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.
What’s not as well-known is that Lost Spirits is a tiny, hyperkinetic enterprise. They’re anything but your typical upstart craft spirits distillery, which frequently brings more money than spirits know-how. Lost Spirits’ relatively miniscule output of whiskey and, more recently, rum belies the fact that they have the attention of global spirit-producing behemoths and deep-pocketed investors, all keenly interested in the potential of the technology Bryan has unleashed.
The company moves quickly, almost too quickly to keep up. In the twenty-one months since they hit the headlines with an audacious plan to license their THEA aging technology to other distilleries, Lost Spirits has undergone several abrupt changes in direction. While these twists are naturally great fodder for writers like me, even freshly minted stories are destined to arrive in your browser several chapters behind what Bryan and company are currently up to. If you’ve followed the story thus far, but think their distillery is still in the middle of central California farmland, or even in a new high-tech distillery in Charleston, South Carolina, you’re still several crazy chapters behind.
On an uncharacteristically warm and sunny January day, Mrs. Wonk and I arrive in an industrial area a mile southwest of downtown Los Angeles, on the fringe of both the exceedingly hipster Arts District. A block of exceedingly well worn and low-slung warehouse buildings stretches along both sides of the wide street. Not a soul in sight, and frankly, these warehouse look like they might be abandoned, as we see no immediately visible sign of current enterprise.
Approaching a door faintly labeled with the address Bryan provided, I see that it’s a heavy screen door, with the door behind it open. “Hello!” I call. A scurry of activity erupts, the screen door pops open, and we’re greeted by Wynn Sanders, one of the cofounders of Rattleback, the second company to license the Lost Spirits aging technology. Why Wynn and his partner Théron Regnier are here at the new, under-construction distillery and greeting interlopers like us is something for later in the tale.
Once inside, it’s clear that the concrete-floored space is divided into two regions: The space to our left is completely disguised with floor-to-ceiling blackout curtains. To the right is a workshop area filled with tools, pallets, a forklift, a large stack of 4x 10 foot sheets of copper, and two large cylindrical vessels, obviously recently constructed from said copper. At around $300 per sheet, there’s a lot of money sitting on the floor in front of us, albeit in sheets and shards. Along the far wall are three dishwasher-sized units connected by pipes above. These are the boilers for the soon-to-be distillery, and Bryan’s noodling with the electronics to find out why one isn’t currently working. Soon we’re greeted by Joanne Haruta, Bryan’s longtime partner in life and in the Lost Spirits endeavor.
After a bit of catch-up chitchat, Bryan eagerly walks us over to the curtained area, pulls aside a flap, and ushers us into a small room containing two low upholstered benches and a winged sphinx on a pedestal. We sit facing the sphinx and a closed door, which anyone might assume leads to the distillery. (Fun fact: It actually leads to the bathroom. Oh, the irony.) With the touch of a button on his iPhone, Bryan launches us into the dream world-meets-distillery: A synthetic voice (“Tessa”) welcomes us to the distillery. Suddenly, the black drapery to our left begins to rise, revealing a room dimly lit with flickering candles. A large animal skull on a rope descends and comes to rest on a table. Against the back wall, a cabinet is adorned with all sorts of Victorian era curios. In front of it sits a small tasting bar featuring several bottles of Lost Spirits Navy Style rum. A most unusual tasting room, for sure. As your eyes begin to adjust to the light levels, soon you realize that the room’s left-hand side is actually a floor-to-ceiling expanse of large green tropical plants, and a short staircase leads through them into the darkness beyond.
The first thing you notice when meeting Bryan Davis is that he’s younger than you might expect. Yet at 35, he’s spent over a decade making distilled spirits. Sporting a clean shaven head and twinkling eyes and dressed in running shoes and shorts, he’s the epitome of California laid back, with no grizzled distiller or nerdy scientist vibe about him. The second thing you observe is that he talks quickly, liberally peppering his thoughts with obscure facts, and punctuating most of his sentence with a staccato laugh. In my numerous, hours-long conversations with Bryan over the years, I frequently find myself holding on for dear life, furiously filing away mental notes to return to later.
Bryan is, in the truest and best sense of the word, a hacker. A hacker in the original, best sense of the word. Like the early pioneers of computer science (before there was such a thing as computer science), he works to find the edge of what’s known and plunges forward into the unknown, rapidly improvising and learning on the fly. He can go on for hours about the most esoteric aspects of organic chemistry (spirits production is organic chemistry, after all), but what he knows is self-taught: A man, a search engine, and a seemingly infinite capacity to absorb new data.
