A dragon, a peat monster and a leviathan all roaming around California – sounds a bit like the plot for an alternate reality fantasy novel right? Well, you’d be wrong. What we’re talking about here is the Lost Spirits Distillery situated in Monterey County, a hop, skip and a jump away from the Pacific Ocean. This craft distillery, owned and run by Bryan Davis and Joanne Haruta, captured my attention when reading about their 110ppm peat giant, aptly named Leviathan I. I still tend to associate whiskey production in the US with bourbons, so when hearing about a single malt being produced in Cali that gives Islay’s heavily peated whiskies a run for their money I just had to find out more so I got in touch with the folks at Lost Spirits and they were more than happy to appease my curiosity.
WTF: Hi Bryan and Joanne, can you provide a bit of detail on your respective backgrounds?
Bryan: Our backgrounds are less predictable than you might think. I have been distilling spirits as a hobby since I was a teenager. However, in the early 2000s I got very serious about perfecting Absinthe in my cabin. Joanne is the resident business nerd. She’s a Berkeley business gal and I have a degree in conceptual art from SFAI.
At that time I was an art teacher. Somehow (long story) we ended up in Spain with a mom and pop distillery that quickly grew into something pretty special.
WTF: You’re talking about your absinthe distillery right? How did that come about? And any particular reason you chose Spain?
Bryan: Answering this completely would eat up your whole blog post! We chose Spain because I love the Spanish style of Absinthe (citrus notes instead of vegetal) and it has always been what I worked on making. It didn’t hurt that France and Switzerland already had faithful re-creations of their respective styles and Spain was sorely lacking a true Spanish Absinthe.
WTF: That leads us onto the Lost Spirits distillery… What prompted moving back to the States and starting a whiskey distillery producing single malt whiskeys?
Bryan: Well the economy in Spain got pretty bad and so selling the distillery and returning home was not so much a choice as a necessity. When we returned to the US we knew we were going to make whiskey. The fun part is that we actually started out making experimental bourbons. Truthfully neither Joanne nor I loved the bourbons and so when we got into an intense conversation about what whiskeys we loved we actually both said Octomore at the same time. So we thought well… why don’t we make a Californian interpretation of a heavily peated malt? Of course this had to be the most difficult category of spirit to work with but following the age old adage “if no one buys it we have to drink it” we decided to make what we liked!
WTF: I read that the two of you have done everything from scratch yourselves – what was the motivation behind that? To remain fiercely independent? Financial constraints?
Also the fact that we knew we wanted a replica “Log and Copper” still and there was nowhere to buy one in the world. In fact they are extinct. Other than ours there is only one left at the Demera Distillers site in Guiana. In all reality we could have raised the $$ given our backgrounds with Obsello in Spain to have done things in a more conventional way, but we wanted to keep this small and we wanted it to be fiercely authentic. We both feel the industry as whole has lost a little of its soul and we wanted to give it a little of its soul back.
WTF: Building your own distillery by hand must have been extremely challenging. What was the most difficult thing to accomplish?
Bryan: Everything! We built the still twice, we built the smoker twice, we even made the shell in tube condenser which was the most technically challenging thing. What people don’t realize is that the engineering aspect of the distillery is in many respects the recipe. Each choice in the design had to be studied, tested, reworked, and tweaked in order to yield the product as it is. You cannot just buy off the shelf equipment and expect to make something interesting. It does not work that way.
For example: The smoker had to be engineered to apply the smoke to the grain a certain temperature so it didn’t over toast the grain but also not to under toast it. The flow rate of smoke also changes things since the grain can only absorb phenols during a specific window of moisture content. To further complicate things the burning temperature of the peat influences the extraction of various phenolics so it also has to be engineered to fit the profile of the final product.
The same applies to the still. There are multiple heating methods for the stills. Low pressure coils, high pressure coils, direct inject, etc. We had to test each of these to determine what they did to the aroma and flavor and then had to be matched to the smoking decisions so it all went together cohesively. In the end we chose direct inject for the beer still and coils for the spirit still.
We also had to test neck height alterations, lyne arm designs which can tremendously affect the profile. In the end we chose downward aiming arms to capture more of the heavy nutty aromas (We love Lagavulin for the rich nutty aspects).
Each and every aspect had to be studied and experimented with to have them come together in harmony. We could never have done that any other way.
WTF: Tell us more about your unique still, and the fact that it’s located outside?
Bryan: The outdoor location had more to do with the fire code than anything else. But we designed the Japanese gardens surrounding it to accentuate the sheer coolness of that aspect.
Now the still itself is very important due to a compound called furfural. Furfural is critical to oak maturation. It’s a pleasant compound with an aroma and taste of baked goods / cake / cookies. The compound is in all whiskey. But because of the oak stills it is concentrated far higher in our whiskey. This due to the fact that many of the other oak derived compounds cannot pass over the still. Furfural, however, can pass over the still and collect in the finished spirit. Then in the casks the whiskey gets the normal amount on top of the part that came over the still.
