spirits and Bryan has spread far and wide.  Stories in Wired, the Huffington Post, and numerous other spirits publications (including yours truly) have told the story many times over.

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Back to Cali – Lost Spirits Resets, Releases an Islay Abomination & More!

If there’s one story that’s consistently provided fodder for my ramblings here, it would be Lost Spirits. Their primary claim to fame is a hyper-speed distilled-spirit aging process, the brainchild of mad scientist Bryan Davis. A quick check shows that I’ve done two dozen posts here about Lost Spirits, reaching back to some of my earliest writing. I was thrilled to be the first source to write about the THEA One aging reactor, which has received the attention of the biggest spirits industry players and been covered by Wired, CBS, and other mainstream outlets.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from following Bryan’s story is to expect the unexpected, with frequent twists in the narrative. First, the release of three high-octane rums — Navy Style, Polynesian Inspired, and Cuban Inspired–which grabbed the rum enthusiast market’s attention due to their high powered, intense flavors. Next was the company’s announcement that they would begin licensing their aging process to other distilleries.  The technology is embodied in a “reactor” that takes in freshly made spirit and wood and exposes them to heat and intense light; it’s a patented process that results in the claimed net effect of twenty years of barrel aging within a week’s time. Naturally, this put Lost Spirits in the crosshairs of the big, multinational spirits producers as well as upstart distilleries looking for an edge.

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E Pluribus Unum: Lost Spirits Confounds Expectations Yet Again

It takes a brave–and possibly mad–person to name their latest project “Mea Culpa Rum.” Yet that’s exactly what Bryan Davis just did, posting the label image recently on his Lost Spirits Technology/ Distillery Facebook page. Longtime readers of this site know that I’ve spent an obsessive amount of time over the past two years keeping close tabs on the Lost Spirits story. Starting with their bold, polarizing rums (Navy Style, Polynesian Inspired, and Cuban Inspired), through the science of rum flavors and barrel aging, and onto licensing the amazing THEA One aging reactors to upstart distilleries, Lost Spirits has been an ever-changing story covered by major news outlets like Wired and CBS News. So it’s with a certain amount of pride that I can say this site covered it first and the most in-depth.

When I last wrote about lost Spirits in September 2015, I had been present for the unveiling of Santeria rum, made for Rational Spirits of Charleston, South Carolina– the first reactor licensee. A few months later, a second licensee called Rattleback received their reactor. Behind the scenes, Bryan and his partner, Joanne Haruta, were continuing to sign up yet more licensees while evolving the reactor design to process larger quantities of spirits. I chatted occasionally with Bryan during this time, naively assuming that he’d be busy for a while building reactors and helping new licensees get underway with their technology. Sure, there were occasional only-in-Lost-Spirits-land elements–like working with an actual Santeria priest to bless Rational’s reactor–but not enough to warrant a full news flash here.

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Unveiling the THEA One Aging Reactor from Lost Spirits

Driving through Silicon Valley on U.S. 101, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t notice the southernmost town of Morgan Hill, a dusty bedroom community of 40,000 residents, two freeway exits, a Walmart, and some small vineyards. Mrs. Wonk and I are driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles, with a pit stop tonight in Pismo Beach, and have stopped here for a quick bite before our late-morning meeting. Driving through the town, it’s not quite the kind of place you’d expect a revolution in the distilled spirits industry to originate. However, that’s exactly why we’re here: Today’s agenda is visiting the new Lost Spirits facility, where Bryan Davis and Joanne Haruta are building the first batch of hyper-speed aging reactors that will create the equivalent of twenty years of barrel aging in a week’s time. (Yes, a week.) They’re about to start shipping reactors to distilleries around the U.S., and Joanne and Bryan have graciously allowed us a sneak peek.

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Lost Spirits Rumbles into High Gear: Aging Reactor Release Imminent

After Lost Spirits’ big announcementthis past April that they’d be leasing their revolutionary “reactor” aging technology to other distilleries, owners Bryan Davis and Joanne Haruta have gone mostly dark. To briefly recap their audacious plan as it was announced:

  • An aging process using wood, light, and other techniques to provide the equivalent of fifteen to twenty years of ester/aldehyde transformation (“aging”) in six days. This process has already been demonstrated on their four rum releases.
  • A self-contained reactor, the size of small SUV, delivered to distilleries, who will lease it for a monthly fee.
  • A small handful of carefully selected distilleries for the initial beta test phase.