Rarely is Bryan without a question churning in his brain. It might not be an actual problem–strictly theoretical problems are just as fun. I once stumbled into a bar conversation between Bryan and noted spirits and political author Ian Williams, who were discussing how one might go about milking a sperm whale so as to ferment and distill the, um, result. (The best—or perhaps only printable–idea involved multiple ships and extending a net between them, to start.)
At lunch during our recent visit, the table got on the topic of surviving a limited nuclear strike, like one does in recent days, especially on our liberal left coast: Keeping your clothes free of radiation after venturing out of your bunker is critical. But how would you know without a Geiger counter? Bryan and I puzzled out how you might construct a crude radiation sensor using your mobile phone and readily available household items. Bryan’s solution: Use electrical tape to attach a material that fluoresces in the presence of radiation to the phone’s lens while also blocking visible light. If the phone’s camera screen shows anything other than complete darkness, you’ve got radioactivity. You know, typical weekend brunch talk.
As critical to the Lost Spirits story as Bryan’s self-taught angle is, it’s equally important to know he has a bachelor of fine arts from The San Francisco Art Institute, which explains a huge amount about the very quirky Lost Spirits ethos. You might have noticed the ornate product labels on their Navy style, Polynesian Inspired, and Cuban Inspired rums, but Bryan’s passion for art goes much deeper than just a well-designed label. It’s reflected in every aspect of their operation. Why buy a basic still from a manufacturer when you can construct it yourself from copper panels–giving it the look of a smoke-belching dragon, while you’re at it? Or consider his aging reactor, dubbed THEA. Not content to simply plumb some vessels together in the most expedient and economic fashion, he instead turned THEA into futuristic concept art: Dramatic lighting, music, voice narration, and etched graphics, which I previously described as “…a Jules Verne fantasy expressed as a V12 aircraft engine.”
Soon after finishing college, Bryan put his skills to use constructing scenery for things like the San Francisco Zoo’s Grizzly Gulch and museums such as the Smithsonian. Incorporating art, imagery, and science is at the very core of what he’s about, so it’s no surprise that when planning his Los Angeles distillery he returned to the H.G. Wells canon — this time, The Island of Doctor Moreau.
Rum snifters in hand, Bryan directs us to the wooden stairway. In the dim light, we see what at first glance appears to be a very small rectangular patio deck with benches around the perimeter. Candles under the benches provide just enough hint of illumination. Approaching it, I see that it’s rocking back and forth ever so slightly, as if it were floating. And indeed, it is. It’s a boat!
The darkness encircles everything however, so it’s hard to see much of anything other than the boat and the rum tasting room we’ve just left. (Says Mrs. Wonk, taking her seat on the floating rig, “It’s a good thing I trust you, Bryan. Well, sort of.”) Bryan takes a seat on one end of the boat and spins two circular valves on a set of pipes. The lights dim into near pitch darkness and we very slowly drift away from where we started.
At this point you may be wondering why exactly there’s a water source large enough to float a boat in the middle of a distillery. It seems the “stream” we’re floating down is supplied by water heated during the distillation process–i.e., the water used to cool and condense the vapor coming off the still. The large surface area of the water enables it to function as a cooling pond — probably the only one you’ll ever take a ride in.
Moving slowly forward through the pitch darkness, ambient bird calls and jungle sounds make themselves known. A few minutes later, the boat halts with a small thump. The lights slowly come up on a very different scene: A collection of red-hued balloon lanterns cast just enough light to see a small wooden dock area. Encompassing two sides of the dock are yet more jungle plants, the guiding railings are post and jute rope. We exit the boat and gather around an open copper vat. Tessa’s voice greets us again, explaining that this tanks is where the molasses, water, and yeast are mixed prior to fermenting.
A short path along the dock leads past the lone mixing vat and into the distillery core. Nine tanks, all similar to the copper mixing tanks, serve as fermentation vats, each holding 250 gallons. The wooden deck path zigs back and forth between them, affording a direct view into each. Against a wall is a pot still, the first of two destined for the operation, also fashioned from 4×10 copper sheets. The top of the still is a cone, rising into the still neck. The neck is designed with a very sharply constricted base that flares out above, akin to the “lamp glass” necks seen on some Scotch whisky pot stills. The exterior of the neck is adorned with sculptural elements that give it the look of a dragon’s neck. (Dragons are a common theme in Bryan’s world.)
