The whiskey renaissance has the world clamoring for well-aged hooch, but the so-called brown spirits—whiskey, brandy, rum—have one widely-publicized problem. It takes time, and lots of it, to make them. Or at least to make them taste good.
The booze industry has been looking for shortcuts to the aging process virtually since its inception, ranging from dumping extra oak chips into barrels of whiskey to artificially heating and cooling them to rapidly simulate the passing of seasons. While some of these tools have had modest levels of success, many have been complete failures. In fact, even Jesus weighed in on the dangers of trying to hasten the processes of nature when he said, “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine will burst the wineskins and be spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined.” (Luke 5:37)
If Bryan Davis has his way, that’s all about to be totally upended, sacrilege or not. Davis has come up with a method of producing spirits that taste like they’ve been aging in the barrel for 20 years, but his process only takes six days. Davis doesn’t accelerate the aging process like so many of the methods that have been tried in the past. Rather, he shortcuts it by taking new distillate and running it through his proprietary chemical reactor. Davis’s device forces the creation of the same key chemical compounds that give a well-aged spirit its unique character. Give him a week, and Davis says he can create a booze that tastes decades old.
The transformative effect Davis’s technique could have on the spirits industry cannot be overstated—not only from a production standpoint, but also in the challenge it presents to long-held attitudes about the craft of distilling. It’s something that takes time, and lots of it, to be done correctly. By all but removing time from the equation, Davis could end up rebooting the entire culture.
Of course, that’s only true if Davis’s system actually works as well as he claims. Those of us who’ve tasted the results are already believers. Whether or not the rest of the spirits world will raise their glasses in praise remains to be seen.
The Young Science of Making Old Spirits
Formerly employed as an art teacher, Davis decided to get into absinthe distilling when the U.S. production ban lifted. While living in Spain he made a well-regarded bottling called Obsello beginning in 2006. By 2009 the absinthe market was starting to tank so he set his sights on more traditional, aged spirits. He sold Obsello, relocated to the states with his girlfriend and business partner Joanne Narula, and started Lost Spirits as a self-described “skunk works” on the shores of the Pacific in Monterey, California.
Lost Spirits at one time boasted a completely wooden still (these work with steam rather than direct heat) and a water cooling reservoir that doubled as a gloriously heated swimming pool after each production run. Lost Spirits initially turned out heavily-peated American whiskeys designed to taste like the spirits you find on Scotland’s Islay, and bottlings like Lost Spirits Leviathan generated a cult following among peat freaks.
Leviathan spent just a short time in barrel, but Davis wanted to figure out a way to reduce the time even further—preferably to nearly zero. Explaining his interest in the subject, Davis says “it just seemed like something doable and with a massive benefit and need. I didn’t—and still don’t—think the craft spirits movement could survive without someone hacking the process.” Aging in barrels for years requires a massive amount of capital that few small distilleries can afford. Reducing that time ultimately became a bit of a quest for Davis, and he started tinkering with the science of aging as a hobby around 2008, immersing himself in researching the chemical reactions that take place inside the barrel and partnering with a biochemist to understand the magical ways that wood and alcohol interact.
A breakthrough came in 2010, when Davis says he finally figured out how to force “oak catalyzed esterification,” a key part of the maturation process.
Like any foodstuff, aged spirits are complex beasts, with every step of the production process contributing to the final product. Fermentation and distillation are the quick and relatively easy parts. It’s inside the barrel where things undergo the mightiest of changes, and where spirits like whiskey and Cognac develop their characteristic nuances.
New-make distillate is distinguished by short-chain molecules called carboxylic esters and short-chain fatty acids. In a white dog or unaged whiskey, these have aromas that include overripe fruit and paint thinner and vinegar. Drinkable, but rarely worth savoring by the fire. Still, you need these chemicals to start with, because the interaction between these compounds and the wood in the barrel results in two processes: extraction and esterification.
Much as it sounds, extraction involves the pulling of new chemicals from the oak, including phenol, benzoic acid, and vanillin. When you taste notes of sawed wood, burnt toast, smoke, or vanilla in a whiskey, it’s largely due to extraction of these compounds from the barrel, literally aldehydes and phenols leaching into your drink. Extraction isn’t all that difficult, but alone it doesn’t really impact a spirit that positively. (Inhale the essence-of-lumberyard aroma of a craft whiskey that was aged for six months and you’ll get the idea.)
Bryan Davis. Gabriela Hasbun/WIRED
Davis says that the more complex part of the barrel aging process is esterification, which is when alcohol and phenol or weak acids bond together. The result of this reaction is the creation of medium- and long-chain esters, which are responsible for the flavors and aromas of honey, floral elements, and nutty notes—the classic character of a nicely aged spirit. Meanwhile, “off” flavors dissipate during the process as the short-chain acids vanish in the reaction. Says Davis, “Butyric acid, a common acid found in white rums, has the characteristic aroma of vomit. However, when it is esterified with ethanol, the resulting ester, ethyl butyrate, has the aroma of a pineapple.” Sounds great, but the process can take years or decades, depending on the climate in which the barrel is stored.
It’s All About the Esters
The trick then is to encourage esterification in a short time period, and that’s the core science behind Davis’s Model 1 reactor. The reactor accomplishes this in three stages, taking white distillate and chunks of oak as inputs. The first stage forces the esterification of short-chained fatty acids in the white spirit, turning them into fruity, short-chained esters. Phase two literally splits apart big polymer molecules in the oak, extracting the compounds needed to complete the esterification process. This pulls out the aldehydes needed for the final step, but also some unpleasant medium-chained acids. In the final stage, those acids and phenolic compounds are forced to esterify, with simple esters being made to bind and combine into longer-chained esters that would normally be associated with a very mature spirit.