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Lost Spirits Distillery’s Aging Reactor Could Transform the Craft Spirits Industry

At the American Distilling Institute conference today (4/1/15), Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits Distillery is announcing they will be making their unique, patented, hyper-speed aging process available to other spirit makers – providing the equivalent of twenty years of barrel aging in a week. No, this isn’t barrel aging with microscopic barrels, and in fact there are no barrels used. The implications of this are profound for the spirits industry. It may sound like an alchemist’s dream of turning lead into gold, but Bryan has the science to back up the claim. A companion post to this story goes into the science of spirit flavors and how Lost Spirits backs up their claims, but for this post, it’s sufficient to know that barrel aging is about transforming organic compounds into more pleasant tasting organic compounds

Before jumping into exactly what Lost Spirits is planning, let’s first review what traditional barrel aging is about. Unlike what many people think, the goal of barrel aging isn’t just to impart a woody flavor to spirits. Instead, the wood both contributes organic compounds to the aging spirit and transforms already existing organic compounds into other organic compounds. Typically referred to as esters and aldehydes, these are what give distilled spirits their taste. (For instance, the ethyl butryate ester has the taste of pineapple, while phenethyl acetate has the taste of honey. When spirits emerge from the still, they’re a soup of mostly organic acids and a few esters, which the barrel aging transforms into other (hopefully flavorful) esters, and a lot more of them.

In an earlier post on this blog, I referenced a white paper on the Lost Spirits website showing gas chromatography charts for a 33-year aged demerara rum. In the simplest terms, the location of spikes on the chart’s X-axis shows the presence of specific flavor compounds, and the height of the spike indicates how much of that compound is present. The presence or absence of spikes, along with their relative heights, provides a “fingerprint” for the spirit. Spirits with similar gas chromatography fingerprints will taste very similar, because essentially they are made of the same stuff.

While the aforementioned paper is interesting in a wonky sort of way, it also set the stage for Bryan to demonstrate the effectiveness of his aging process. (We’ll get to the details of that shortly.) Bryan set out to replicate the signature of this 33-year aged demerara rum using his own distillate and a week-long aging process.The gas chromatograph for the Colonial Inspired Rum (below) shows a similar signature to the 33-year demerara, however its peaks are not as high. That is, the same esters are present, and at the same ratios, although in lower concentrations. Bryan says the Colonial Inspired rum contains about 60 percent of the peak ester and aldehyde levels of the 33-year demerara, corresponding to 20 or so years of aging, assuming the barrel’s ester transformation rate is linear. Put another way, if the 33-year rum had instead been pulled from the barrel after 20 years, it should have a similar profile to .  In short, Lost Spirits has turned twenty years of waiting into seven days.

Gas Chromatograph of volatile compounds in a 33 year aged demerara rum and Lost Spirits Colonial Inspired Rum – Image courtesy of Bryan Davis, Lost Spirits Distillery.

While the Colonial Inspired rum was a limited edition, there’s more rum coming from Lost Spirits very soon. While the Colonial Inspired didn’t set out to exactly match the demerara style, the chromatograph strongly suggested it was possible. Thus, Bryan has set his sights on replicating the flavor profile of the 33 year aged demara, down to the touch of caramelized sugar that the graphs suggest is present. The result is the new Lost Spirits Prometheus rum, which will debut at Rum Renaissance in April 2015.

Although the exact details of every step of the Lost Spirits aging process remain a secret, here’s what I can share: Barrels are not used. Instead, charred blocks of wood go into tanks along with the unaged spirit. (Barrels themselves are charred, so charred wood blocks aren’t surprising.) Once the spirit and blocks are in the reactor, the following transformations occur (paraphrasing Bryan):

1) Forced esterification of the volatile carboxylic esters.
2) Polymers in the charred oak blocks are shredded, yielding the same proportionate precursor molecules as the barrel does naturally over decades of aging.

3) Forced the esterification of the wood-derived precursors, which ultimately form into a mix of long-and short-chained esters.

The effect of these three steps is to rapidly cause the same ester transformations that happen in a traditional barrel—but in a literal fraction of the time
The original Lost Spirits rums (Navy Style, Polynesian Inspired, Cuban Inspired) used an early version of this aging process wherein the rum was divided, and each portion went through just one of the steps before all the portions were blended back together. The newer version of the aging process (2.0) runs the entire batch through all three steps in a very specific sequence. The Lost Spirits Colonial Inspired rum, covered here, is the first release to use the 2.0 process. The Prometheus rum will be the second release, although with a different flavor profile, i.e., similar to a 20-year aged demerara.

Given all the crazy equipment and complicated steps necessary to pull off this unique, hyper-speed aging process, how will Lost Spirits lease this technology to other distillers while keeping the critical parts of it a trade secret? Would you believe a “reactor” that condenses the process into a large box, roughly the size of a compact SUV, that’s delivered to the leasing distillery and then wired up for electricity and internet? The power is necessary for the pumps, computers, and other devices within. The internet connection will connect the reactor to Lost Spirit’s computers for control and monitoring. If the reactor can’t talk to the Lost Spirits computer, everything shuts down.  And if you pry open the box to see what’s inside? Don’t even think about it.

With the reactor in play, different aging profiles can be created to emphasize desired characteristics. An on-site iPad will provide a certain degree of control to the local distiller. There will be some level of access to the reactor internals – after all, the wood blocks will need to be changed out. But beyond a few things like that, the distiller adds his unaged spirit, and in a week or so, collects the transformed spirit, ready for bottling.

