Distillery claims it’s ‘hacked’ barrel ageing process for spirits

Lost Spirits alcohol distilled with a new technique that takes year's off the typical distilling process - image courtesy of Mark Theron and Lost Spirits.
Lost Spirits alcohol distilled with a new technique that takes year's off the typical distilling process - image courtesy of Mark Theron and Lost Spirits.

Imagine being able to achieve twenty years worth of ageing of alcoholic spirits – such as rum, brandy, and whiskey – in just six days.

That is what an American entrepreneur has discovered how to do. What’s more, he’s making the technology to do so available for others to use.

Bryan Davis and his girlfriend Joanna Haruta are the founders of Californian company Lost Spirits Distillery, which used to produce whiskey but now produces rum.

Lost Spirits Distillery uses a fermentation process that creates in a week what traditionally took 20 years. The method Lost Spirits Distillery uses doesn’t accelerate the ageing process. Rather, it circumvents it. The company uses a process that takes six days and gives the rum the same chemical make-up that a 20-year-old rum would have.

Davis has no chemist’s training, and in the field of chemistry he is autodidactic. “I have an arts degree, and the arts degree got me to an absinthe distillery,” he said.

After co-founding Spanish distillery Obsello Absinthe in 2006, he became curious about the distilling and ageing processes. He subsequently sold Obsello Absinthe, moved back to the US, and began experimenting in his kitchen, and ultimately co-founded Lost Spirits Distillery.

Researching to ‘hack’ distillation

Bryan Davis (left) with a bottle from his Lost Spirits distillery
Bryan Davis (left) with a bottle from his Lost Spirits Distillery.

Davis began researching ways to possibly reduce the fermentation time while keeping the same results.

“I didn’t, and still don’t, think the craft spirits movement could survive without someone hacking the process. The effect on the taste of liquors from the wooden barrels in which they are distilled is due to a process known as “extraction,” he said.

Such chemicals as vanillin, phenol and benzoic leech into the liquor, giving it such taste influences as ‘smokey’, ‘vanilla’, or ‘woody’. A further process used is esterification – the chemical reaction resulting from the combining of either an alcohol or a phenol with an organic acid.

Esterification results in the elimination of water, and in the formation of a chemical compound known as an ester. Fats are examples of esters.

In distilling, esterification occurs when the alcohol and acids such as phenol combine. The resulting esters give such flavours and smells to the liquor as that of honey, flowers, and nuts.

Meanwhile, unpleasant flavours and smells are eliminated. “Butyric acid, a common acid found in white rums, has the characteristic aroma of vomit,” said Davis. “However, when it is esterified with ethanol, the resulting ester, ethyl butyrate, has the aroma of a pineapple.”

Esterification traditionally takes years, even decades. However, the reactor that Lost Spirits Distillery uses, known as Model 1, uses a faster process.

Firstly, short-chained (that is, having a short chain of atoms) fatty acids are esterified into short-chained esters, which have a fruity flavour and smell.

Secondly, White distillate and pieces of oak are combined in the reactor. The polymer molecules in the oak are split, which extracts the compounds necessary for the completion of esterification. This extracts the aldehydes needed for the final step, and leaves some medium-chained acids.

These acids and phenolic compounds esterify, producing long-chained esters. Many of the qualities that well-matured spirits contain are due to the presence of long-chained esters. Thus, Model 1 reactor produces a spirit that has the same qualities as a well-matured one.

Bryan’s patented Model 1 Reactor can produce 555 litres of spirits per week.

Making the technology available

On April 1, 2015 at a conference of the American Distilling Institute, Davis announced that he was making the technology of Model 1 Reactor available to other distillers to lease.

But at the two hour-plus talk, he met scepticism.  “It was important to me to actually win this stupid argument,” he says.

“They were still driving me crazy, and I was like, you do realize that I’m offering to give your ragtag rebel army nuclear weapons, right? You do realize that’s the point of this conversation?

“And they just sort of shut up for a minute and said, maybe you’re right, and then we could start having an intelligent conversation.”

Thus, he is now both a distiller and a maker of distillery equipment. The availability of such ground-breaking technology promises to revolutionise the distilling industry. That is, distilleries will be able to churn out high-quality spirits in a fraction of the time and cost it takes so far.

Also, distilleries will be able to experiment with different flavours and techniques without having to wait years for results.