How curiosity, perseverance and unconventional thinking are a cocktail for success. An inventive entrepreneur and his team are revolutionizing the whiskey-making industry.
Barrel aging a fine whiskey takes decades, but what if you could figure out a way to do the same thing in six days?
And what if, along the way, you discovered how to combine flavours that were previously impossible, opening the door to creating new liquors that have never existed before, and recreating recipes that haven’t been distilled for generations?
Bryan Davis, co-founder of a distillery and technology company called Lost Spirits, has done just that. Now his disruptive technology might be about to turn the beverage industry on its head by letting people age fine whiskey, rum and brandy in virtually no time – doing to distilling what Airbnb and Uber did to their respective industries.
“There’s an argument being made that we’ve created the most valuable startup in the beverage industry in 100 years,” says Bryan. “But we didn’t start out that way. We were just making a cool product for ourselves, paired with a keen sense of observation – and voila!”
Investors are beating down Bryan’s door. He’s been featured in Wired and he’s also done a TEDx talk where he explained his technology, his inventive process and challenging the status quo. Best of all, Bryan and his partners have built a fully automated distillery in Los Angeles inspired by Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, where the tech does most of the work. That leaves Bryan, his partner and their team free to spend their time inventing, scheming and dreaming up new ideas.
How a fun hobby became a big business
It sounds like an entrepreneur’s dream come true. As Bryan says, the story of how he got here is “Exciting. And strange. And fun.” So naturally, it all starts at Burning Man.
Bryan got his start distilling in San Francisco. At the time, it was just a hobby. His career was already off to an unusual start, designing amusement park rides as a day job, and he would make bootleg absinthe in his kitchen for fun.
As a fan of Burning Man, the massive participative festival that brings over 50,000 people together in the Nevada desert every year to celebrate community and art, Bryan would distill small batches to take with him.
“The coolest part of Burning Man is the art cars,” Bryan explains. “You want to get invited to ride on them. I wasn’t a cute girl, so instead I’d bring a backpack of absinthe to bribe my way onboard.”
Absinthe had been banned in countries around the world for a century, but the ban was lifted in the USA in 2007, around the same time as other nations lifted theirs. Seeing the opportunity in the pent-up demand for this rare liquor, Bryan and his partner Joanne took a huge risk and moved to Spain, where they opened an absinthe distillery in a small town outside of Barcelona.
As their sales to the US and other countries grew, they became the fourth largest distiller in the market. However, they didn’t get there by taking the ‘traditional’ road to success.
“We were young and scrappy, and taking on way bigger competitors with way more money than we had,” says Bryan. “We would go to industry conferences and heckle our competition. We’d drop stink bombs in a presentation – just do all these things adults didn’t do. It got us a lot of attention.”
Antics aside, their product, unconventional approach and Bryan’s deep-rooted sense of curiosity and his passion for getting it right were what made them a success.
“The quality of our absinthe got us a lot of respect in the industry,” says Bryan. “A lot of big companies sent exploratory groups to our distillery to see what we were doing. Dealing with them provided a lot of learning that was very useful when we eventually started Lost Spirits.”
Moving in a new direction to match the market
In 2009, the absinthe fad faded, and with it the distillery’s fortunes. Bryan and Joanne moved back to California and began looking for new opportunities that would allow them to take advantage of the contacts they’d made and the respect they’d earned in the global beverage industry.
“We were broke, but the craft distilling business was starting to take off and we had these great connections,” says Bryan. “So we got some money together and built a little distillery in the artichoke fields outside of Monterey, California.”
Finding success wasn’t as easy as they hoped, but Bryan was focused on finding a new way to do business. “In their early years, craft distillers are generally stuck selling vodka and gin. Those can be made and put on the market faster than whiskeys and ryes, which take a lot longer to barrel age using traditional methods,” explains Bryan. “It takes at least five or six years to barrel age an average whiskey, and a lot longer for a very high-quality one.”
”The problem is that the distributors really want whiskey and rye, not vodka. So I thought, there’s got to be some way to speed up the aging process and get our whiskey on the market faster. How hard can that be?”
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An incredible technology breakthrough
That question launched Bryan on a years-long journey of scientific discovery, driven by his passion and willingness to think unconventionally. He thought again about how the basic processes of distillation work, and began defying the conventional logic that has underpinned the beverage industry for centuries.
The result? He and his partners have figured out how to craft the equivalent of a 20-year barrel aged whiskey in six days using lab reactors and actinic light.
