For centuries, the only way to mature whisk(e)y or rum has been to put it in a barrel and wait. But new technology is changing the maturation game, and distillers no longer have to invest years before bottling aged spirits. Companies like Cleveland Whiskey and Terressentia Corp. have released products made with alternative aging methods to mixed reviews. Lost Spirits Distillery, however, claims to have hacked the maturation process so effectively that its “flash-aged” rums and whiskies are indistinguishable from spirits that have spent years in wood.
“The technology does the same thing as a barrel, but it doesn’t get there in the same way,” explains Lost Spirits founder Bryan Davis. He made absinthe and gin in Spain for several years before moving to Silicon Valley, California, where he began playing around with the brown spirits aging process in 2010. After releasing a few experimental peated single malt whiskies—which gained a cult following—Davis realized that the key to his goal was found in light. In the past few years, he’s developed technology that uses photocatalytic light to break down wood polymers into precursors to flavor molecules. A reactor binds those molecules with unaged alcohol to form medium-to-long carbon-chain esters—the chemical hallmark of maturity. Spirits aged with this technology have been shown to have chemical signatures identical to mature spirits aged via traditional methods. Davis created a prototype reactor in April 2015 and is now on the sixth iteration of that model, with a seventh in the works. Called Tessa, the reactor can mimic a maturation of up to 20 years in just six to eight days.
Although the company initially aimed to license its technology to independent distillers, Davis is currently working with three partners based out of the Rational Spirits distillery in Charleston, South Carolina. The umbrella organization is known as Lost Spirits Distillery and offers four core products. The 46-percent abv Santeria rum ($35 a 750-ml. bottle) is made with molasses-based distillate using classic Jamaican-style “dunder” techniques and virgin American oak in the reactor. The 70.5-percent abv Cuban Inspired rum ($42) is distilled from molasses and uses virgin American oak, aiming to emulate the heavy pot-still rums of pre-Revolution Cuba. The 61.2-percent abv Rattleback rye whiskey ($43) is distilled from rye and barley and uses Sherry-seasoned American oak. The 57-percent abv Abomination ($47) is a heavily peated malt whisky made in Scotland and aged in the reactor with new American oak that’s been seasoned with late-harvest Riesling. The products are set to debut at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans next week and will initially be available in Los Angeles, San Francisco and London, with an eventual rollout to additional domestic and international markets planned.
Lost Spirits thinks the price-to-quality ratio of these products will attract consumers with modest budgets, trumping any skepticism about authenticity. “For Gen Xers and millennials who are willing to spend a certain amount, this process results in a great bottle of whiskey that costs a fraction of a traditionally aged version,” says Todd Martin, founder and managing partner of Spirits Capital Partners, which has invested in Lost Spirits. “Aging is important to lots of people, and it’s not going away. But for others, it’s more about taste or packaging and how much they’re going to pay for it. The value-to-quality ratio is the principal advantage of Lost Spirits’ technology.”
Davis is working on other projects that he hopes will get attention for Lost Spirits. For example, the current reactor model can recreate the age signatures of spirits up to 20 years old. “At 20 years old, almost all the flavor molecules in the alcohol have bound up in very long carbon chains, so they don’t get through the pores of the wood,” Davis explains. “We’ll be able to put the reactor-aged liquid into a vacuum chamber with a membrane that lets the ethanol and water out, but leaves everything else in. It’ll allow us to make a product that’s equivalent to a 40-year-old spirit—or even older.” Another innovation involves the forced evolution of yeast to select for a higher concentration of particular flavor molecules. “You can engineer it specifically for the purpose of building a bigger, denser, richer-flavored spirit,” Davis says.
Lost Spirits hasn’t ruled out the licensing model, but Davis points to the company’s in-house agility as a key factor in creating its own products first. “A start-up is like a speed boat and its larger competitors are like cruise ships—big, but slower moving,” he explains. “They’ll always have more money, more connections and more influence. But the start-up can outmaneuver them by doing things before they can react.” With the launch of its first four products, Lost Spirits is looking forward to figuring out what its next move will be. The technology’s speed is a huge advantage. “If one product becomes more popular than the others, we can just shift the production schedule to meet demand,” Davis notes.
He doesn’t expect to shake up the industry overnight. “I usually compare our model to adoption rates of the Coffey still,” Davis explains. “That was a major disruption in the spirits industry. The Coffey still took 70 years to dominate over the pot still. This industry moves slowly. I don’t think the market needs 5 million cases of production in the first year, although we could do it.”
Consumer reaction will have the final say. In 2014, when he was in the process of developing his reactor, Davis sent Colonial American Inspired rum to media and bloggers for review. He didn’t reveal how it was made at first, other than to say he was using a new technology to “cheat time” a bit. “When comparing it to a 33-year-old Demerara rum using forensic chemistry, Colonial had a nearly identical chemical signature,” Davis explains, noting an overwhelmingly positive response from those who sampled it. “We were terrified that the consumers wouldn’t go for it, but it turns out they weren’t as married to tradition as we thought. They just associated tradition with quality. They’ll say they only like traditional products until you show them a nontraditional, but quality, product. There’s a huge segment of consumers that think this technology is really cool.”