From the outside, the Lost Spirits Distillery is just another boxy, early-20th-century building along the frayed edge of downtown Los Angeles. At first the inside appears similarly uninspired: deep and unfinished, littered with cardboard boxes, plumbing fittings, spools of wire, inscrutable items made of copper, a forklift. The usual crap.
But what’s this then? A heavy black curtain bisects the industrial space from floor to ceiling, nearly from the front door to the back. Bryan Davis, the distillery’s founder and co-owner, pulls aside some folds and beckons me in.
It’s dark; my eyes adjust slowly. I’ve stumbled into a nighttime clearing deep in a tropical jungle—lush foliage and flowering vines lit by dozens of flickering candle lanterns. Are those crickets and cicadas and an occasional Jurassic Park bellow I hear? Yes. Yes, they are.
After a five-minute ride through the stygian darkness, the barge eases up to a low dock. Davis taps his phone and large, pendulous, red lanterns gradually illuminate, revealing a row of 250-gallon copper fermentors. We disembark and walk on boardwalks alongside the tanks, past the still (another dragon), and into the aging room.
Davis’ new peated whiskey, Abomination, has a flavor profile with no known natural relatives, like one made by a team of Disney engineers.
In most distilleries this would be a dim rickhouse lined with rows of time-scarred barrels. Here it’s a whitewashed concrete and brick room, empty save for the reactor. This is not a device to inspire astonishment. It looks a bit jury-rigged, with two appliance-like boxes, one with a stout glass tube poking up from the middle of industrial lighting elements, the other housing switches and controls. In a distillery, this reactor looks as out of place as a Univac computer in a bedroom.
The reactor isn’t yet licensed when I visit, but Davis launches into how it works. “Turns out, if you increase the light to two or three times the brightness of the sun at noon at the equator, the polymers degrade infinitely faster than in regular sunlight,” Davis explains, managing to be both vague and hyperbolic at once.
Still, it’s not crazy to think that light could break down oak. A 1974 patent awarded to George Robert Weber of Switzerland asserted that “continuously passing actinic light into the beverage” in wavelengths of between 400 and 550 nanometers would produce “the same chemical constituency and characteristics as the conventionally aged product”—which is to say, it would taste like it had spent years in a barrel. That patent also noted that longer wavelengths produce a “skunky” taste in spirits. But Davis thinks that skunkiness is the taste of precursor molecules that eventually hook up with other molecules and turn into better flavors. “It sounds ridiculously simple,” he says. “But it’s hard to control. It’s a finicky bitch.”
The three-chambered reactor Davis ended up with seemed to do what all those hucksters had only promised. His newly distilled rum tasted … old.
Davis’ enthusiasm makes it sound almost possible. Yet Christian Butzke, an enologist at Purdue University to whom I sent Davis’ patent application and a white paper he wrote about the reactor, says that Davis may be making a mistake by focusing chiefly on reproducing the larger spikes in his original gas chromatographic analysis of the 33-year-old rum. “Esters are by no means the most relevant of aromas in an aged spirit,” Butzke says. Worse, he thinks the chemical analysis looks fairly crude. By missing or ignoring critical molecules that show up at lower concentrations, Davis’ reactor could lose much of the subtlety of a traditionally aged product. The noise, in other words, may be as essential in whiskey as the signal.
Some taste testers say the flavor does indeed stand up to well-aged booze, although they reported stability issues with earlier versions of Lost Spirits rum. If left out in a glass for a night or two, it can become cloudy and leave a disconcerting residue on the glass. “What happens, I think, is that when you blow the molecules of the wood apart, you get a whole bunch more dissolved solids in the soup,” Davis says. He could filter—although this would come at a cost of diminished flavor, as desirable fatty colloids would be winnowed out—but for now he’s racking the distillate for a month or two, bottling after the sediment has fallen out.
For all the attention (and investors), Davis insists that cheating time isn’t his chief goal. “I think the biggest thing we’re trying to do is gain artistic control,” he says. “The whole idea was to rapidly prototype—so we could get an idea of what different types of barrels were going to do to the booze.” But the fact that his idea for making 20-year-old rum in six days occurred at the same time as a global drought of superior aged liquor? “The timing was spectacular,” Davis admits.
We leave the reactor room and reboard the barge. Midway downriver we make another stop, at a tasting room that Davis calls the Island. If the Pirates of the Caribbean is one lodestar guiding Lost Spirits, another is H. G. Wells’ 1896 mad-scientist tale The Island of Dr. Moreau. (Davis has a rare edition on display.)
The Island looks like the encampment of an erudite Edwardian adventurer on a months-long safari, a room-sized canvas tent set around a heavy dining table. There’s a brass telescope and a paleontological display of a Spinosaurus tooth and a massive, wholly convincing horned skull of what appears to be a dragon. Extinction seems to be the predominant theme here—a not entirely subtle allegory suggesting how Davis sees an antiquated liquor industry. If you need a bigger serving of metaphor, there’s also a gory, 3-foot-high statue depicting the beheading of John the Baptist.
