In Real Life
A photo from inside the Lost Spirits distillery, featuring hanging Asian-inspired lanterns and a dim background. The photo is entitled "Opium Den" and is by Dario Griffin

How An Evil Artificial Intelligence And A Team Of Nerds Make Impossible Booze In LA’s Spookiest Distillery

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  • In 2014, Bryan Davis was running a small, but well known, cult distillery in Northern California. Davis, was trying to crack the code of how to age liquor without some of the fundamental requirements of that process – namely – time. The distillery he had opened for under $75,000 (which is not enough to open a distillery unless you are making some serious DIY short-cuts) only had 80 barrels or so of aging stock in the warehouse. Overwhelmed by the cost of trying to lay down an additional several hundred barrels, Davis decided to attempt to control the chemistry that happens inside the barrel to make spirits age – and bypass the barreling process entirely.

    That’s when Davis cracked the code with a breakthrough brought on by a frustration with an old wooden deck.

    It could take twenty years to age a fine liquor appropriately, but Davis’ old deck would break down in the sun in a matter of a few short years. What if there was a way to harness the power of the sun, not unlike Superman, to make a Superbooze?

    The team at Lost Spirits tried an experiment. The results were so shocking that they actually shut down their distillery and disappeared to a laboratory in Silicon Valley for a few years.

    Why? Because through realizing that the chemical signature of fine alcohol could be recreated thanks to their (now-patented) process, they can replicate 15-20 years of aging in a week. Yeah. That.

    Two green leather bound books between silverr antlered book ends that reads "Chemistry as Applied to Arts and Manufactuers". This photo, though now cropped, was originally taken by Juliet Frew

    In the last couple years, Lost Spirits has been winning award after award with their rums and whiskeys that are cheating the laws of nature and the tastebuds of aficionados worldwide. Their whiskey that is aged only a fraction of the time that a whiskey should be aged to meet the standards of any good Scotsman is, appropriately, titled Abomination.

    Now, joined by a larger team including Dr. Sanders and Davis’ newest distiller apprentice Théron these mad scientists have relocated their base of operations to an “underground” laboratory just off Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. They have a gigantic facility now, but thanks to their evil machinations, they only require about 15% of the space a distillery should occupy.

    So what do you do with all the leftover room? Why, create an incredibly high-end Willy Wonka journey, led by a rogue Artificial Intelligence. Duh.

    Bryan Davis and his partner Joanne Haruta started Lost Spirits in 2010 with the intention of going full Jurassic Park on liquors from history; i.e. using science to bring back flavors and taste combinations once thought lost to time. Now, the five person team shuts down their distilling operation every weekend to allow incredibly limited numbers of visitors to tour their rum-based scientific rumspringa, while they explain everything in meticulous and hilarious detail.

    Having been open only six months, not many people are aware of this top-notch Disney Imagineer-level adventure hidden behind an unassuming gate in one of the more dangerous neighborhoods in LA. Fewer have probably encountered their liquors, which are mostly produced in incredibly small batches and sometimes resold on the auction circuit. It’s a bizarre thing to try to sell people on because distillery tours are notoriously boring affairs and haunted houses notoriously don’t serve molecularly manipulated high-end mind-erasers. But Lost Spirits exists in the slim crossover of that Venn-diagram and you should arrange to make pilgrimage immediately.

    Don’t you love a distillery with a deep fictional lore? Well, there’s a reason for it.

    As apprentice distiller / tour guide Théron Regnier pulls us through the darkness into the first stop of the tour, we are surrounded by a jungle soundscape and low-light Tiki scenario continuing into an unending blackness. “Terroir,” he reminds us, “is the idea of a spirits aroma and flavor being unique to the geography of where it is made. But what if all of your ingredients have been combined from a fictional pallete to create a fictional place?” Fittingly, while creating their award winning rum, the team watched all of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and made a note of every sense-memory element they encountered. Their rum is a mix of the aroma of gunpowder smoke and molasses and the American Revolutionary War and a dash oh Johnny Depp. They’ve created one of few beverages that remind us of a place we’ve never been, but the many intricacies of our brain doesn’t know to separate fact from fiction when it comes to pleasure.

    A bunch of small glasses on a dim lit bar. The shot is called Calypso's Room, by Dario Griffin

    And this is the pure joy of what makes Lost Spirits what Lost Spirits is: a bunch of geeks are living out their movie fandoms in a darkened amusement park but also on the tip of our tongues.

