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.
Heading up into the foothills on the outskirts of town, the houses grow noticeably larger and more upscale, almost certainly owned by tech money seeking a nice view in a quiet town. Soon enough, the GPS indicates we’ve arrived, though it seems hard to trust the GPS, at first– the house before us is relatively new, quite large, and well-appointed in a suburban McMansion sort of way, a far cry from the dusty and artistic Lost Spirit Distillery in Salinas, which we visited last year. I soon spot a large red pirate flag waving near the front door. Having known Bryan for a while, the flag is a dead giveaway that we’ve found the right place.
As we approach the front door, a computerized female voice welcomes us. Peering through the glass over the front door, a white dragon (reminiscent of Lost Spirits’ original dragon-head copper still in Salinas) wrapped around the entry chandelier glares down at us. The house is a combination spirits laboratory, reactor construction site, showroom for potential reactor licensees, and living quarters, complete with pool with diving board, outdoor BBQ deck (and disco mirror ball), and tennis court.
If you’ve somehow managed to miss the recent media coverage of Lost Spirits, here’s the quick synopsis: About five years ago, Bryan and Joanne moved back to the U.S. after spending a few years in Spain making absinthe and gin. Setting up shop on vacant family-owned land near the artichoke fields of Salinas, Bryan built his own stills, first a wooden version, and subsequently copper. They first made heavily peated whiskies, but soon turned their attention to rum. Along the way, Bryan studied the chemical reactions that occur during wooden barrel aging and tinkered with ways to induce the reactions more quickly. The early whiskies used only a fraction of the aging technologies used in the subsequent Navy Style, Polynesian Inspired, and Cuban Inspired rums. All three rums are intensely flavorful and colorful, despite having no added sugar or coloring, and received considerable attention by the rum Illuminati, as well as yours truly.
A subsequent fourth rum, Colonial American Inspired, heralded yet another substantial improvement to the aging process, wherein the whole batch goes through the same steps, rather than each stage acting on only a portion of the whole batch. Although only a few hundred bottles of Colonial Inspired have been made, those bottles have become the showcase for demonstrating what the Lost Spirits aging process is capable of.
In April 2015 at his American Distillers Institute conference talk, Bryan made the head-turning announcement of plans to license the aging technology to other distilleries. Rather than attempting to grow the Lost Spirits business, bottle by bottle of rum, the new Lost Spirits plan is to lease the technology to other distilleries at a massive scale, while providing what could turn out to be a significant license revenue stream to Lost Spirits.
Bryan’s original reactor, used to create the Lost Spirits rums at the Salinas facility, was in no way mobile, being all exposed tubes, valves, tanks, and wiring – completely unsuitable for selling as a turnkey solution. Thus, when he set out to create a licensable reactor, the original plan was to create an all-in-one unit, about the size of an SUV, that simply required hooking up to power and internet. Just add new-make spirits, wood blocks, and electricity, and a few days later, presto! Aged spirits emerge. Originally dubbed the Model 1, the name subsequently changed to THEA One (Targeted Hyper-Esterification Aging), which not coincidentally is a homonym of Theia, the Greek goddess of light.
Since the reactor announcement, Bryan’s largest task has been solving the engineering problems of productizing the reactor units in a way that doesn’t generate excessive heat and passes rigorous safety testing. With a process involving several hundred liters of highly flammable alcohol in breakable glass tubes, any ignition source could be disastrous.
Bryan’s nature is that of a mad inventor, piecing together existing parts and rapidly iterating, solving new design challenges as they pop up. The original goal was that he and a small team would build these reactors, about one per week. Going into it, Bryan didn’t have an exact parts list – instead, he’d order a bunch of sensors, switches, and other elements, testing them all to see what worked best, and evolve the reactor design along the way. One particular challenge was that the largest clear glass tubes available weren’t large enough to hold the required amount of spirits on their own; the solution for the original THEA reactor design was simply to use multiple tubes, making for a very unusual, badass reactor.