We sit at the table and chat over glasses of his new peated whiskey, Abomination. Davis has also named variations after chapters in Wells’ book: “The Crying of the Puma,” “The Sayers of the Law.” He makes his own rum from molasses, but he imports 18-month-old whisky from Islay, a Scottish island, to make Abomination. Running the import through the reactor gives it far more flavor than one would expect from a young whiskey. Abomination’s got the familiar smoke of an Islay whisky, but it’s as if the volume has been turned up to 11, nearly to overpowering. Yet it seems oddly hollow in the middle, which makes it slightly disconcerting, like a person without eyebrows. It has a flavor profile with no known natural relatives, like a whiskey made by a team of Disney engineers.
Which is sort of what Davis has in mind for his little Los Angeles workshop—a place to create a new spirits palette and come up with flavors nobody has tasted, ever. While he’s in talks to license his reactor technology to big commercial distilleries to create flavors for blending, and that’s likely to please his investors, cashing in isn’t the point. “Nobody builds anything cool for the love of a bunch of cash. It’s never happened. It’s more important to ask, ‘What do you want to do, and why?’” he says.
Will Davis’ technology eventually disrupt a stodgy and ancient industry? Or will it be consigned to an interesting footnote? The signs are encouraging. “I like what he is doing, and his explanations make sense,” says Antony Moss, director of strategic planning at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in London. Moss was at Davis’ presentation in Louisville two years ago and has followed him from afar. “He has the right combination of a problem-solving scientific curiosity, aesthetic vision, and commercial astuteness, and this gives me confidence … He will make better and better things.”
Meanwhile, relaxing in the Island’s canvas tent, deep in a tropical forest of his imagination, Davis is thinking about the future. “I’m sitting here dreaming up the next distillery,” he says. “I want to do one with flying, like Peter Pan. I’d love to figure out how to fly over the distillery somehow while you’re drinking.” He looks around his Edwardian encampment. He smiles. His eyes flare. “At the end of the day, I’m mostly just entertaining myself.”
He’s wrong, of course. Sipping synthetically aged spirits on an artificial island in Davis’ Willy Wonka booze factory—he started giving tours this spring, permitting just 16 people a week to come through—it’s hard to imagine other people won’t be entertained too.
Wayne Curtis (@waynecurtis) writes frequently about alcohol and is the author of And a Bottle of Rum.
Davis allows himself a wry smile and then walks to a rough-wood bar at the far end of the … jungle, I guess, pulls out a bottle, and pours me a glass. “That’s our new Navy rum,” he says. But he seems a little distracted. He starts tapping at his smartphone screen. Most—but not all—of the faux candles brighten and dim at his command. “It’s buggy as shit,” Davis says. He excuses himself and slips behind another set of curtains.
I sip rum as I try to figure out how he has pulled together this Las Vegas–caliber fakery in the two short months since he and his girlfriend-slash-business-partner, Joanne Haruta, signed the lease. Lost Spirits rum has won medals in spirits competitions, and deservedly so. It’s good. But as I drink, I consider another question: What the hell?
Before I can arrive at an answer, I detect something moving, something substantial creeping at a pace slower than a walk. Through the dim candlelight I see a pair of golden Egyptian sphinxes, each a couple of feet high, mounted on the front of what appears to be a barge that is soundlessly floating down what I now realize is an elevated canal. Then I see Davis, standing amidships like a vanquishing explorer.
He invites me aboard, but I’m already scrambling a few steps up to the boat, using the flashlight on my smartphone to see what is going on. The “canal,” it turns out, is a 3-foot-high, elongated water tank—it holds 5,000 gallons and runs the length of the building, cooling the fermentors and the still. Davis built the barge, which seats about eight, to travel up and down the distillery. He tells me to put away my phone—I’m ruining the illusion!—and take a seat.
We slowly start down the waterway. “You know the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney?” Davis says. “You can’t just get off and drink with the pirates. That’s the problem we were trying to solve.”
Well, one of the problems. The other, which had brought me here to meet with Davis in the first place, has more to do with chemistry than with theater. The rum I’d just sampled tasted like it had spent at least a generation in a barrel. It had actually been aged only six days. “We’re throwing all the tools you’d use for curing cancer at making a mai tai,” Davis says.
Davis “aged” that rum in a high tech reactor of his own invention, which uses heat and light to try to do in a week what might otherwise take decades. He isn’t the first to try to find this Northwest Passage of booze; Davis is the latest in a long line of inventors, beverage chemists, and flimflam artists who have claimed to find ways to cheat time.
But his approach is different—at least according to Davis. His patented reactor sits in a room just ahead, so we float slowly, very slowly, on an unseen stream into an inexplicable heart of dorkness.