As for how the leasing works, at least in the beta phase, distilleries will pay an upfront amount to cover equipment costs and then a monthly fee thereafter. While this is obviously an added expense for small distillers, barrel aging is expensive as well. Distillers have their capital tied up in barrels for several years, sometimes decades, and during that time they’re losing product to the angel’s share (spirit that evaporates through the barrel walls). Initially Bryan plans to take just a handful of carefully selected distilleries into his beta process, enabling him to closely monitor the process and make adjustments as necessary. He expects that it will be several months before the first reactor is delivered, making a mid-2015 debut.

I have to admit, from the first moment Bryan told me about this (under NDA) I’ve been filled with, “What about…?” and “What if…?” questions. It’s without a doubt a bold move, filled with risk–not least of which is garnering unfavorable attention from giant spirits entities with a vested interest in the status quo. However, if Lost Spirits is successful in this venture, it opens the possibility of distillers creating higher quality products at price points far less than they could achieve with traditional barrel aging. I really can’t wait to see how this story plays out.

Update: Bryan has published his white paper on the reactor, named the “Model 1” on the Lost Spirits site.

From Alchemy to Science: Esters, Aldehydes, Mass Spectrometers and Hyper-Accelerated Aging

Life as a Cocktail Wonk isn’t all fabulous bars, spirit reviews, and distillery visits. It’s also countless hours on the internet chasing down esoteric details of brand lineage. Even wonkier are the multi-hour phone conversations I have with the likes of Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits Distillery, who fills my head with huge quantities of organic chemistry and distillation science while I struggle to process it into digestible nuggets in real time. Leading up to his announcement that Lost Spirits will lease their new reactor-aging technology to other distilleries, Bryan has started providing evidence that his week-long wood-aging process can replicate the chemical makeup and flavor profile of a 20-year aged spirit.

In my earliest conversation with Bryan, I asked if he was using technologies like gas chromatography to understand what’s in distilled spirits. His answer then was that many organic compounds of interest are difficult to tease apart with the analytical tools available to him. In the intervening year, with better analysis tools and assistance from experts, he has been able to identify critical flavor creation processes that previously eluded analysis. In some cases he’s found evidence that contradicts the conventional wisdom about where flavor compounds are introduced.

Bryan has generously worked with me for many hours to share his new insights and help me break them down into the simplified explanations– part primer on the science of spirit flavors, and part explanation of the how Lost Spirits is able to prove that their accelerated aging process works. Charts and chemistry will be bandied about, but I promise to be as gentle as I can without losing the critical elements.

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Lost Spirits publishes second rum gas chromatograph paper – What’s in your 33 year aged rum?

Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits is at it again. Armed with a gas chromatograph and an extensive library of rum, he’s undertaken extensive chemical analysis of various rums near and dear to the heart of rummies worldwide.

In the first paper on the Lost Spirits site, he covered how trace carboxylic esters are responsible for the fruit flavors commonly found in rums, as well as the effects of column vs. pot stills. In the second paper, Bryan focuses his chromatograph on a 33 year aged pot still rum and how the semi-volatile organics (SVOCs) change with barrel aging. Now, it’s natural to wonder which rum this is. While Bryan won’t reveal, I will assert that there are very few pot still rums that are aged 30 years or more, and which are generally available – Do your own digging.

Among the interesting tidbits that jumped out at me on first reading was that the gas chromatograph appears to prove that some amount of sugar was added at some point in the process. Up till now, work by Richard Seale and Johnny Drejer have measured sugar contents by indirect methods (specific gravity). To my knowledge, Bryan’s study is among the first detailed published studies to show the addition of sucrose by more direct, chemical analysis.

There’s lots more rummy science to wonk out about. Check it out here.

New “science of rum” paper from Lost Spirits Distillery now online

Longtime readers know I’m a big fan of Lost Spirits Distillery in central California. I’ve written about them extensively, with most of the hard science the result of long conversations with Bryan Davis, co-owner and master distiller. This is really wonky stuff: yeasts, acids, esters, and chemical analysis – true rum science.

Very recently, Bryan put up the first (of what hopefully will be several) pages on the Lost Spirits site where he shares the results of in-depth chemical analysis of pairs of rums, including annotated gas chromatographs. Titled “Trace Carboxylic Acid & Ester Origin in Mature Spirits”, it’s full of meaty observations like this:

This observation appears to confirm that the trace ester density is not only predetermined prior to the spirit entering the cask but that the distillation cuts and level of rectification has a massive effect on the final character of the aged spirit.

The page link is here. Alternatively, visit the Lost Spirits site and click on the “Science” link.

Lost Spirits Distillery Visits Tacoma Cabana For A Night of Rum Wonkery

This past week, Joanne Haruta and Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits Distillery visited my hometown of Seattle. I eagerly anticipated their trip as the Seattle area has several top notch rum-centric bars, including Rumba and Tacoma Cabana, as well as the Pantheon of the American Whiskey, Canon. Over several evenings we visited all of them, and much rum and whiskey scuttlebutt ensued. Fun side story: At Canon, Bryan and Joanne were shocked to find four different Lost Spirits whiskeys, several that they no longer have themselves.

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