Bryan’s first THEA reactor looks like a Jules Verne fantasy expressed as a V12 aircraft engine. The unit is about six feet tall, six feet wide, and three feet deep. Your eye is immediately drawn to a vertical phalanx of clear glass tubes, four inches in diameter. Surrounding the tubes on all four sides are square metal boxes roughly three feet wide. Two chrome pipes with an upturned flare at one end run along the top of each row of tubes, evoking the image of an exhaust manifold for the aforementioned aircraft engine. A smattering of tubing and wires can be seen around the perimeter. Nearby, a keg-sized metal barrel connects to the main reactor chassis via tubing.
|THEA One piping at the top|
Bryan picks up an iPad, touches a few buttons, and suddenly all the tubes are bathed in intense light, turning the sci-fi imagery up to eleven. The light coming from the boxes surrounding the glass tubes is 2.5 times brighter than the noontime sun at the equator. A computerized voice—the same sultry woman who greeted us at the door– begins to emanate from the reactor (shades of HAL 900), introducing itself to the listener and telling its story. On two of the boxes features the Lost Spirits Sphinx logo along with “MODEL 1 AGING REACTOR – DESIGNED AND ASSEMBLED IN SILICON VALLEY CALIFORNIA.” Bryan, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute specializing in sculpture, has a flair for the dramatic. Earlier in our visit, Bryan casually mentioned that he crafted the aforementioned dragon chandelier with nothing more than some extra wire and a few rolls of masking tape while waiting for an early reactor run to complete overnight. Like you do.
While building the first reactor in the months following the announcement, Bryan discovered that much larger glass tubes were readily available but they would need to be special ordered from Germany. While sorting out the glass tube order with the German company, he learned that pharmaceutical companies run similar equipment using similar raw materials and fabrication techniques—an introduction led from Germany to New Jersey, to new resources. Knowing this, the reactor design evolved substantially, splitting into several discrete components and utilizing a single giant glass tube. While the original (and only) self-contained THEA One unit won’t be distributed, the improved design allows aging of bigger batches. Equally important, the entire reactor can be constructed by a company specializing in this type of equipment and can be drop-shipped from the fabricator directly to distilleries.
This improved reactor design has three main components, all connected via wiring and plumbing:
- A giant, 30-gallon glass tube housed inside a square, tube metal frame. Metal boxes on each side hold dozens of light sources, all aiming inward toward the tube.
- A metal control cabinet, roughly the size of gym locker, holds the electronic brains and assorted pumps and switches.
- Three keg-sized metal barrels, with various connections and tubes.
The aging process starts with the addition of charred wooden blocks to some of the metal barrels, as well as into the tube(s). Next the new-make spirit is added. At that point, the brains of the operation–a Mac Mini housed in the control cabinet–takes over, orchestrating a small army of sensors, valves, pumps, and heaters, measuring and moving the spirit between the barrels and tubes at the appropriate times. An iPad loaded with custom software enables control of the reactor, including powering it on or off and altering aging profiles. The Mac Mini also communicates back to Lost Spirits, allowing Bryan to monitor and control the reactor remotely if necessary.
The aging process typically has four main stages, including (as you’ve probably guessed) shining extremely bright lights at the spirit in a tube. Each stage may take several days. As such, the operational model is that every few days you add a new 30-gallon batch of new-make spirit, while an equivalent amount that started aging a week earlier completes its aging. With 30 gallons present at all four stages, the reactor holds 120 gallons of spirit in total.
The exact order of the stages, as well as how long is spent in each stage, allows the aging profile (and resulting flavor) to be tuned. If you’ve had more than one of the Lost Spirits rums, you’ve seen first-hand how the same new-make spirit can wind up with vastly different flavors after aging, differentiated only by what the aging steps accentuate or diminish. Bryan plans to work with distilleries to craft custom aging profiles for each spirit they age.
A significant amount of reactor development time was spent on safety. For instance, the light boxes generate a substantial amount of heat. At well over 100 proof, the alcohol inside the tube is highly flammable, so preventing fumes from getting into those boxes required substantial problem solving. The reactor has multiple levels of mechanical and electrical safety features and has passed the required safety certification.
Distilleries who license a reactor will pay a fixed cost up front (which covers the cost of producing and shipping the reactor), as well as a monthly licensing fee. It’s expected that the licensing fee, when amortized over the thousands of bottles that a distillery produces monthly, will add very little to the overall cost of the bottle. In theory, distilleries might save money, as they won’t lose anywhere near as much spirit to the angel’s share as with traditional barrel aging.
So far, at least 65 distilleries have expressed interesting in using the reactor including several that have already signed deals. In addition, it’s gained a lot of attention from the large-multinational 800-pound gorillas of the spirits industry – no surprise there! It’s expected that Rational Spirits, a new startup distillery in South Carolina, will be among the first to receive a reactor. In a recent press release, they describe their first product, named Santeria, as a pot-still rum in the heavily funky Jamaican style.
The next year should be very interesting as various distilleries being receiving and shipping reactor-aged spirits to a much broader consumer base than Lost Spirits has reached so far on its own. No matter what happens with the reactor once it starts shipping in volume, interesting stories will no doubt unfold. Stay tuned!