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20-Year-Old Whiskey in 6 Days: Will This Self-Taught Chemist Upend the Liquor Industry?

Bryan Davis created a chemical reactor that compresses time, bringing an artistic sensibility back to aged spirits.

Why does a well-aged glass of smokey whiskey taste so good? It's all about the chemistry of sitting in a barrel for decades. "The polymer structures make the wood slowly fall apart," says Bryan Davis, a pioneering distiller who learned the science of liquor production by watching MIT classes on YouTube. "They shed all of these precursor chemicals that turn into different stuff that tastes really good." This time-consuming process is the reason distillers have to charge five figures for a top-shelf bottle.

Not anymore. Davis, cofounder of the Los Angeles–based Lost Spirits Distillery, has figured out a way to compress a 20-year aging process into about six days.

Davis created a reactor that mimics the natural aging process of booze left in a barrel. The result: bottles of spirits with the same chemical signature as those aged for the lifespan of a young adult. His products have won multiple awards, and the technology could transform the aged spirits market by bringing bottles that used to cost more than $1,000 within reach of the masses.

The liquor world has been forbidding to small distillers since the repeal of Prohibition. When Davis and Joanne Haruta (his significant other and business partner) arrived in Monterey, California, more than a decade ago, they wanted to get into the aged whiskey and rum market. First they needed to raise half a million dollars.

"We would just be literally sitting there going, 'OK, we'll sell our first bottle of booze when I'm 60," you know?'"

In search of short cuts, Davis decided to study the chemistry of a well-aged bottle of booze. He began by watching YouTube videos of MIT chemistry classes, pausing only to look up vocabulary words on Wikipedia.

"You can just sort of tunnel your way down the rabbit hole until all of a sudden one day you read a paper and go, 'Wow, I understood everything that said,'" he says.

By 2013, Davis had figured out how to force the chemical reaction called "esterification"—the main driving force behind barrel aging. But he couldn't come up with a natural way to break the polymer structures in a wooden barrel, which is what gives a well-aged bottle its taste. One day, while thinking about how he had to replace the sun-damaged wooden deck attached to his mobile home, he had an epiphany: By blasting wood with light, he could speed up the process of degrading wood.

Today Davis licenses his technology to other distillers, and his invention is the talk of the industry. An art major in college, Davis wants to bring an artistic sensibility back to liquor-making, pushing the limits of the form. He dreams of a future when liquor-store shelves are lined with bottles that customers don't recognize.

"I sort of view myself as that same antagonist to those canonistic systems," he says.

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Produced by Paul Detrick. Shot by Alex Manning and Alexis Garcia.

"Marxist Arrow," by Twin Musicom is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
Artist: http://www.twinmusicom.org/

"Aourourou," by Blue Dot Sessions, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
Source: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Blue_Dot_Sessions/Azalai/Aourourou
Artist: https://www.sessions.blue/

"Frost Waltz (Alternate)," by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
Source: http://incompetech.com/music/royalty-free/index.html?isrc=USUAN1100531
Artist: http://incompetech.com/

Photo Credits:
Photo of whiskey bottles, Credit: RICHARD B. LEVINE/Newscom
Photo of bourbon bottle, Credit: RICHARD B. LEVINE/Newscom
Photo of liquor store shelf, Credit: Caro / Bastian/Newscom

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  • loveconstitution1789||

    Free market!

    The government will destroy his business somehow.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    The FDA will define it out of existence. It won't be alcohol. It won't be allowed to be called Whiskey or something.

  • tkc||

    I believe this already exists in Scotland. In order for it to be called 'single malt scotch' it must be aged at least three years in some for of oak barrel, among other things. A scientific short cut might be prohibited.

  • gormadoc||

    It already exists here. Whiskey and bourbon have minimum aging times. Bourbon has a lot of requirements and I can't imagine they'll overcome the bourbon lobby anytime soon.

