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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Having recently gotten my hands on the Polynesian Inspired rum from Lost Spirits Distillery, I’ve been test driving it and comparing it to their first rum, Navy Style. I’ve written about Lost Spirits quite a bit already, and have chatted with Bryan quite a bit about his process, including him giving me a custom presentation of his talk from the 2014 Miami Rum Renaissance. With the context of my previous post (highly suggested background reading) I can better describe the differences between the two rums. I’ll end with a few other interesting anecdotes about Lost Spirits Distillery that Bryan shared.
Polynesian Inspired Rum
Coming in at 132 proof, the Polynesian Inspired rum is a take-no-prisoners powerhouse of a rum. Starting with the label, there are obvious stylistic similarities between the Polynesian and the Navy rums. The Polynesian label is essentially the Navy label’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ships and skulls replaced with Maori and Easter Island elements, and a color change. The fonts and other decorative details remain essentially the same.
The rum’s hue is a solid medium-to-dark gold, but compared to its Navy Style stable mate is noticeably lighter in color. On the nose both rums start with a similar strong, pleasing molasses element but eventually go in different directions, the Polynesian finishing a bit lighter and fruitier. This isn’t an accident. When deciding what the Polynesian should be, Bryan accented the pineapple aspect since it’s an essential Polynesian flavor.
In my prior post about Lost Spirits, I covered the seven ways that flavor can be controlled via science. The sixth step I mentioned is barrel aging, which is where the simpler fruit and spicy smelling esters get merged into the longer chained honey esters. In that post, I described how the ester Ethyl Butyrate has a strong pineapple smell. Given that you want a rum with a strong pineapple element it’s reasonable that you’d want to minimize the transformation of this ester into other esters. Bryan accomplishes this by using a different barrel preparation that minimizes the amount of phenols that convert the short chain esters (fruity) into long chain esters (honey). In addition, the amount of rancio, the nutty smell described in step 7 of my earlier post is dialed down considerably. Up to the barrel aging step though, the Navy Style and Polynesian Inspired rums are essentially the same.
On the palate, assuming you’re up to sipping 132 proof rum, the Polynesian is much like you’d expect given the nose – A strong molasses flavor that turns to pineapple and butterscotch. Bryan says with a few drops of water it turns into a “pineapple bomb” and I can attest to that.
A few days after my bottle arrived, Jason Alexander of Tacoma Cabana and I sat together and tasted the Polynesian together. Jason, with his encyclopedic Tiki knowledge immediately thought it would work well in a Polynesian Paralysis variation. A few days later he sent me his recipe:
Polynesian Paralysis – Jason Alexander Variation • 3/4oz pineapple • 3/4oz lemon • 3/4oz Lilikoi juice (sub passion fruit syrup) • 1/2oz orgeat • 1/2oz falernum • 1/2oz Okolehao (A Hawaiian spirit, sub bourbon if not available.) • 2oz Lost Spirits Polynesian Rum
Flash blend with about a cup of ice
Lost Spirits – Diving Deeper
Beyond just getting a custom presentation of the Bryan’s Rum Renaissance presentation, I interjected a number of questions that veered off into other interesting topics. First and foremost, I was surprised to learn that Lost Spirits has a number of patents filed on his processes, and that Bryan licenses technology and consults for major distillers. In a sense Lost Spirits Distillery is his laboratory where he gets to do all sorts of fun experiments without needing the distillery to make a certain amount of money to stay afloat.
Lost Spirits first came out with a series of whiskeys including three different Leviathan releases and an Umami release. The distillery continues to age more whiskey stock and they have plenty of back orders, so naturally the question is “Why make a rum?” The initial reason Bryan and Joanne Haruta, his business partner started making rum was to season their whiskey barrels. Over time they found themselves enjoying the rum quite a bit and they decided to sell it. These days they find themselves focusing more and more on the rum side of things. Bryan says one reason for focusing on rum is that high end whiskey buyers typically buy just a bottle or two and add it to their 600 bottle collection whereas serious rum lovers will buy and consume multiple bottles over time.
As we now know, Cuban is the next rum style coming from Lost Spirits. However Bryan also mentioned an interest in doing a “Jamaican ester bomb” which I immediately endorsed with all available enthusiasm. But don’t expect a clone of Jamaican dunder rum, as one of the central elements of Jamaican dunder is clostridium saccharobutyricum which grows optimally in the soil surrounding the dunder pit. Bryan grows his “dunder” in five gallon plastic buckets that are controlled with lab grown bacterias, and thus he has the freedom to control the bacteria, tailoring it to the flavor profile he wants. In Jamaica, dunder pits aren’t such a big deal at the distilleries. In Monterey County, CA a bacteria pit is out of the question as it might create some serious problems with the health inspector.
When deciding what style of rum to make, here’s the Lost Spirits process: • Design a really cool label • Based on the label, envision what the rum tastes like • Do the science to produce a rum with that flavor profile.
In my post on Lost Spirits Navy Style rum, I said “You can easily imagine a pirate drinking it in the 1700s.” Thus, it delighted me then when Bryan recounted that they watched Pirates of the Caribbean approximately 40 times when deciding what the Navy Style should taste like.
For the Polynesian, Bryan set out to make a rum that’s perfect for all sorts of Tiki drinks. Another reason for doing the Polynesian rum is to show that the notion of molasses “terroir” isn’t nearly as important as some believe. Starting with the same ingredients and by tweaking just a few processes, Lost Spirits Distillery has created two largely different rums, and a third rum, the soon to be available Cuban style, should further prove this point.