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Alcohol Production in the Fourth Dimension

A look at Lost Spirits’ THEA One Reactor, a time machine for booze

Albert Einstein famously said “time is an illusion”. True perhaps, but we humans are nevertheless bound by its confines (just ask my boss).

In the brown spirits business, the importance of time is difficult to overstate. If you’ve had the opportunity to taste a few “new make” corn liquors, you know of what I speak. Yeasty, bready, and young are not adjectives typically used to describe the world’s finest aged whiskies, after all. But put that same juice in a barrel and let it sit for a few years, and you may very well have something magical.

The history of barrel-aging is well documented. Wooden barrels were the best available technology to move liquids from place to place, and soon folks realized that liquor was made more palatable after spending time resting in them. Hundreds of years later, we’re still doing the same thing to improve those young spirits. But what exactly happens inside those barrels?

This is the question Bryan Davis from Lost Spirits sought to answer.

For all the talk of the “Angel’s Share” and favorable locations within aging facilities, few people ever learn about the chemical and biological processes that make brown spirits what they are. But give Bryan a minute, and you’ll learn more than you ever bargained for. Davis’ deep research into the aging process was motivated by his desire to create great tasting aged spirits in less time, which would not only allow him to make and sell great tasting liquor quicker and cheaper, but without the costly evaporative losses to which the Angel’s Share so charmingly refers.

It’s true that people had floated rapid aging systems before, but they were typically rudimentary systems that imparted a lot of wood and not much else. They tried to mimic a barrel, whereas Bryan’s system would actually make a nearly identical analog of a traditionally aged spirit.

The first step was to chemically map an aged rum, which was accomplished using a GCMS to identify the semi-volatile organic compounds present there. By identifying the compounds and understanding how they were created in the barrel, he could then increase or decrease the levels of the various components to produce a given flavor profile. Bryan created his Colonial Inspired rum in this fashion with an eye on refining the process.

After five years of hard work, Bryan could now could control the esterification and aldehyde transformation processes, and thus control the specific flavors and aromas created in the barrel. In just a few days, he could take new make spirit and transform it into a nearly perfect analog of a 20 year-old spirit. It was time to switch gears.

Up until this point, Lost Spirits was a small distillery, but now Bryan and his partner Joanne would pivot to becoming a technology company in order to share the rapid aging process with the rest of the world. Lost Spirits’ most exciting products would no longer come in bottles, they would come in metal containers.

A THEA Reactor undergoing QA Testing

A THEA Reactor undergoing QA Testing

Bryan’s original system to create rapidly aged rum had a bit of a mad scientist vibe to it, and although functional, it was not something that could be easily replicated nor transported. With a bit of time, money and engineering, however, Lost Spirits is now producing a commercial aging reactor for use in other distilleries that is fully contained and portable. Dubbed the THEA (Targeted Hyper-Esterification Aging) One reactor, the first computer-controlled production units are presently being assembled in a hilltop laboratory overlooking Silicon Valley.

Bryan Davis at the controls

Bryan Davis at the controls

I recently had a chance to visit the lab and taste several spirits before and after their runs through the reactor. The results were fairly astonishing. While I expected the rums to work well given Bryan’s exploits in that arena, I wasn’t sure how the system would work on other spirits. I was able to taste several Bourbons and a few ryes that were completely delightful. The ryes responded especially well to the process, as did the Bourbons.

In the beginning, however, the Bourbon rapid aging process wasn’t terribly successful with the Lost Spirits technology. But in the past few months, the Bourbon aging process has undergone a major process improvement to incorporate specific endemic biological components found in aging warehouses throughout Kentucky, and now the puzzle pieces are falling perfectly into place.

THEA-aged Bourbon

THEA-aged Bourbon

For now, Bryan and his team are assembling the THEA reactors in their own facility. The systems are slick and high tech complete with an artist’s flare for the dramatic. These iPad-controlled systems are all spoken for, and early demand has already pushed Lost Spirits to partner with a contract manufacturing firm to produce the next batch of systems. (There is currently a lengthy waiting list for the reactors.)

THEA Reactors in assembly

THEA Reactors in assembly

The Lost Spirits business model includes a fee for the reactor and a royalty on each bottle produced. Bryan said he’d be happy capturing 25% of the global aged spirits market. (Doing some quick math, I asked him to keep me in mind when he assembled his entourage.)

A customized Lost Spirits iPad controls the THEA reactor

A customized Lost Spirits iPad controls the THEA reactor

So assuming all goes to plan, your non-age-statement booze may soon contain THEA-aged alcohol. Such a break with tradition may worry some folks, but based on my oraganoleptic evaluation of the early batches, you’ve got nothing to fear.

Time is looking more illusory already.


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