  • tkc||

    Maybe call it Uisce Beatha just to yank some chains.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "I Can't Believe It's Not Whisky". :)

  • ThomasD||

    There are plenty of distillers aleady 'overcoming' the Bourbon lobby. Mainly by selling all other sorts of whiskies, or distilled malts and not trying to call them something they are not.

    http://www.corsairdistillery.com/home

    I'm partial to the Triple Smoke and the Aged Gin.

  • Eidde||

    "I can't believe it's not Whiskey!"

  • ThomasD||

    Yes, but what a lot of places are now doing is selling "Young Malt."

  • Griffin3||

    'murica! Hell ya!

    He should package is up in a bottle that proudly says "Aged 6 DAYS!", work around every regulation, and enjoy his awesome market among people who aren't worried about social signalling.

  • Rubbish!||

    Marketed as Fresh.
    With a born-on date right on the bottle.

  • gormadoc||

    Too bad there are regulations in how you label based on the time spent aging. I foresee a lot of scotch- and bourbon-"flavored" vodkas in his future.

  • ||

    I foresee a lot of scotch- and bourbon-"flavored" vodkas in his future.

    This is a misstatement. It's "flavored" "vodka" or flavored "vodka", not "flavored" vodka. Vodka, by law, can't have a distinctive taste. Pure alcohol diluted to 80 proof with pure water is vodka, anything else is not.

  • gormadoc||

    I was doing that to indicate that it would be indistinguishable from scotch or bourbon, and hence not flavored vodka; merely marketed as such.

    Believe me, I know my alcohols.

  • ||

    Believe me, I know my alcohols.

    I don't doubt you do. I was agreeing and pointing out that this is so not the first time something like this has been tried that there are contingency plans within plans to combat it.

    It's repeatedly been shown at relatively 'elite' tasting events that you can substitute inferior wines for superior ones. About a decade ago it was discovered that, genetically/phenotypically, something like 20-30% of the population can't taste alcohol and that it's these people who are less-sensitive to the flavor who are more inclined to imbibe. That the formalism that is alcohol regulation and nomenclature still stands doesn't bode well for arguments in favor of non-meat and dairy substitutes.

  • gormadoc||

    The entire morass of alcohol and spirit regulation is disturbing. In my state (which has a burgeoning craft and home brew scene) the big national breweries tried to force a comeback last year by legally restricting distribution. Needless to say, they were some of the few who would benefit.

  • Brendan||

    They seem to label them as "Malts" on their website.

    http://www.lostspirits.net/the-range

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    But probably not "single-malt", which is the issue. The designation of "malt" does not come up with blended Scotch.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Walter Jon Williams wrote a story about this back when it was still science fiction (a whole year ago).

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    You are definitely a scifi aficionado of some kind.

  • Microaggressor||

    learned the science of liquor production by watching MIT classes on YouTube

    Yeah, but where's his degree? Proof that he doesn't know what he's doing.

  • Fooseven||

    This is best thing I've read all day

  • ace_m82||

    That's awesome!

    -Someone who doesn't drink

  • ||

    Says you. Some of us are completely content to consume consumer-grade industrial solvents mixed into our coffee and are amused that you're just upset that you'll be paying more for your smug self-satisfaction and you know it.

  • Illocust||

    I haven't found a whiskey I like, but I'm all for something that let's people get into the alcohol business without waiting twenty years for a bottle to develop.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    The only whiskey I've tried that was tolerable was Jack Daniel's honey whiskey. It goes really well with Coke too.

  • Eidde||

    I didn't get the name of the brand the nice mountain man sold me, but truth in labelling would have given it a name like Wake Up In Tijuana Naked.

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    I have two words for you: George Dickel. Not only great sipping but a fine addition to barbecue sauce.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Great article. I love human innovation.

  • ThomasD||

    If we can sequence the human genome then using GCMS we should be able to analyze any beverage sufficently in order to replicate it.

    Whether this will actually be cost effective is another matter entirely. I've had Pappy 12 and Pappy 20. Even if the price were the same I'd still prefer the 12.

    What many people like to taste is exclusivity.

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    Personally, I like to taste good whiskey.