    Did I mention the (almost) Artificial Intelligence that runs the facility? That’s a real thing.

    TESSA, a hacked South African version of Siri, really does run the distillery. She addresses you throughout the tour, and weirdly knew who I was when I returned to the restroom mid-tour. She monitors all of the vats and processes around the building and sends GlaDos style messages to the members of the team when human interaction is required. “Our parts in this are being phased out in the near future,” Ragnier promises/warns us. “We’re getting drones. That’s all I’ve ever wanted, is to be able to write-off the purchase of drones.”

    While TESSA promises that no one has been killed on the tour (recently) and lives in a treasure chest hidden along the tour, it is a goddamned delight to see that this isn’t just a couple of gamers co-opting their favorite part of Portal. TESSA runs this operation and the beautiful world they’ve created for her to manage (built mostly from cheap materials acquired from Home Depot) leads to robot symphonies of deranged bird calls in the gift shop but also to the management of a competitive bio-environment embedded into the ground the tour walks upon to decontaminate anything we might track in from 6th Street in DTLA. It is a flawless blend of the sort of science that made you stop wanting to be a scientist circa high school and the sort of science that made you want to be a scientist when you saw Ghostbusters for the first time. It is borderline upsetting. Why didn’t I do this with my life?

    Again, this tour takes place on weekends, so a boat tour down a river (whose waters actually cool parts of the distillation) and the introduction of various spirit boxes and TESSA run experiments is complimented by the exceptionally small team who has dedicated their lives to making Lost Spirits run. So when you hit the laboratory, which is the only part of the tour where you cannot take photos, you are sitting in an actual lab designed to look like a fictional lab and run by a team of mad scientists who are deconstructing how the entire beverage industry will run.

    Dr. Sanders greeted us in the lab pointing out that the space is lit entirely in teal bulbs, just like Jurassic Park or Splice. “I think the reason everything went horribly in those movies,” he says, “is the poor lighting.” While it is a fine tonal choice, it is impractical to work by. That’s why they had a series of elaborate chandeliers installed down the length of the workspace.

    These are the kind of jokes that if you appreciate, get thee to a distillery.

    Despite making science out of pseudoscientific pop culture, the team at Lost Spirits believes fully in their goal of not only recapturing the lost flavors but perfecting things that have never existed. If it reminds you of Hammond in Jurassic Park eating all the ice-cream based on extinct plants before it melts, you aren’t alone. While researching a specific kind of rum from two centuries ago, the team discovered that many spirits were aged in Chestnut barrels, but the American Chestnut tree went extinct. So now the team is salvaging Chestnut furniture from pre-1900 to attempt to create flavor palettes based on this unique tree. The have one nightstand they are currently using as a source, hence the project being dubbed “One Night Stand.”

    I can hear you groaning but I don’t care because I’ve been drinking. This is what people like us do. In the name of science.

    It sounds very jokey, but the team is also building this booze-out-of-time with the goal of selling it to help bring back the extinct tree. Not only is this a noble goal, but the idea of using rich boozehounds to undo man’s environmental destruction is the kind of thing that can make you tear up if you think about it too long.

    While there are numerous surprises to encounter along this tour that needn’t be spoiled for you (including a first edition of The Island of Dr. Moreau that is Very Narratively Important To The Booze) there’s a gigantic takeaway from this team’s breakthrough in terms of what it means for the future of beverage experimentation.

    As Dr. Sanders explains: “If you were a distiller anywhere else, and you wanted to experiment with something, you’d have to make 100 barrels of it and it would sit around for twenty years. Probably your son or daughter would be the distiller by the time this batch came to fruition. He or she might open it and say this is terrible and throw it away. We can do a dozen experiments that used to play out over that sort of timeframe… in a Tuesday.“ We can do twenty things at a time and if none of them work, we’ll do twenty more.” Which allows them to attempt to craft decade specific British Navy rums and to even make labels for liquors they haven’t even developed yet, just because they know God doesn’t seems to want to stop them.

    This is the power of a handful of nerds with just enough movie and video game fanaticism and no one to tell them no. This is the future of drinking, and holy shit is it entertaining.

     

    Tours in LA can be booked for Sundays through this link. Only visitors from other states can buy bottles after the tour. (This part is on an honor system.)

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