The lyne arm, stretching high over our heads, is elaborately adorned with hand-wrought metalwork. It plunges into a horizontal copper cylinder, the water-cooled coil condenser. Emerging from the bottom of the condenser is a series of copper “fingers,” which will soon extend into the very unusual faux spirits safe, a rectangular copper framed, glass-sided box. Within the box are elaborate abstract flowers made of (you guessed it) copper. When operational, the condensed spirits will flow over the flowers. A pair of winged sphinxes (also common in Bryan’s visual vocabulary) guard the spirit safe to the left and right.
Opposite the fermentation vats stand two large wooden doors. At the appropriate moment in the tour, the doors will open courtesy of Tessa to reveal the crown jewels of Lost Spirits: A set of THEA aging reactors, where newly made spirits are combined with wood (similar to what you’d find making up a barrel), heat, and extremely intense light. This process, which takes about a week to complete, turns sixty gallons of unaged spirit (per reactor) into sixty gallons of spirit with approximately the same mix of esters, aldehydes, and phenolics that you’d find in a traditional barrel aged spirit after a decade or more.
The current generation THEA reactors look like a 1980s sci-fi movie prop. The largest glass tube you’ve ever seen stands vertically on a wheeled stand. These tubes–typically used for the production of chemical compounds by the pharmaceutical industry–are instead used for making everybody’s favorite medicinal, booze. Within the tube, a perforated metal cylinder keeps the charred or toasted wooden blocks from blocking the tube inlets and makes it easier to remove the wood when the aging run has completed.
Surrounding the tube’s bottom half are four white rectangular metal boxes. Within each box is a series of light fixtures that when fired up produce light three times the intensity of the sun at the equator. The boxes are pressurized to prevent flammable vapors from entering and igniting on contact with the hot lights. Off to the side are metal tanks resembling a small oil drum, connected to the rest of the system via tubes and wiring.
Nearby stands a slender cabinet that contains the pumps, valves, and electronic brains that orchestrate the entire THEA aging process, controlled by off-the-shelf automation software, with additional programming by Bryan and another employee. By utilizing numerous sensors, the process is very automated as well as accurately controlled, producing consistent results from batch to batch.
Bryan’s typical aging cycle consists of loading the reactor with sixty gallons of new-make spirit and freshly prepared wooden blocks, akin to what you’d get if you sawed up a traditional barrel. In the first phase, the spirit is exposed to controlled temperatures in the metal drums. In the second stage, the spirit flows into the glass tube, where it’s bombarded by the intense light. In the third stage, the spirit travels back to the metal vessels for more processing. The entire progression, including opening and closing valves and pumping liquid hither and yon, is controlled by the THEA software and voiced by Tessa. If anything goes amiss, such as the liquid temperature reaching higher than expected, the software temporarily shuts down the process and sends a notification to the operator, i.e. Bryan.
The aging protocol is anything but a fixed process: Different types of wood are used, along with different char or toasting levels. Changing up the amount of time spent in a stage–or even omitting a stage. Depending the flavor profile he’s after, Bryan tweaks a number of parameters—and the results speaks for themselves. Take the Navy Style and Polynesian rums, which start as the same distillate. Bryan “twists the knobs” in very different directions for each, creating distinctly different flavors. Each spirit has a distinct aging “recipe,” and Bryan is constantly fiddling with new recipe parameters.
Viewed as a whole, the entire rum production operation, from molasses to aged and bottled spirit is remarkably compact, fitting into approximately 800 square feet– a small fraction of the overall space within the building. The rest serves as both a workshop and Bryan’s private theme park.
Since we arrived at the “island” by boat, it’s only fitting that we depart by boat as well. Once aboard, the lights dim again to nearly pitch darkness, the bird calls resume, and we drift back from whence we came.
The history of Lost Spirits and how Doctor Moreau’s isle came to be in the L.A. Arts District is a long and twisty tale. Here’s the hyper condensed version: In 2006, at the tender age of 25, Bryan and Joanne decided to make a go of making absinthe. Since it wasn’t yet legal in the U.S., they ventured to Spain to set up shop, launching the Obsello brand. Conventional wisdom might have dictated France, but nothing about Lost Spirits is conventional. In time, the U.S. legalized absinthe, and Obsello became one of the first brands to be imported. Bryan relishes the story of shipping an early case of it to the U.S. with the explicit goal of having customs flag it, thus triggering an expedited TTB label approval process. He figured this might end run around the usual snail-slow TTB approval—but instead, the case of absinthe, clearly labeled “Absinthe”, and “not approved” turned up at his mother’s doorstep unharmed and unflagged.
