From the outside, 1235 East 6th Street in downtown Los Angeles looks like a fairly generic industrial building, sitting across from a giant produce warehouse and around the corner from Skid Row. Inside, however, lies what might be the most innovative distillery in the world—a cross between Disneyland, Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and a biochemistry lab.
The Lost Spirits distillery tour is unlike any other I’ve ever been on. It starts in a waiting room with animatronic topiary dinosaurs and continues on a Jungle Cruise-style boat ride down a dark hallway to a fermentation and distillation room featuring a pair of handmade copper stills decorated to look like fire-breathing dragons. Later on, you’ll hop back on the boat and arrive at the whiskey tasting room, a tent full of 19th-century-British-explorer bric-a-brac like a pith helmet, fossilized dinosaur teeth and a first-edition copy of The Island of Doctor Moreau. Finally, the sound of approaching “headhunters” chases you into the gift shop, where a set of Enchanted Tiki Room-esque animatronic birds hawk T-shirts and bottles to take home.
“We want this to be the boozy equivalent of the Winchester Mystery House,” says Lost Spirits founder Bryan Davis. “We just intend to keep making it cooler and cooler and cooler, always building something new.” Lost Spirits will be launching a brandy called Carousel soon, and Davis is hard at work building a new section of the tour—an underwater-Alice in Wonderland-themed floating carousel equipped with sails that will catch air from fans installed in the ceiling to make it rotate. (Yes, there will be a Cheshire Catfish.)
But the crazy thing about Lost Spirits is that this tour isn’t even the main reason people in the booze world are paying attention.
Instead, the main attraction is a process Davis patented that purports to create the same flavors as about 20 years of barrel-aging in just six days. Plenty of other people have claimed to accelerate aging before, but besides its patent, Lost Spirits boasts forensic chemical analysis to back up its process, and a rating in the top 5 percent of all whiskies in the 2018 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, not to mention the fact that the company is already licensing its technology to other brands. (Citing non-disclosure agreements, Davis won’t provide any further specifics.)
A native of Northern California, Davis hasn’t always worked in booze—or amusement parks, for that matter—but they’ve been ever-present in his career. He studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and was an art teacher in and artist-in-residence for the city of Sonoma. He once suggested building a statue of Bacchus, the Roman god of drunkenness, getting a DUI in front of the wine-country town’s courthouse. After that, he worked for a contractor that did amusement park design, including a pirate-themed park in Japan and the massive grizzly bear habitat at the San Francisco Zoo.
At the time, Davis was also making his own absinthe in his garage. (“I’d take it to Burning Man and trade it for rides on art cars,” he says.) Davis’ partner, Joanne Haruta, got into a bad car accident that triggered a bit of an existential crisis and a desire to start a business of their own, and, as Davis puts it, “we moved to Europe with possibly the worst business model possible and opened an absinthe distillery in Spain in 2006.” It was lucky timing: Absinthe was re-legalized in the US in 2007, and Davis and Haruta’s Obsello brand ended up the fourth-biggest absinthe brand on the American market in the explosion that followed.
“And then the absinthe market decided it wasn’t gonna be a thing anymore,” Davis says. He and Haruta sold the business and came back to the States in late 2009. He took a job managing the Angostura Rum brand, but its Trinidadian parent company had a financial crisis and fell apart, so he and Haruta moved to a property her parents owned in Castroville, California, and built a distillery—by themselves. “I bought a boiler on Craigslist and learned to repair and fix it, then built a steam system,” Davis says. “I’d just go on YouTube and systematically learn all the parts of building the distillery. If you don’t know how to do it yourself, you’re at the mercy of professionals. And professionals suck.”
That first iteration of Lost Spirits made tiny batches of unusual whiskies for a small but dedicated crowd of booze geeks. Davis and Haruta were just getting by, surviving on $1,000 or so a month, when Davis made the two realizations that would turn the niche distillery into a biotech company.
Chemically, barrel-aging spirits takes a long time for two main reasons: First, the sugars in the barrel’s wood that contribute caramel and toffee notes are locked up in polymers, long chains of molecules that must slowly and gradually break apart before they can dissolve into whatever liquid fills the barrel. And second, alcohol and acids in wood react very, very slowly to form esters, which offer fruity and spicy flavors. Looking at a sun-faded deck gave Davis the idea to try using light to break apart those wood polymers. And then a separate set of experiments showed that he could use heat to trigger quicker esterification. Put both processes together in what Davis calls a “reactor,” and you’ve got a recipe for quick-aged booze.
Davis published his research and got some funding to open a larger-scale distillery using the reactor in Los Angeles. “We had to create software to automate the reactor, so we automated everything,” he says. (The computer system that runs the distillery is named TESSA. She narrates the tour and is listed as master distiller on the rums.) And that was the inspiration for the tour. “We started as a small cult distillery, then stumbled on the tech, and then it became an amusement park.”
Lost Spirits’ new Los Angeles distillery opened in January 2017, and today it’s using Davis’ reactor on a pair of rums that are fermented and distilled in-house, as well as two malt whiskies made from spirit distilled in Scotland. (Cheekily, the whiskies are called Abomination.) The distillery is also seeing more than 200 visitors a month, with tour reservations sold out for weeks in advance.
So do Lost Spirits’ products make good on those 20-years-in-six-days claims? “They’re good. They’re much, much better than other accelerated aging products—next-level good, not just incrementally,” says Lew Bryson, who served for two decades as managing editor at Whisky Advocate, published Tasting Whiskey in 2014 and currently covers spirits for The Daily Beast. “But 20 years? No.” Bryson’s tasted Lost Spirits’ Cuban Inspired Rum and both of the Abomination malt whiskies—and liked all three—but says “they all suffered to some degree from the same kind of one-dimensional shoutiness.” That said, Bryson sees potential. “It seems likely that at least one of the big drinks companies is at least taking this for a test spin, and they’ll be reverse-engineering it if they think it has promise.”
For now, Davis has plenty more ideas in the works, both technical and amusement-park-ride-related. He’s working on recreating a 19th-century style of rum that was aged in American chestnut wood—except that species of tree was almost completely wiped out by disease in the early 1900s, so he’s cutting up an antique chestnut nightstand from the 1850s instead to get wood samples. He has plans for a botanical garden growing obscure fruits from the Amazon, for eventual distillation into brandy. He’s experimenting with fermenting rum in seawater, and also feeding various ingredients to the bacteria that ferment orchid seedpods into what we call vanilla beans, just to see what happens. But Davis emphasizes that he figured this all out himself, through a combination of “obsessive Googling” and learning from experts: “This whole place is mostly built from stuff you can buy at Home Depot,” he says.