Bryan Davis pulled his phone out of his pocket and casually made a few swipes. “Tessa, we’re ready to start the tour,” he announced with a proud smile to the computer software custom-built to control nearly every aspect of his new high-tech spirits-making facility in the Arts District.
The waiver to get a tour of Lost Sprits, a Pirates of the Caribbean–themed rum distillery, requires its signer to promise not to sue the company in case of heat stroke or river drowning or jungle vomiting. The tour is not recommended for those who get seasick.
“We knew we wanted to make a British Royal Navy–style rum, but we also knew we wanted to put our own spin on it,” Davis said, as a heavy drape on one side of the room rolled itself up. “So we sat the whole team down and very meticulously watched all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. From there we asked ourselves, what would the rum in that movie taste like if we could reach out and grab the bottle, open it up and take a sip? From that we built the environment to reflect the spirit, so you could actually drink it in its native terroir.”
A dimly lit open-air bar revealed itself ahead, built into a humid, lush junglescape. A soundtrack of chirping birds and buzzing bugs added to the feel of an island night.
Surrounded by battery-operated yellow candles and vintage table lamps, Davis played nerdy bartender, pulling a bottle of thick, dark rum from under the bar and pouring a shot of it, neat. It’s Lost Spirits’ staple product and the result of nearly a decade of intense experimentation, which culminated in the creation of an industry-changing machine that hacks nature’s chemical process and eliminates the need for long barrel-aging times on brown spirits.
A blend of Guyanese and Jamaican rums, Lost Spirits’ Navy Rum is 61 percent ABV (120 proof for those keeping track) and is as dense and fudgy as it is a thermonuclear fruit bomb. Peer-reviewed papers from the last few years have proven that this liquid has the same chemical properties as a Navy pot still rum that’s been sitting in an oak barrel for 15 to 20 years. Except this liquid hasn’t been aging for a full generation. Instead, it spent just six days inside one of Davis’ proprietary reactors — his “toys,” as he calls them — which use intense heat to blast open the surface of wooden blocks and rapidly alter, on the molecular level, the final distilled product.
Why would anyone spend as much time as it would take to get a doctorate degree studying organic chemistry to make experimental booze inside of a computer-operated micro-distillery outfitted to look like a Disneyland ride?
“'Why the fuck not?’ is sort of the motto of this place,” Davis said as a makeshift boat floated along an elevated waterway adjacent to the jungle bar, ready to whisk us into the darkness toward the next part of the tour.
Lost Spirits, L.A.’s newest distillery, is the playful side of Lost Spirits Technology, a company founded to explore the commercial applications of its patented reactors. The reactors resulted from Davis’ study of the aging process back when he and his girlfriend (and business partner) Joanne Haruta were pulling single-malt whiskeys from a reconstructed pre-Prohibition still on an artichoke farm in Monterey County around 2010.
Davis studied sculpture in college, briefly taught art and then spent some time designing amusement park rides and zoo exhibits. He and Haruta then moved to Spain to distill absinthe during the recent post-legalization boom. “I turned out to be a much better chemist than an artist,” he said.
In 2014, the experimental reactor the couple built in a Castroville barn replicated nature for the first time. That is to say, it produced in a matter of days something that tasted like a 20-year-aged spirit.
The next year, Lost Spirits Distillery closed down its quirky farm operation so the couple could move to Silicon Valley and work on Lost Spirits Technologies, where former high-level beverage executives secured funding to scale up Davis’ volatile 1-liter reactors to more stable 25-liter ones.
Davis and Haruta found everyone from coders to electrical engineers to rocket scientists to help them fully develop the reactors as well as their operating system, Tessa. “We just sat down and said, 'How hard can it be? Let’s figure it out,'” Davis said.
The Lost Spirits tour takes you to see the reactors after you’ve made your way through the kettle, fermenters and still of an otherwise traditional Navy rum distillery — albeit one that's run by a computer system, has hand-forged golden-dragon-head condensers and is accessible only by floating down a canal of thousands of gallons of water (it’s a holding tank for water used to cool the still).
Inside the Barrel Room, as Davis lovingly calls it, there are not racks of charred-oak barrels stacked on top of one another but two robotic-looking machines with tubes and wires and the capacity to blast high-intensity light into a small vat of distillate carrying baskets of sawed-off wood staves.
Depending on your knowledge and interest level, Davis could spend hours in here ratting off the details of the scientific processes behind his ultimate nature hack, telling you how the machine creates the right acids and enzymes to eliminate off-putting flavors, catalyzes proper reactions to kick-start the maturation process and, eventually, degrades crucial polymers in the wood that alter the chemical composition of the final product.
The result has held up in taste tests against extremely coveted 20-year-old rums, though some say the subtlely of a traditionally aged product is lost. Like a well-executed cover song, it’s technically correct but could be said to lack soul.
Still, large clients in the beverage industry are using the technology for other applications (such as evening out a particular year’s blend, for example), though Davis declined to say who's using them or how many of the reactors are in existence.
“We don’t like talking about the commercial applications; that just makes us money, but it’s not the most exciting part of it,” he said. “This place is really about applying molecular gastronomy principles to booze. What has nobody else done before that doesn’t already exist — and how do we go about engineering that?”
The majority of the Lost Spirit team’s time is spent in a laboratory adjacent to the Barrel Room, with an assortment of desks and beakers and white boards. The idea is to explore ideas that start with “Hey I wonder if we could …” — no matter how impossible they sound. Davis estimates that about one in 20 of these ideas ends up working, but the point is that Lost Spirits now has the freedom and financial independence to at least try.
Take the One Night Stand Project, which aims to re-create an 1800s style of whiskey that was aged in barrels made from a now-extinct variety of American chestnut. In order to do this, Lost Spirits is purchasing vintage wooden furniture at auctions (the first find was a single night stand — get it?) so they can sand down the pieces, chop them up and throw them into the reactor baskets.
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A bigger project is the Angel Sucking Machine, which is the first Lost Spirits technology created in Los Angeles. Based on the scientific explanation of the so-called “angel’s share,” which says that spirits evaporate inside the barrel over time to create a more concentrated liquid, the concept aims to create the same intense flavors of a 30-year-aged rum by manipulating in more molecular ways the 20-year-aged product from the reactors. In 36 minutes, the “Angel Sucking” process adds the flavors usually imparted by a decade of barrel aging, according to Davis.
“This whole thing is just so we can experiment and create the coolest possible spirits in America,” Davis said towards the end of the Lost Spirits tour. He, Haruta and another co-owner were sitting at a long table in an Island of Dr. Moreau–themed room on the other side of the warehouse from the lab, sipping on their single-malt whiskey called Abomination, an Islay-purchased hybrid spirit with no known flavor predecessors.
Davis launched into a detailed explanation of why Kentucky’s weather patterns make the molecular structure of American whiskeys harder to replicate, his eyes lighting up as if he’d already discovered the key to hacking them, too. As he waited for a reaction, his hand slipped into his pocket and, moments later, Tessa ushered the tour into the gift shop.
“Isn’t that fun?” he said.