By 2009, Bryan and Joanne returned to their home territory in Salinas, California, near Monterey, building their distillery from the ground up in the middle of agricultural land. The initial focus was whiskey–in particular, heavily peated whiskey for which they acquired a sizable cult following amongst the craft whiskey crowd. Bryan’s first still was constructed from wood and fell victim to the plague of TCA, aka “cork rot,” so it was destroyed and buried. Bryan wisely constructed his second still from metal (copper, of course), and it’s that first-run smoke-belching, dragon-headed still that produced the initial lineup of Navy, Poly, and Cuban inspired rums. Concurrently, Bryan was experimenting with his rapid aging protocol, which he kept very under wraps.
By mid-2014, Bryan had made another breakthrough in the aging protocol that substantially improved the resulting spirit and made it more conducive to controlling via automation. This in turn lead to the THEA reactor. Using gas chromatography to analyze traditional long-aged rums as well as his own rapidly aged rums, he made the case that his process creates the equivalent of twenty years of barrel aging in about a week’s time. By the end of 2014, Bryan had hatched the idea of licensing aging reactors to other craft distilleries. Announced at the 2015 American Distilling Institute conference, the news catapulted the company into the limelight, and dozens of distilleries signed up to license a reactor. In short order, Bryan and Joanne moved non-distillery operations to Morgan Hill, California, to create a reactor showroom of sorts, which I visited shortly thereafter, publishing the first THEA reactor photos.
The first company to sign a license agreement and take delivery of a reactor was Rational Spirits, financially backed by insurance financier Alexander Burns, who funded the construction of a new distillery in Charleston, South Carolina. The first and subsequently only Rational product was a rum, dubbed Santeria. The second licensee and reactor recipient was California-based Rattleback, started by whiskey enthusiasts Théron Regnier and Wynn Sanders.
In starting down the reactor licensing path, Lost Spirits put their own distillery on hold, focusing their time on improving the reactor and getting Rational and Rattleback up and running, along with a third undisclosed licensee. A hard lesson learned from this phase was that while the reactors could be relatively turnkey, their output was highly dependent on the quality of the unaged spirit. That is, you couldn’t just take any old moonshine, THEA-age it, and expect liquid gold. Working through these issues took large amounts of Bryan’s time and halted the widespread rollout of reactors to licensees. The lesson learned was that the big established players in the market have a far greater understanding and control over their time-tested distillation process than upstart micro-distillers.
In early 2016, Bryan suddenly announced that Lost Spirits was moving operations to Charleston, utilizing Rational’s larger and more modern distilling facilities. Simultaneously, Rattleback moved their operations to Charleston with the same plan of using Rational’s facilities. As Wynn, Théron, and Bryan told me at Tales of the Cocktail 2016, the plan was that the three companies would operate as a confederation, sharing facilities, marketing, and other expenses. At Tales, Rattleback was pouring the first bottles of its Rattleback Rye, although the product we tasted there wasn’t distilled at Rational in Charleston, only flash aged.
By the fall of 2016, creative differences between the principals caused the painful dissolution of the confederation. With bigger plans than could realistically be accomplished at the Salinas distillery, Bryan and Joanne surveyed the country to find where they might build a bigger, better facility. As for Wynn and Théron, without the Rational distillery facilities at their disposal, they decided the best course was to merge their talents and resources with the Lost Spirits enterprise.
The L.A. Arts District is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, eager to attract new businesses and storefronts. As Bryan tells it, the city of Los Angeles is motivated to develop the area and presumably increase the tax base; to ease this transition, they eliminated many layers of red tape and sped the approvals process, enabling Lost Spirits to hit the ground running and rapidly build their distillery in less than six months.
As Mrs. Wonk and I walked to lunch with the newly enlarged Lost Spirits crew, it was clear that hip and upscale restaurants and condos were popping up all over, and might soon overwhelm the warehouses, much like what happened to Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood over the past decade. What was once warehouses now houses Amazon’s corporate headquarters, in a mix of some old but mostly new (and some would say soulless) development. It’s not hard to imagine a similar thing happening here.
The boat glides to a stop again after a noticeably shorter journey, and the lights come up on a very different scene than the rum tasting room where we started. A British colonial-era tent, dominated by a long carved wooden table and chairs and lit by twin chandeliers.The bookshelves and cabinets are filled with curiosities — old chemistry books, a dinosaur skull, a model sailing ship, an ancient Egyptian figure, and much more.
