Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Lost World of Lost Spirits Part 2

On Monday, I described my trip to the new Lost Spirits distillery/ride in LA where I learned about Bryan Davis's system for aging spirits. On paper, he can mimic the esters in aged spirits, but how do they actually taste?  I casually sampled some spirits at the distillery and while his 61% rum certainly didn't taste unaged, it still had some new make notes that you wouldn't taste in the old rums he's using as a model.

Davis sent me samples of his treated Isaly whiskeys, aptly named Abomination. These were made from underaged (approximately two year old) heavily peated Islay whiskeys and subjected to Davis's week-long treatment which included exposing it to treated American oak which had been seasoned with late harvest Riesling.

There are two bottlings of Abomination, an orange label, titled The Crying of the Puma, that was exposed to toasted oak and a black label, aka The Sayers of the Law, that used charred oak. At my request, Davis also sent me a sample of the untreated whiskey so I could compare. I'll start with my notes on that base whiskey and then review his two bottlings.

Lost Spirits Abomination Base Whiskey

The base spirit is completely colorless. The nose has a rich peat like any young peated malt would. The palate is actually pretty decent, sweet with some fruit notes (green grapes) and a big hit of peat. The finish has peat and fuel type notes.  This is a high quality whiskey with a lot of peat and a good balance. It's an Islay, so we know the likely distilleries.  This could be Laphroaig or even a Lagavulin. Alright, let's see what happened after a week in Bryan's "reactor."

Lost Spirits Abmoination, The Crying of the Puma (Orange Label), 54% abv ($50)

The Orange Label Abmoniation is the color of tea (color is relevant here since Davis doesn't use any coloring additives, so any color comes from the one week exposure to wood in his contraption). The nose is a bit less raw than the base spirit. It has a sort of savory note and then maple syrup. The palate opens with a nice coffee note along with the peat. It's got a weird brown sugar note, but otherwise tastes like a good peated malt. The finish is very nice with strong peat.

This is a good, peated whiskey. It still tastes like a young whiskey but not an underaged one; it doesn't have new make notes. Tasting blind I would probably guess it was five to seven years old.

Lost Spirits Abmoniation, the Sayers of the Law (Black Label), 54% abv ($50)

The Black Label was treated with charred oak. The color is similar to the Orange Label. It has a sort odd nose with peat and soy sauce. The palate is peaty and quite sweet, with an artificial sweetener type of a note. It also has a touch of that umami note from the nose and a slight soapiness. The finish is nicely peaty.  I don't like this one as much as the Orange Label. There is a syrupy sweetness that I don't prefer and that slight soapiness as well.

Overall, I'd say these are successful whiskeys. I really enjoyed the Orange Label and while I thought the Black was too sweet, it wasn't bad. They both tasted significantly older than the underaged base spirit.

So what does it all mean?  Has Bryan Davis conquered whiskey aging?  Well, it's hard to say. Whatever he did here, he certainly succeeded in making two whiskeys that look and taste older than the young spirit he started with. He certainly deserves credit for that and for producing good whiskeys.

The caveat here is that heavily peated malt is probably the most forgiving of all whiskeys. The heavy peat can mask a lot of flaws and off notes; that's why heavily peated malts are one of the few whiskeys that taste good when very young, and this base was a very good peated malt. Even the two year old spirit was palatable. That's not to take away from the quality of these whiskeys, but it does raise a question of whether Davis's mechanism would be replicable for other spirits that are less forgiving.

But despite the caveat, Davis not only has the most unique distillery tour around, he managed to make a very young whiskey taste significantly older - and also taste pretty good, and that's no small feat.


Anonymous said...

Too much good, honest booze made by non-shysters out there for me to give money to some flim-flam man. Here's to hoping that his b.s. project goes down in flames, like it deserves to. Drink the real stuff, folks.

Uncle vit said...

Does this aging technique work on toddlers. I have a 15 month year old who I'd like to put into pre-school but they won't admit anyone under 24 months.

My Annoying Opinions said...

So...would you say these tasted...young?

Anonymous said...

I can certainly say the Navy Rum he made was a huge disappointment. I'd also say if his enhanced aging techniques worked, more people would be doing them. They don't though. Similar to any under-aged over-priced craft spirit.

Eric said...

Mr. Davis' strong reaction to a term--an imprecise term, but one that is in common enough use to be generally understood--aside, I don't understand the strong negative reactions toward his efforts. Personally I appreciate his creativity and efforts to advance distilling and spirits aging techniques. Do I wish everyone did what he was doing? Absolutely not. I strongly prefer traditionally aged spirits to what he is doing, but if there is room for them in the market, I take no issue with his products.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Eric, I completely agree. While I doubt these whiskies would appeal to my tastes, I'd gladly give them a try. Why not try something new? I don't think the world knows everything there is to know about distilling (or anything else, for that matter).

BUT comply with the regulations (which provide some transparency for the consumer). Hell if you can make great whiskey in a short time, be proud of it! Davis seems to have no problem talking about his methods. Why not lay it all out on the label? That's the problem I have with what he is doing.

