Lost Spirits and Whiskey Polemics

Lost Spirits, a small distillery based in California, recently made their first “reactor aged” whiskeys available for retail after sitting on a new aging technology for nearly two years. (Actually, they’ve been up to quite a bit, just not widely available whiskey.) Bryan Davis, the distiller and inventor of the rapid aging tech, seems to make many people uncomfortable, but not because he will upend his industry with six-day Pappy Van Winkle. At least, that shouldn’t be the reason. Davis has indicated that reproducing the experience of great old whiskey for a fraction of the price is not the goal with his new “Abomination” series of whiskies. Instead, skeptics of his take on rapid aging must either admit they’ve never before encountered anything quite like what Davis is offering, or else let the cracks show in their purported neutrality.

I love criticism: art, books, music, food, wine. It tests prior convictions, looks for compelling new interpretations, and is utterly serious about pleasure. But so far I keep coming down on the side of Bryan Davis against his critics, and I want to figure out why. It’s not as simple as liking or disliking his products and wanting others to agree.

So how is Lost Spirits actually shaking things up? I’ll take a close look at one critical reaction to get at the most common misunderstanding of their project, at least with the Abomination series. Then I’ll turn back to the whiskey.

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Instant whiskey-maker meets dastardly villainy! Zounds!

My cartoonish bad guy today is The Whiskey Wash, an otherwise standard, respectable source of news, podcasts, reviews, and the occasional fluff piece. They also consistently express skepticism about rapid aging. Their ostensible and well-grounded reason for their viewpoint is the fact that rapid aging usually doesn’t accomplish its goal of approximating actual aged product. The typical technique of maximizing wood contact just can’t get the job done. Now Bryan Davis has a much more complex approach to the problem, and I’ve already slipped in links to resources that give a sense of what he does. (The short version is that he breaks down oak aging into multiple stages, only one of which involves wood-ethanol contact; a longer version would point out that his technology is an ongoing project in flux, rather than a finalized outcome.) Furthermore, as we’ll see, The Whiskey Wash’s criticism too easily gets conflated with unsubstantiated appeals to authenticity.

In any case, it is true enough that wood flavor does not equal aged flavor. There are countless complicating factors. For instance, many of the unpleasant chemicals in young spirits need to change into pleasant ones; wood polymers need to break down and combine with other chemicals in order to produce more than just “woodiness”; some simpler esters need to combine into long-chained ones, some oxidization should happen (but just a bit). The delicate balance of all these things slips and slides depending on subtle genetic and environmental factors such as the shapes of the stills that produce the spirit, the speed and temperatures used in distillation, which parts of the distillate are kept (the cut), and the climate in which it ages. Apparently one of the reasons moderately aged rum tastes the way it does is the near constant warmth of its aging environment. Indeed, scotches aged for especially long periods in their native land often start to take on subtle rum-like characteristics (especially in bourbon casks). From what I’ve read, Lost Spirits continues to experiment with these post-distillation factors. They by no means equate wood with age.

The drama that I’ve hinted at is plainly evident in Whiskey Wash’s lukewarm review of the two Abomination whiskeys. Here’s a little background about those whiskeys. Both versions are made from one-year aged heavily peated malted barley spirits from Islay (maybe Laphroaig or Ardbeg, who knows). It’s not old enough to be legally called whisky in its native land. Davis puts this toddler liquid into his reactor for about a week, along with unused (virgin) oak staves that have been seasoned with sweet Riesling. The only thing to differentiate the two versions of Abomination is their oak treatment after the Riesling dip: red label for toasted, and black label for a darker char. Davis has subtitled the products after chapter titles from The Island of Dr. Moreau: The Crying of the Puma (toasted), and The Sayers of the Law (charred). Yes, everyone who has published tasting notes on these whiskeys so far can tell the difference, including Whiskey Wash. That’s clever marketing, certainly reason enough to buy both versions if you’re buying either one. Marketing is a nasty word if you want it to be, of course. It sounds like profit margins, or cost cutting, or sleek, or fake.