What comes out the other side is not necessarily an aged spirit, but rather one that bears the same chemical signature of an aged spirit. Davis uses mass spectrometry to compare old spirits with products put through his process. Spikes on the chromatogram correspond to compounds that appear in the highest concentrations in the spirits.
Davis simplifies all of this, saying, “Our trick was to develop a system that breaks the wood polymers apart in the same proportion as classical aging. Then force the esterification.” But that’s really all that Davis can say publicly about the process until his patents are finalized. In a nutshell, he is catalyzing the same chemical reactions that happen in the barrel, rapid-fire.
Reviving Dead Spirits Through Science
A few years ago, while developing the Model 1, Davis switched from whiskey to rum production. (Bags of sugar are easier to come by.) Lost Spirits Colonial American Inspired Rum, released in December 2014, was the first commercial product to fully undergo the Lost Spirits accelerated aging process, and the reviews were glowing (including one from this critic). Bottled at 62 percent alcohol, it’s a bracing, navy-strength rum with intense coffee, dried fruit, and chocolate notes, with a gentle smoky finish.
Colonial tastes a lot like very old, overproof rum—The Black Tot is often mentioned—which is of course the whole idea. The chromatograms that compare this rum to very old stock (like Port Mourant 33 Years Old) are uncannily similar. Spikes on both graphs show that both products contain significant doses of ethyl octanoate, ethyl propanoate, and isovaleraldehyde, among a dozen or so other compounds. Both spirits spike in the same places, though Colonial’s are often a bit smaller—an effect Davis chalks up to the limitations of his technique.
“It tops out after about 20 years,” he says. “If you let it keep running after that, things quickly go out of balance.” Davis says that’s because the Model 1 does not allow for any substantial evaporation: Put in 100 liters of white dog and you get back about 98 liters of aged spirit. Without the “angel’s share”—equating to about 50 percent evaporation in a 33 year old rum—it just doesn’t seem possible to push a spirit any further.
The Model 1 can process 555 liters of spirit every week. The software is cloud-based, controlled by an onsite iPad but managed by Davis. Davis requires a $20,000 deposit to lease a reactor, which will cost $4,000 a month to rent. After an initial run of five to be shipped this summer, he wants to produce 50 reactors a year.
Davis says he wants to promote higher quality spirits, save time and money for distillers, and allow for rapid prototyping. Now a distiller needn’t wait 20 years to see if a new mashbill produces a spirit worth drinking. “Distillers will be able to immediately see what a spirit aged in, say, chestnut wood tastes like,” he says.
Davis also says the goal isn’t necessarily to increase subterfuge in an industry that already suffers from a high level of artifice. “Transparency is important. Quality is more important,” says Davis. “I hope we can help a bunch of distilleries to show an amazing value to consumers. My beta testers (so far) have said they desire to be up front about it. If this becomes a major issue I may well intervene. Until the patent expires, this is under my company’s control. As long as I have the driver’s seat I intend to see an open and transparent market.”
One of Davis’s big goals is that the reactor will make it possible to revive, well, “lost spirits” that are no longer in production, like the beloved but defunct Wray & Nephew 17 Year Old Rum, built not through poring over old recipe books and notes but rather by simply recreating their chemical signatures in the lab.
Prior and Future Art
The distilling world is awash in companies that are trying to leverage technology to rapidly age spirits, but Davis dismisses them all as primitive at best, charlatans at worst. Perhaps the closest to Lost Spirits is a company called Terressentia, which uses ultrasound and oxygenation to purportedly induce the production of long-chain esters like Davis. Products made with the company’s TerrePURE are commercially available and are often labeled as such. “Based on their patent, Terressentia is where we were five years ago,” says Davis.
Meanwhile, Davis has his own believers lining up. He formally and publicly unveiled the Model 1 at the American Distilling Institute Annual Spirits Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 1, as inauspicious a choice of release date as possible for such a machine. After his presentation, he says he received 27 inquiries and signed up nine beta testers to fill his five openings. He’s now holding a waiting list for future customers.
Greg Miller, Ph.D., is a professor of chemical engineering at UC Davis and a self-described whiskey enthusiast who is one of only a handful of outsiders who have seen the system in operation. Miller is a wholesale believer who describes what Davis has done as “really extraordinary” but says that the proof is right there in the bottle.
“I’ve been following Davis’s products for years,” Miller says. “I had no idea that Bryan was working on a hobby scale. I thought he’d been distilling on an industrial scale and had been aging in barrels for years and years.”
Miller says the biggest risk for Davis is what will happen once his patent is published and knockoffs start to emerge. With a basic scientific background and the instructions that the patent will provide, Miller says the actual methodology involved is trivial. “Anyone can do it.”
And in fact that day may come sooner than expected. Davis says he’s heard of at least four competing technologies under development by major American distilleries that are designed to accelerate aging, but he says that none can come close to matching his 20-year technology—not yet, anyway.
For now, if you want to hack your way to a 20 year old rum, brandy, or bourbon in the space of a week, it seems that Davis is your only bet—and there’s nothing funky going on behind the scenes, either. “It’s crystal clear from the evidence,” says Miller. “He’s the real deal.”