Experimental Elixirs

Experimental Elixers

Made in the USA

Invention drives progress. Every process or product that we now use has somewhere in the past been developed by a certain fool who was brave enough to do something out of the ordinary, an experiment. A process of trial and error, and although according to your own believes the experiment should work, 99% of the time it won’t. Believe me, as a researcher I have been there, many times. It is a game not only for the curious, but especially for the headstrong, the persistent, the relentless ones. And you will never know if you will be successful until you finally reach the breakthrough. Before that you will often be the laughing stock of many non-believers. But without those inventors, we would have never acquire the prosperity and wealth we experience today. Obviously, this also holds true for the golden elixir that we all love, whisky. The optimisation of the distillation process up to the level where we are today has been a process of centuries. As in other fields, inventions were often either born out of necessity (think of the choice for grain in northern countries for the distillation of alcohol due to scarcity of grapes) or opportunity (using the large surplus of empty sherry and port casks for maturation of whisky that started 200 years ago). Always remember that many of the currently applied and accepted methods and customs were considered as foolish, or even unacceptable, when they were first introduced. And please, do not mix up invention with innovation, a term regularly used by many brands to imply that what they are doing is new, which is most of the times not really the case.

A prime example of modern invention in the world of whisky takes place at the Lost Spirits distillery in California. The fact that Lost Spirits is located in the U.S.A. might not be very surprising, since the existence of over 1,000 micro-distilleries has pushed the boundaries of doing things your own way. The remarkable story of Lost Spirits’ founders Bryan Davis and Joanne Haruta is best told by Bryan himself (view his TEDx talk for that) or you could read one of these beautifully crafted stories from Wired Magazine or Cocktail Wonk and enter his jungle of tubes, control boards and reactors. It all started with one of the basic problems for the whisky industry: how to keep up with the ever-changing wishes and demands of consumers when you’re working with a product that needs at least 8-10 years of maturation in a warehouse? Indeed, that is impossible. So when do not have the luxury of time, there are either three options, (1) you use younger spirit and hide the actual age; (2) you build a time machine; or (3) you try to speed up the chemical reactions that occur during maturation. We all know that the first is the foremost choice, the second has not yet happened (at least not that we know), and the third is the subject of experimentation at Lost Spirits.

 

Cheating time isn’t our chief goal, the biggest thing we’re trying to do is gain artistic control.
Bryan Davis

Bryan Davis, co-founder of Lost Spirits, tells in this TEDx talk about his road to the development of the Thea One reactor.

For this reason, Lost Spirits developed the Thea One reactor that basically uses intense light of specific wavelengths to speed up chemical processes occurring on the interface between the young spirit and the added wood chips. They started by applying the Thea One reactor on self-distilled molasses-based rum, resulting in a range of awarded and applauded batches. Then they turned their attention to whisky, for which they imported 12-24 months-old heavily peated spirit from the home of peated whisky, the isle of Islay. Based on H.G. Wells’ book The Isle of Dr. Moreau, the project was named Abomination with the first two chapters being 1:The Crying of the Puma and 2:The Sayers of the Law, pointing at the ‘atrocious’ crossing of two different ‘beings’. For both chapters they have made use of oak wood chips that were ‘seasoned’ by Lost Spirits themselves using local Californian Riesling wine. The difference between both releases was that the oak chips were either toasted (chapter 1) or charred (chapter 2). I must say I am very curious to try this and see for myself if they have manage to come close to a conventionally matured Islay whisky. The signs of the star(s) (read Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible) are at least good with a score of 93-94 points.

For comparison to these two very experimental bottlings from Lost Spirits, I will have a slightly less experimental release from another American distillery, Smooth Ambler, which was founded in 2009 in the Appalachian Mountains in West-Virginia and acquired in 2016 by Pernod-Ricard. Upon waiting for the maturation of their own spirit, they started by releasing bourbon, ryes and wheat sourced from other distilleries, such as Midwest Grain Products (MGP) from Indian. We will taste one of their newer releases, which mixes 21% of their own 2-year-old distilled spirit together with 79% of 9-year-old spirit sourced from MGP. The more conventional way of bringing your own spirit early on the market.

Photo from The Whisky Exchange

Smooth Ambler Contradiction

Photo from Whiskybase

Abomination Ch. 1: Crying of the Puma

Photo from Whiskybase

Abomination Ch. 2: Sayers of the Law

Appearance

An elephant trying to balance itself on a whiskey barrel, that is how Smooth Ambler sees this Contradiction. An interesting choice, meaning, which one is the elephant, the older sourced part or their self-distilled younger one (or do I miss a mouse somewhere in the picture? Could also be the whole spirit, sure. Anyway, moving to the liquid, which looks suspiciously caramel brownish red. The people at Lost Spirits have used their inspiration mostly for coming up with, let’s call them, original names, while the labels of both Abomination Chapters, The Crying of the Puma and The Sayers of the Law, are fairly simple and remind me somehow of Coca Cola. The colour of both whiskies is seems slightly peculiar, a brownish colour with a rosé hue. Did they use wood from a red Riesling wine?