Near the lone door is a row of whiskey bottles. They’re simultaneously new and familiar to Lost Spirits aficionados, marking their return to the whiskey world after a long absence. While the labels resemble earlier releases like Leviathan and Seascape, these are a very different beast: They are abominations, something the world has never before seen. A radical fusion of centuries-old whisky making know-how from across the ocean, merged with hyper-modern aging, invented a few hundred miles up the California coast. Much like the creatures created in the madman-mind of Dr. Moreau, the Abomination series of whiskies splices together two very different creatures to create something thoroughly unusual and fascinating.
The Abomination begins life in a distillery on Islay, off the coast of Scotland. As you’d expect, it’s distilled from heavily peated malt. (Sorry, the identity of the distillery who made it is a state secret.) After aging for twelve to eighteen months, the young whisky is shipped to Lost Spirits, where Bryan subjects it to THEA aging. Rather than making a single Abomination style, Bryan will use a number of different aging protocols to create a series of expressions. Rather than using boring monikers like “#3 oak char,” Bryan is naming each after a chapter from The Island of Doctor Moreau: So far he’s released “The Sayers of the Law” and “The Crying of the Puma,” which utilize late-harvest Riesling seasoned American oak barrels, one with toasted wood, and the other charred.
Hold on! Wait a minute… Late-harvest Riesling isn’t aged in barrels! Bryan relishes creating things that don’t exist. In this particular case, he THEA aged Riesling wine in the reactor, discarded the wine, and used the wood to age the whisky. Not too long ago, the crew was buying antique furniture and sawing it to pieces to experiment with American chestnut as a wood source. It seems that genuine American chestnut is hard to find. Given Bryan’s propensity for experimentation, the Abomination lineup is likely just the first of many experiments in aging spirits distilled elsewhere.
Will Lost Spirits do more of their own whiskeys from start to finish? At present the distillery isn’t set up with a mash cooker, but nascent plans could rely on one of several nearby breweries to prepare a batch of wash, then truck the liquid to the distillery for distillation. We shall wait and see if this comes to fruition.
As I write this, the distillery is nearing completion and not yet making rum. The second pot still is close to final assembly, more THEA reactors are coming, molasses is waiting to be delivered, and various government approvals need to be secured. However, it’s reasonable to believe that the first drops of Navy Style rum will come off of the reactors by spring. Meanwhile, Joanne’s brother James mans the original distillery in Salinas, overseeing the production of the second generation Navy Style rum, bottled at 61 percent ABV.
Lost Spirits has been a polarizing company from the very beginning. For every fan of their seat-of-the-pants, cutting-edge, fast-moving style, there’s an old school purist turning up their nose at anything other than spirits aged in a barrel, the way it’s been done for centuries. The Lost Spirits rums are easily identifiable in blind tastings and certainly stand out from the crowd with unusual flavors not found anywhere else, however that’s more by choice than any limitation of the technology. Bryan makes very deliberate selections in the flavor profiles he aims for, and they’re often unconventional -– “A rum that couldn’t be made by nature alone,” he likes to say. Exactly cloning a ten year Demerara or a fifteen year whisky isn’t his goal at the moment, at least not with the products released under the Lost Spirits banner.
However, if you evaluate what they release without preconceived notions about exactly replicating traditionally aged products, your palate may be pleasantly surprised and intrigued. After all, the original Tesla Roadster wasn’t met with widespread acclaim and instant adoption–but it showed potential, customers took a chance, and newer Tesla products now compete head to head with their gas-powered counterparts (if not exceeding them). In the case of Lost Spirits, the initial plan of rolling out their aging technologies to players large and small ran into snags. But with a slower, more measured approach to licensing the technology, it wouldn’t surprise me if something recognizable as THEA aging becomes commonplace within the next decade or two.
In my many conversations with Bryan, I’ve come to understand that simply producing “good enough” or even exceptional spirits isn’t his end goal. Sure, he’ll make rums and whiskies and who knows what else, but running a distillery turning out millions of liters per year would soon get old for him. What drives Bryan is finding the next frontier of the unknown. He may get there in unconventional ways, but it remains about continuous evolution, making mistakes, and pushing back the known limits of spirit science. The expressions we see from Lost Spirits are only the beginning of the story, not the end, and we’re fortunate to be along for the ride.