    That said, I would feel vaguely jobbed if I drank 12-year-old whiskey only to find it was 2 weeks old, chemically enhanced (as it were). If distillers are going to use this technique I think they have to advertise it on the bottle. Otherwise there is a certain amount of deception involved.

  • The Last American Hero||

    Is the 2018 version of the story about how cubic zirconia was going to put an end to the demand for diamonds?

  • ThomasD||

    More like how Zima was going to revolutionize the beer industry.

  • Brandybuck||

    It would have, but anyone who liked Zima all mysteriously died of alcohol poisoning.

  • kynodog||

    Made the mistake of drinking a six pack of Zima many years ago . Haven't touched one since. Just got a wave of nausea thinking about it.

  • swampwiz||

    Economists would say that a diamond is almost a purely signalling good, and thus women feel the need that their husbands disburse with so much economic value for them to disburse their "value". So the fact that cubic zirconium has almost as high of a refractive index and diamond (albeit at higher density) and would be a great substitute good for the performance of diamond (i.e., the brilliance, which is due to that high refractive index) is not important at all; indeed the fact that the cubic zirconium is so much cheaper is a *detriment* to its use as a signaling good.

  • Brandybuck||

    Same thing sort of happened with wine. Wine snobs would reject anything that wasn't grown in special soils only found in France. Then folk discovered that there is nothing magical about France. The same varietals grown in the same *kind* of soil with the same *kind* of weather would produce the same kind of wine. And blending varietals and other techniques could create better wines than magical France ever could.

    And so a state known only for being the home of Gallo start beating the pants off of France. And not just in Napa. And then it spread, and now you have quality wines from even places like Australia (Chateau Chunder).

    Same thing will now happen with ages spirits. So what if you can't call it "scotch" or "cognac"?

  • swampwiz||

    I was skiing with an oenophile friend in France, and he purchased a $40 bottle of wine, which I thought was ridiculous. That said, it did have more character than the "table wine" (with a twist off cap, LOL) that my grandfather, who grew up on a Spanish vineyard, used to drink.

  • ||

    Personally, I don't get the love of new world wines. They're okay. Some stand out but as a whole? Meh.

    Pound for pound the best wines, on average, still really do come from France and Italy.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Hail Science!

  • buybuydandavis||

    Time to start stocking up on empty bottles of the snooty stuff

  • ThisUsernameIsTaken||

    The American Chestnut is not extinct. The majority of the trees just don't survive long enough to be useable for lumber.

  • JFree||

    He dreams of a future when liquor-store shelves are lined with bottles that customers don't recognize.

    That will only happen in those states where liquor stores are not chain/state-owned stores with centralized purchasing/stocking. And unfortunately, the combo of bigbox and Amazon/online over the last few decades is killing off the quirky mompop entrepreneurial retail that used to give a chance to entrepreneurial producer.

    I blame the MBA.

  • markm23||

    Most of the country considers a state liquor store to be insanity. I suggest you move - even if you're a teetotaller, a state liquor store is a sign that regulators are allowed to run amok in your state.

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    This might be news to some, but not to those (like me) who follow the TV show "Moonshiners". Tim Smith put this technology to use 3 or 4 years ago in order to produce an "aged" whiskey for sale instead of straight moonshine.

  • mpercy||

    Artificially aging it in 6 days so that the taste is (supposedly) comparable to 20-year old whiskey does not warrant putting "Aged 20-years" on the label. I'd certainly try it and if it tasted good I would certainly drink it, but would not be happy about being sold a falsely labeled product.

  • Longtobefree||

    Seriously?
    44 comments and no reference to "time in a bottle". Philistines.

  • Mark22||

    Great chemistry, not so great economics. People buy $1000/bottle liquor not for the taste, but because it is scarce and expensive to produce.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Harvey Washington Wiley, fanatical prohibitionist, was doing this in 1906 to impress Teedy Rosenfeld.

  • Pat001||

    Booze is expensive because the feds tax it exhorbitively and then the states tax it again. Artificially aged stuff wouldn't be taxed any less.

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