Take a moment and picture the Willy Wonka factory smashed together with Harry Potter World. Then, layer a working rum and whiskey distillery on top and throw it in the middle of Los Angeles. In a nutshell, that’s the Lost Spirits Distillery.
The experience of touring the facility is one-of-a-kind, if you’re into German robot birds and moats in the middle of buildings. If you are, we’re looking for another member to join our Dungeons and Dragons team.
But it’s not all sound and noise signifying nothing. The scrappy innovators behind the Lost Distillery also figured out how to create a 20-year old rum in six days.
What is the Lost Spirits Distillery?
The Lost Spirits Distillery was founded in 2010 by Bryan Davis and his longtime partner Joanne Haruta. The pair had been previously living in Spain distilling Port of Barcelona gin, Obsello absinthe, and, presumably, hallucinating green fairies.
After five years in Spain, they returned home to California, where they built a new distillery with just $80,000 and an acre of land. I know that doesn’t exactly paint the picture of “broke,” (I miss appetizers), but Davis says to create a distillery from the ground-up on just $80,000 was “a small miracle.”
“I went to work figuring out how to make our own equipment. The steam boilers were made of old, broken down ones we found on Craigslist for $500 and then repaired from the service manuals.” The only things on Craigslist I’ve ever found are bed bugs and dudes trying to pay me to shave their neck hair.
Davis continues. “We built the fermenters from sheet copper and old oak tanks found in Napa. We built the stills from sheet copper with a hammer and a torch.” Oh, and one of the steam vents just happened to end up shaped like a dragon’s head.
They soon set to work on figuring out how to age spirits faster — much faster — than nature intended. Because patience might be a virtue, but I don’t even wait for the microwave timer to beep before I open the door. So waiting twenty years to see if an idea pans out? No thanks.
“I was trying to figure out how to approximate mature spirits so that I would know if a given yeast strain was going to work well with a given still design and barrel type. It got really interesting about five years into it when we started getting very close approximations, and began to wonder why we were then using a barrel at all.”
“In October of 2014, when we got the first real match to a conventional product, we realized this was actually a big deal.” When I’m bored, I’m absolutely fidgeting with my lab equipment and not at all repeatedly Venmo requesting $300 from my ex.
Eventually, their efforts led to venture capitalist investment, the patenting of their proprietary reactor, and a move to Los Angeles.
What Does Lost Spirits Distillery Make?
That Colonial American-Inspired Rum put them on the map, but they’ve expanded their line since (also they only made 25 cases of that one, so good luck finding a bottle). It now includes a Navy Style Rum, and a new Cuban-Inspired 151.
On the whiskey end, they’ve created an “abomination range,” each named for a chapter from The Island of Dr. Moreau, because nerds grow up to be successful, Ashley.
Each is made from a heavily peated base spirit from Scotland. “Once the spirit arrives in California, we meld the traditional Islay juice with the profane 21st century sciences which Lost Spirits is famous for. The result is a spirit so good it will make connoisseurs question their very definitions of right and wrong.” We question our definitions every day we make the choice to put on pants.
What’s a Tour of the Distillery Like?
Their distillery is basically It’s A Small World if it smelled like fermented rye. (No children were harmed in the making of this comparison).
During the tour, you’ll taste each of their spirits in a themed tasting room. First, is their Navy-Style Rum, a Jamaican rum inspired by the night Davis was watching Pirates of the Caribbean and thought it would “be cool to reach out and actually taste the rum they’re drinking.” So, naturally, on the tour, there’s a room to match. Cue Johnny Depp punching me from behind a barrel, in “self-defense,” of course.
You’ll then climb aboard a “ship” floating on 5,000 gallons of water (it’s used to cool the still), and transported to the next themed tasting room and a high-tech laboratory where the spirits are “aged” with the help of reactors that break down the polymers in the wood using light three times hotter than the sun at the equator.
All the while, you’re guided by the voice of TESSA, the Siri-style computer system Davis and his team personally programmed to narrate at you while you pretend to know what “esterification” is.
Everything you see and sit on at Lost Spirits is hand-crafted by the in-house team of academics-turned-Home Depot pros – from the theme rooms and working stills to the intricate wooden bookcases that hold the samples.
Everything you taste is chemically constructed by Davis, who has a degree in sculpture but managed to become an expert chemist through a few Google searches. Davis explains he wasn’t originally that into chemistry, but “it was totally out of necessity.” Transitioning from absinthe and gin to whiskey and rum, Davis discovered that whiskey and rum derive almost all their flavor from bio-chem and organic chemistry.
He realized he was “going to need to understand those if I wanted any kind of artistic control over what I was making.” So, he got to work on poring through homebrew books and Wikipedia, turning his initial disinterest of chemistry into an appreciation for a whole new way of seeing the world.
We’re all about the DIY approach, but at their scale, we wondered: wouldn’t it be more efficient to just hire experts and contractors? Davis explains they did originally. But, it was costly, and not everyone got their vision. “We couldn’t hire people to do things if we didn’t understand what they were doing. That meant we had to learn how to do well… everything.”
“The idea of everything we touch being designed by us, or made by us, just became an ethos. Today, we build our own automation software. We do our own analytical chemistry, design our own labels, do our own plumbing, make our websites, build our own carousels, etc.”
Your tour finishes with a visit to “Whiskey Island,” an H.G. Wells book-filled library room where you can sip whiskey and listen to (actual human encyclopedia) Davis go on about the wonders of yeast.
God, I’ve never been so inspired to become a DIY queen. BRB, gonna go build housing for the homeless out of the 200 empty La Croix cans in the back of my car.