They’ve also discovered how to create flavours to alcohol that no one ever could before. That’s opened up new opportunities to reach high-end whiskey fans along with spirit and cocktail fanatics looking for something new and different. It could also potentially revolutionize how commercial spirits are manufactured.
It was the willingness to perform endless experimentation that took them in an unexpected direction. (You can read Bryan’s technical papers on the process here).
“Early on, we played around trying to make something that was similar in flavour to old, spectacular booze,” explains Bryan. “But it was all wrong, and always tasted wacky. Where you’d expect to taste apples in a traditional spirit, we’d get berries. We’d phenolate the berry flavoured ester with peat smoke phenols and get these really unique flavours. It had a familiar taste on the tongue and a complex symphony, but they were all these flavours you don’t expect in that kind of booze.”
Turning this problem into an opportunity, they launched a line of experimental single malt whiskeys, which developed a cult following.
It was then that they had a huge breakthrough, discovering that using photocatalytic light they could break down the wood polymers into precursors to flavour molecules. They then used a reactor to bind those molecules with alcohol to form the medium-to-long carbon-chain esters that make the signature flavours of classic alcohols that are chemically identical to traditional barrel-aged whiskeys and rums.
Above: Watch Bryan Davis at the TEDx Bermuda where he explains more about his entrepreneurial journey.
Dropping a bombshell to get major attention
The team knew that the liquor they were making in just a few days was as good as rare barrel-aged whiskeys people were paying thousands of dollars a bottle to add to their collections. The question was how to convince the industry to believe that, too.
Rather than try to convince people, they took a slightly trickier approach. In a strategic move, they released small batches of their lab-created liquor on the market but kept the details about the manufacturing process intentionally vague. The product quickly started to get noticed, received rave reviews in industry journals and developed a cult following among fine spirit connoisseurs. Then they dropped the bombshell.
“Once everyone had written these reviews about how great our booze was, they couldn’t just take it back,” says Bryan. “We had a few people pissed off here and there – some consumer curmudgeons, but mostly industry reps who had something to lose.”
Despite some initial pushback that what they said they’d done was ‘impossible,’ industry interest quickly picked up. One of the big appeals was the potential for cost savings and efficiencies. In distilling, one of the biggest losses can be from what is called the “Angels Share” – the amount of alcohol which literally evaporates into the air over the years, which can be significant. Since Bryan’s technique takes only days, the Angels Share is virtually zero. That is a very attractive advantage.
Another appeal of the Lost Spirits process is the ability to recreate spirits lost to history, and new spirits never tasted before.
In the 1860s it was common for rum to be aged in American Chestnut barrels. But after a blight discovered in 1904, the American Chestnut went extinct, so the rum we drink today can only be barrelled in American Oak.
Wondering what a chestnut-barrelled rum would taste like, Bryan’s team set out to recreate those flavours. They sourced antique chestnut furniture made in the 1860s, then carefully extracted clean wood from its interior that hadn’t been touched by varnishes and stains. Combined with other experimental techniques, they’re working to create a rum that has been lost for generations.
“It’s a bit like Jurassic Park for booze,” says Bryan. “Just ask yourself, what would be a fun thing to make that would have been impossible five years ago? That’s what we do!”
While the consumer market for fine aged whiskeys and rum isn’t huge, Lost Spirits is appealing to the crowd by making unique liquors that challenge and excite taste buds.
They’re also banking on supplying rapidly aged whiskeys as blending agents to large-scale distillers, and giving distillers the chance to rapidly prototype new recipes (which is useful, since they won’t have to wait 20 years to see if it worked). They’ve even experimented with licensing their technology to others.
The bottom line for Bryan is that he wants to use this new technology to help others make products that he’d love to drink too – and improve overall quality for consumers.
Bryan’s Advice To Startups
“Don’t try to think about what the mass market wants. The reason a lot of people fail is that they didn’t make a product they wanted – they made a product they thought someone else wanted.
“Big businesses make products that way – relying on focus groups, creating products for mass market appeal and throwing away the ideas that only half the people liked in order to focus only on the ones that everybody liked. When a start-up does this, they end up with this thing that appeals to everyone, but then realize they don’t have the ability to do a mass-market rollout – and it fails.
“Start out trying to appeal to smaller distributors, do a limited rollout, focus on the people who are passionate and will be passionate about your product. Tesla didn’t start with the Model 3 – they started with the Roadster, deliberately appealing to people who love high-end sports cars. Then it grew from there.
“Create a product you’d love, then find customers who share your love. As I like to say, if nobody buys the booze we make then I have to drink it all – and I’d be happy to do that! Make something for yourself, don’t make a business. The business will follow.”