Alcohol

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.

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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.

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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