Longstanding skeptics of Lost Spirits’s technology are usually just honest enough about how their biases influence their reviews. They mostly appear as trolls in comments sections of reviews or on forums like Reddit. But Kirk at Whiskey Wash belies this attitude, giving strong evidence of his own very positive experience while simultaneously dismissing it. For instance, in his thoughts on the black label version (Sayers of the Law) he goes through scents of umami, bone broth, beeswax, BBQ, and what he describes as a good integration between the peat and savory notes. He adds, “Wow, those Riesling oak staves are working their magick,” and then characterizes the overall experience of the whiskey as “smoky, creamy, yummy,” and “delicious.” His comments are also positive about the toasted oak version (Crying of the Puma).

But then he gives both Abominations a mediocre score, guessing that “neither of the Abominations tasted older than five years.” With regard to the Lost Spirits technology, he admits to being a “Doubting Thomas,” and uses the term “artificially matured” as a term of contempt that somehow proves itself. He forgets that barrel aging is artificial, and that long ago it would be surprising to try scotch without some honey and herbs. (Kirk’s sneer is also weird in its own context: Kirk is the reviewer only because Nino Marchetti on the same site declared that someone other than himself would have to review the whiskies in a “spirit of fairness,” because he would be too prejudiced.) Kirk tosses in an ethical appeal, too, assuring readers that he really knows his old booze: “I have more than enough experience, and the ‘chops,’ to tell the difference.”

One interesting sign that Kirk’s review is not on the up and up is that very little of his description matches anyone’s ideas about young scotch. Umami? Raisins? Vanilla bean? Where’s the yeastiness, the feints, the tree bark (a sure sign of botched “rapid aging”), the pineyness, the paint thinner astringency? But then his negative comments are vague, as if written before he recorded any specific experiences. Two examples:

1. “The taste is pleasant but somewhat bland.” This one, maybe supported by the honeydew melon note, surely contradicts 99.9% of human responses to any heavily peated Islay product, let alone some of the weirdest Islay spirit ever bottled and sold. I think moments like this indicate where empirical sources of data might come in handy against lazy review writing. But then again it might be like trying to prove global warming to a skeptic.

2. Whisky Kirk’s overall impression of the black label’s nose – the bone broth / umami / BBQ one – is “sharp, young, tangy, and bracing…not over, perhaps, four years of age (tops).” Really? So is it sharp – or bland? Young – or bone broth umami? Another recent review finds nothing youthful about it, save for one surprising element (the phenolic element of peat), and still another one goes pretty hard in the aged direction with its notes – and then subverts the whole category of age with phrases like “hedonistic pungency.” In any case, even if the Abominations do not remind Whisky Kirk of older whiskies, surely he would agree that Bryan Davis’s malformed creatures have nothing in common with the youthful visages of Monkey Shoulder, Grant’s, Deanston Virgin Oak, Speyburn Bradan Orach, Black Bottle, Bowmore small batch, or the Great King Street pair. If anything, both Abominations are missing that little extra tangy sharpness, the lemon and apple notes, which older scotches – even them! – usually retain to some degree.

So what is The Whiskey Wash getting at? What drives Kirk to his position and on what basis does he rationalize it?

He is very helpful on this point. He writes:

Using rapid aging technology to make a very young whiskey taste a little less young might appeal to high volume distillers who want to cut corners, and increase their profit margins. However, I’m not completely sold on the idea…I would certainly be interested in tasting an artificially matured new make that is supposed to approximate the profile of a 20 year old single malt whisky. The proof would be in the bottle, so to speak.

In other words, he thinks the purpose of the Abomination range is to reproduce the taste of familiar but expensive 20-30 year scotch, and line the pockets of corner-cutting profiteers. (By the way, note his implicit deference to long-aged scotch, the real Authentic stuff you drink after funerals and big sales deals, despite the idealistic declaration of most modern reviewers that age does not necessarily denote quality.)