Nose

We kick-off with the Contradiction. The initial nosing reveals a soft and round smell with a slightly sharp edge. There are the typical bourbon notes of caramel and honey, both covered with pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon. The older bourbon just manages to handle the sharp young apprentice. The rounder notes of strong coffee, sweet cherries and peach are balanced by spices and a fresher fruitiness. I also find notes of sunflower oil. The complexity falls a bit behind after a while, but it is still ok.

Moving on to the first inventive product from the mad professor, with an even madder name: The Crying of the Puma. Oh yeah, we have some Islay peat over here, loads of it, with cigars, coal dust, bonfires, cigarettes. These are covered with a sauce of sweetness, which I cannot really pin down. Must be the Riesling-infused oak chips. The problem is that is feels very artificial and is lacking a sense of cohesion. The sharp smoke and wood-ish element keep dominating the nose. I think we should fast-forward to the second batch.

The Sayers of the Law, I hope the second experiment is a little bit more to my liking. There is also peat smoke, clearly, but I detect more fruits, in particular citrus fruits and apricots. The sweetness is much more coherent with the smoke, marshmallows melting in a smouldering bonfire. In addition, there is a vegetable and herbal side to this, I cannot directly find which ones, but it is a nice addition. Well, I think this one is much better, and I find it slightly different from your normal Scotch.

 

Taste

The Contradiction feels much sharper and younger on the palate. A combination of soft wheat and sharp, spicy and fresh fruity rye. That was probably to be expected, but what disappoints is that the development is rather short. It feels almost if the older and younger spirit cancel each other out. What remains is some nice hints of strawberry cake, cherries, peach covered with multiple spices. The aftertaste is hot, spicy followed by a soft fruity side.

Going to something completely on the other side of the spectrum. The ashes, coal, wood, graphite mixed with pencil shavings of The Crying of the Puma. The palate is lacking the sweetness of the nose and feels like a very, very young Islay spirit (peaty Bunnahabhain?), and this does not feel older than 3 years, I would say. Also some weird notes appear in between that I cannot really bring into words, but they are not very pleasant. What I really do miss here is some sort of fruitiness.

After a much more satisfying nose, I cannot wait to taste The Sayers of the Law. Peat and sweet, and not (too) much detectable wood influence. I find sugar, citrus fruits, melting together into citrus candies reminiscent of my youth. The wood influence feels indeed like a wine finish. The development goes interestingly enough into a grassy, sandy and slightly oily direction. There are also some apricot kernels, some pencil shavings and a bourbon-like grittiness. A much better experience, this second time-lapse.

 

Overall

If we consider these as experiments, I would conclude that these have been fairly successful, although further optimisation is certainly  necessary. The side of the young spirit in Smooth Ambler’s Contradiction shows promise, but we need to wait some years for its full potential. Although, we have seen some very fine examples of young bourbons and ryes (Rock Town, Sonoma, Gun Fighter). The releases from Lost Spirits were indeed more experimental. The reactor conditions for The Crying of the Puma were not really working for me, since spirit and wood-extracted flavours did not work together. On the contrary, The Sayers of the Law showed a nice cohesiveness that was exemplified by more complex notes that we sometimes can appreciate in peated Scotch. So I think we need a few more chapters to judge if this method can lead to fast-matured spirit that can compete with our beloved Scotch single malts. I wonder if we should compare them at all, or if this ultra-fast maturation just leads to a completely new type of whisky-like spirit. Lost Spirits’ founder Bryan Davis does indeed imply that in some of his interviews, although in others the comparison with older rums and whiskies seems to be primary goal. Anyway, I will certainly try to have some of the future experimental batches.

Big thanks to for sharing the samples!

Scores

these are my personal views, so do not take them too seriously… nothing beats tasting these for yourself •

Contradiction

Cask influence
50%
Peat/smoke
0%
Nose 80%
Taste 74%
Balance 75%
Depth 70%
Finish 70%
Score

Crying of the Puma

Wood chips influence
55%
Peat/smoke
85%
Nose 77%
Taste 55%
Balance 65%
Depth 70%
Finish 65%
Score

Sayers of the Law

Cask influence
55%
Peat/smoke
70%
Nose 83%
Taste 84%
Balance 85.5%
Depth 83%
Finish 82.5%
Score

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