As to pricing, I think it's crazy to charge anything close to what aged whiskey goes for. But pricing is up to the individual maker/distributor. If they can get a particular price for an unaged/underaged product, then fine. I'm not likely to pay it (unless overwhelmed by the quality) but some will.

Eric said...

Brian, you make a good point about following TTB guidelines. That's certainly something that should be done to the best of any producer's ability.

We sampled an earlier batch of Leviathan at a tasting for a group I belong to. It was certainly interesting. I'd buy a bottle to share at tastings for dedicated peat fans, but it's not something I'd buy a bottle of to drink. That's not really a criticism so much as a characterization. There are plenty of single malts I can say the same thing about, or movies, or books, or just about anything else. Interesting and reaction-provoking for fans of the genre, good in its own right, not necessarily a regular or even irregular thing I need to revisit. Still, it put a smile on everyone's face at the tasting, and that counts for plenty.

Guru Whiskey said...

Bryan's labels are totally compliant to ttb regulations. The term whisky is never used on the label and it's classified as a distilled spirits specialty. It's malt spirit flavored with wine seasoned oak and that's exactly what it says on the label.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Guru, good catch. So, Bryan starts with whiskey/whisky and, then turns it into something other than whiskey. So, this "not whiskey", is not required to meet whiskey TTB labeling regs.

Now that's some fancy dancing.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

And I believe all that "dancing" is so Davis doesn't have to reveal the age of his "not whiskey".

sku said...

Brian, it could also be to avoid issues with the SWA since the spirit is from Scotland and, in Scotland, you can't call something whiskey (or whisky) unless it's at least three years old.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Good point, SKU. And one I hadn't thought of.

Michael T said...

I've tried both of these whiskies after reading another blogger's review. Here are some clarifications to these comments from info I've found, and a couple of my own tasting comments and questions to throw into the mix:

1. As Guru points out, this stuff follows regulations and industry guidelines. The label is transparent about its ingredients and whether it uses additives: "No coloring or flavoring additives. Non chill-filtered". The only thing the label doesn't mention is that it's "reactor aged," but there's probably some industry flack about the term. The company is obviously eager to communicate that information as a selling-point, and the small label references their website in big bold letters (which provides that info).

2. As for pricing (@Brian AKA The Dean), what makes some 8-10 year whiskey sell for $30, and some 4 year whiskey go for $85? Is there a 1:1 connection that I'm missing here? Maybe uniqueness of the smell/taste experience has something to do with it, for instance. After tasting both versions, I can honestly say there's nothing like them on the market AND they taste good (that is, if you like intense peat and are curious about weird dialed-up versions of some flavors and dialed-down versions of others).

3. Lost Spirits doesn't "start with whiskey/whisky and then turn it into something different." For this product, they start with 12-18 month spirits (it's not legally whisky yet in its native land). The "heavily peated malt" labeling is totally consistent and up front.

4. Tasting comments. I have tried the Abominations and I am unable to come up with a year range that's analogous to other aged spirits. The big toffee, dark fruit, and vanilla notes in the orange label and the chocolate/coffee/rum-like variation of the black label remind me of VERY old warm-weather aged spirits, but the crazy peat smoke comes straight from the VERY young Islay spirit. Furthermore, I get no new-make rawness, and no astringent yeasty, lemon, or minty notes that I associate with immature whiskies (or bourbony cherry notes or lemon, which I didn't even realize most scotches have -- even old ones -- until they were missing from the Abominations). Basically, I have no idea where Sku is getting his age range. What other 5-7 year whiskies are at all similar to this one?

I'm not sure the theme should be whether Bryan Davis has conquered whiskey aging. To me, it seems like he just came up with a new category of spirit.

5. I totally agree with Sku's concern about whether reactor aging "would be replicable for other spirits that are less forgiving." I think Bryan Davis himself even said somewhere that bad spirits going in will not magically become good spirits coming out. The new make has to be good.

6. To add to Sku's concern, I wonder whether reactor aging can preserve things like lemon and ripe cherry flavors. I also wonder whether the process can be changed to mimic colder climates like Scotland or wider climate variations. That would be neat: a new line called "Monstrosity" based on different climate protocols.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Michael, I just noticed your question. I'm no expert on pricing. But I do understand the costs involved in aging are "legitimate", in that they aren't driven by branding, marketing, star power, backstory, etc. I'd add distiller expertise and experience, in what I consider "legitimate costs".

I'm as unlikely to pay $85 for a 4-year old bourbon as I am to pay $50 for unaged (or underaged) hooch. Even though I like some younger (4-6 year old) whiskies, I see no reason to overpay for them. And as I'm typically not that fond of really old bourbon (15+ years) I don't spend the insane amount of money some do to chase these "desirable" products.

I tend to live in the world of reliable whiskey that delivers value for my hard-earned money. Oh, I'm curious to know what is going on, so I keep up. And, on occasion, I will taste the "new, hot" item. Sometimes I even like them---and very occasionally, even buy a bottle of one.

So no, I don't believe there is a precise 1:1 connection between age and price. The price should be reflective of costs to the producer, and in my world, I like my money to be spent on a reasonable price to hard-cost ratio.