Birth of a Sherry Cask

The screech of wood meeting an industrial planer blade pierces the air. One by one, rectangular boards a meter in length meet their fate, emerging from the machinery just a bit more trim and shapely. A few meters away around a corner, huge balls of fire burst to life and subside, leaving behind the evocative smell of charred wood. The background accompaniment to the theatrics is the constant, arrhythmic clanking of metal hitting metal, hammers striking bands of steel. The scene is worlds away from the calm serenity that wine and spirits markets strive to convey in promoting their products.

Outside, it’s a sunny, blue-sky February morning in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. Federico Sanchez-Pece Salmerón, the director of Communications for Grupo Caballero, has brought us to the Antonio Páez Lobato cooperage, one of several that supply sherry producer Lustau with newly made casks for their sherry wines. The casks being constructed mere inches from us will soon hold sherry, but won’t reside in a place of honor within a sherry solera. Rather, their final destination is far away from Andalucia, where they were born here in the southwest of Spain. But we’ll come back to that later.

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The Cocktail Wonk Top Ten Stories of 2016

While 2016 was a year many would have gladly skipped, here in the Cocktail Wonk corner of the boozy blogosphere, it’s been gangbusters for great experiences and stories. As I wrote my 2015 roundup post a year ago, I wasn’t altogether convinced that 2016 would be able to top it. Boy, was I wrong!

Over the past twelve months, I’ve written fewer straight-up spirit reviews and cocktail recipes and more long form essays. It’s taken a while to get to that level. The opportunities for unknown stories and fresh takes on topics are there to be found, but it requires waiting for the right contacts and opportunities to fall into place, as they did this year.

What follows is my take on the most important topics I covered this year. It’s an entirely subjective ranking on my part, without regard to actual page visit statistics. Some entries represent a single post that particularly resonated with readers, while others are a collection of posts.  Hyperlinks to the original posts are interspersed in the descriptions below.

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Age Statements: Not Always Worth the Paper They’re Printed On?

A friend recently asked me for a recommendation for a decent quality Islay whisky. Hitting an online site to see what’s available locally, I came up with Laphroaig 10, Bowmore 12, and Ardbeg 10–all good candidates and priced within a few dollars of each other. Sending him the list, I braced for the inevitable question: “All things being equal, why wouldn’t I get the twelve year? It’s better than a ten year, right?”

While it’s true that the time a spirit spends aging has a huge impact on the resulting flavor, an attempt to reduce the complicated factors and interactions that go on inside a barrel to a single number is a hopeless oversimplification that confuses consumers. Spirit production and the resulting flavor is complicated and messy, and not readily quantifiable in every dimension. Sure, you can compare the alcohol by volume (ABV) content across two whiskies, but ten years of aging from Producer X may be vastly different than ten years of aging done by Producer Y.  Unfortunately, this fixation on aging as reduced to digits leads some producers to play a numbers game, putting big numbers on their label to draw the eye of an unsuspecting consumer.

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Days of Dunder: Setting the Record Straight on Jamaican Rum’s Mystery Ingredient

Hogo. Funk. The smell of overripe banana. Jamaican rum is uniquely beloved in the spirits world for its powerful, easily identifiable pungent fruitiness. Connoisseurs of Jamaican funk utter phrases like “high ester count” and “long fermentation.” But nothing gets the rum nerd more enthused than talk of “dunder,” the mysterious ingredient that allegedly makes Jamaican rum extra funky.

Exactly what comprises dunder is shrouded in mystery, but dig around a bit and you’ll find references to goat heads, dead bats, and worse, churning in a lethal, volatile mass of evil death stored in an earthen pit, presumably somewhere near the distillery for easy access. Heck, even I’m guilty of spreading these tales. Throw a few scoops of this black death into the molasses wash, and voila! Instant hogo. Or so many people think. The reality is far less simple—and way more interesting.

As part of an ACR tour of Rum Industry influencers, including Martin Cate, Camper English, Peter Holland, and Wayne Curtis, I received an intense, behind the scenes look at Hampden Estate, ground zero of high-hogo rums. Standing in the hot, dimly lit fermentation area with distillery manager Vivian Wisdom, we grilled him for nearly an hour on every aspect of how the wash that goes into Hampden’s stills is created. No detail was spared: Fermentation times, pH levels, quantities, we wanted to know all.

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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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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 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.

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.