Kirk might have paid attention to a few clues before reaching this conclusion:

  • Little about the specific smell/taste profile of the recent Lost Spirits whiskies points to 4 or 5 year scotch, including in Kirk’s own review (as I’ve noted). I suppose this is the most debatable point, but at the very least most people would agree that it is not reminiscent of young scotches except for the intense peat. Kirk’s only excuse here is that he is so well-practiced at sipping old scotch that he doesn’t remember what young stuff tastes like.
  • The first two entries in the Abomination line only use virgin American oak (seasoned before toasting/charring). What old scotch entirely aged in charred seasoned virgin oak has Kirk ever tried? The nearest example I can think of is Glenmorangie Milsean, which was briefly finished (not fully matured, let alone for decades) in re-toasted wine casks.
  • The oak is seasoned with Riesling. But Riesling doesn’t go in oak. You just don’t usually find such a thing in the wild, “naturally.” This should be a pretty telling clue about what Bryan Davis is up to.
  • The Lost Spirits aging reactor has been tuned and mainly used so far for warm climate type aging associated with rum (or maybe the American South, but that’s speculation). Indeed, recent reviews (including Scotch Noob’s positive take) sound like they’re describing something approaching a rum-like experience.
  • Bryan Davis has chosen the most phenolic peat monster he can find as a base spirit for a 6-day process designed to retain and produce certain esters and phenols.

Now imagine this scenario. You’re an Islay whisky producer in 1997. You get drunk one day and swish around some dessert Riesling in virgin white American oak casks. Then, feeling inspired, you toast half of those casks and char the other half. In a final fit of self-destructive madness you throw a bunch of peaty 12 month malt spirits into it and ship it off to Florida, Venezuela, or Indonesia to rest for a couple decades. But even this scenario fails to capture what happens in the Abomination line. Phenolic content in the “natural,” “authentic” world of extended oak aging noticeably diminishes over time, meaning that old Laphroaig won’t taste nearly as peaty as young Laphroaig. But the two Abominations are extremely peaty. It’s as if just one of the aspects of youthful Islay whisky were preserved at the expense of most others.

I’ve tipped my hand about my own experience already. To me, this is not like any 4 or 5 year scotch in the world. Nor is it like 10 or 60 year Laphroaig. I see the Abomination line by Lost Spirits in the following way: (1) It’s as if single malt in re-toasted and charred dessert wine casks got extensively aged in warmer weather (toffee, loads of vanilla, dried fruit, banana, coffee, and chocolate). (2) But then a bizarre ritual has thoroughly married the whiskey with time-travelling peat. Davis has found the perfect metaphor for his creation in The Island of Dr. Moreau. This is not the product of a corner-cutting volume distiller, but something totally new and only possible with a new technological medium. Any “fault” that I might find would be in the fact that the dried fruit smothered in vanilla chocolate smoke mutes any additional citrus or herbal aspects that might lend a bit more complexity and, for better or worse, make it more familiar to skeptics.

That’s pretty much my view. I should add that The Whisky Wash is not alone in their perspective. A much more open-minded review by a fellow named Sku still fails in the same basic way. Sku does a fascinating comparison with the “young make” Islay whisky, but decides the right issue for him to focus on is age. Does it taste older? Yes. And again, Sku picks an arbitrary range of ages, despite the fact that both Abominations have nothing in common with any 5-7 year scotches.

I’ll take a chance and urge people to try four things with the Abomination line. One, smell other highly peated scotches after doing so with these. Do you get any peat smoke? To me, if you blast enough peat in your nose (can’t help it with the Abominations), it seems to disappear, like the famous background music of the spheres. Two, add some of this whiskey to a low-peat blend or young unpeated single malt. How much makes a difference? Peated scotch is often efficient, but I think the Abominations are even more surprising, because their other flavors shine through as well. It’s not “old tasting” (whatever that can possibly mean here), but concentrated like an extract. Third, when comparing them, I would think about integration. I’m not sure exactly what it means for something to taste integrated in general, but with these two whiskeys, the red label is only more “integrated” in that it’s slightly more familiar, the source distillate more conspicuous. The black label for me is, if anything, more integrated as a unified experience – but also weirder, occupying an uncanny valley between rum and scotch. Finally, compare these with a wide range of whatever whiskies you have on hand. I never knew it before, but the lemon and ginger-type smells of scotches and the acetone-almond-cherry type smells of bourbons are mostly just missing here. I didn’t even know these big gaps were possible before and wouldn’t know how to incorporate them into criticism.

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