WTF: Reading through other interviews you’ve done Bryan, you come across as a) very knowledgeable in the whisky production process and b) very precise in your approach. Where did you pick up these skills?
I am half joking. I have spent the last several years reading everything I could find on the subject of whiskey distillation, enology, brewing, yeast, Lactobacillus bacteria, phenolic acids, barrel aging chemistry and the chemical and bio-chemical formation of esters (what makes a whiskey taste like whiskey).
It’s been the most fun research project I can think of… The bio-lab at Suntory was the inspiration. I figured if I have to compete with these people I better know what the heck I am doing.
WTF: How did you go about sourcing your barley, peat and casks? Was it all laid out, or did you experiment a bit?
Bryan: I experimented with Barley quite a bit and concluded it didn’t do very much. We went with California grown mostly just because we wanted to support our local economy.
The peat was not so easy. Each bog has a terroir all its own. First off the various bogs preserve anything that falls into them (think bog bodies here). This means seaweed in costal peat (like Islay) is very different from peat found inland, near a forest, for example. Additionally each bog seems to have a different balance of phenolics. The four main ones are:
- Guaiacol = the taste of smoke
- Caffic Acid = Chocolate / Coffee
- Phenol = Iodine / Bandaid /latex
- Vanillic Acid = Vanilla / Pipe Tobacco
Because each bog varies so much you can see how different peat sources can make totally different whiskey. We chose a bog that is high in Caffic Acid and low in phenol to give the whiskey a unique spin on peat smoked flavors. Plus I love coffee and chocolate.
The casks were also tough. We tried ex-bourbon and didn’t like it for this profile. The whiskey needs the richness of a wine cask. We did use some Southern California sherry casks but it seemed a bit of a cop-out – so began the search for perfect wood. We found it in Napa in the form of botrytised (WTF: I had to look it up: Botrytis cinerea – A mould produced in very particular conditions of temperature and humidity that pierces grape skins, causing dehydration. Also known as “noble rot.”) cabernet casks and botrytised Sémillon. Unfortunately those casks are stupid rare (I was in Napa today begging for wood) so over time expect to see more sherry finding its way into the mix.
WTF: I love the names you chose for your whiskies – Leviathan I and Seascape. What was the inspiration behind the names? And can we expect a Leviathan II, III, etc?
Bryan: We knew we were going to use Leviathan even before we knew we were going to make a 110 ppm whiskey. We just fell in love with the name for any massive spirit. You can bet you will see Leviathan II.
Seascape was more of off the cuff thing. We have some more of these coming down the pike as well.
WTF: Leviathan I weighs in at 110ppm – brilliant! But why? Was the aim to get noticed, or simply you wanted to create something that stands out from the rest?
Bryan: Several years ago Joanne and I were tasting single malts with a distributor of ours. He let us run through the whole shop and try just about anything. After trying god knows how many malts we fell in love with Octomore. Coming from absinthe I think we are just trained to like massive flavors. Though I appreciate an elegant and balanced whiskey, I personally love the huge and masculine ones. I want a whiskey to entertain me with fireworks and surprises – so don’t expect subtle from me.
I would point out that our whiskey tastes nothing like Octomore. But it was definitely an inspiration of what can be done.
WTF: How did you decide on the flavour profiles for Leviathan I & Seascape? Can you walk us through a tasting of each whisky? What were you aiming to create?
Bryan: The peat definitely drove the flavor profiles. Once we chose the Canadian peat with the chocolate and coffee notes every other choice was constructed around that. The downward facing lyne arms to capture nutty elements, the french oak to capture cinnamon & brown baking spice. The heavy bacteria influence to give it a buttery texture, and the sweet wine casks to add richness, and the partial toasting of the grain to lend a caramel sweet backbone to all of it. We essentially built the spirit around the phenolics of our specifically chosen peat.
WTF: Can you give us an indication of the ages of the two whiskies? If you started in 2009 they must be babies still? And are you planning on releasing whiskies with age statements down the line? Or vintages?
Bryan: In my humble opinion whiskey is not actually mature because it’s old. It is mature because it is high in esters and low in volatile acids. Volatile acids are the things that make a spirit taste “hot.” Usually a whiskey achieves this trait after many years in the cask because the acids slowly turn into yummy esters. A diverse group of esters lends complexity.
Typically most of the acids in the whiskey come from the wood.
In the case of my whiskeys the carefully chosen Lactobacillus in the fermentation produces huge amounts of volatile acids. A specifically chosen yeast strain processes those acids into esters even before the distillation. When things go right at the distillery the spirit comes of the still with a chemical profile typical of a mature whiskey. Of course in the cask they extract new acids and start forming more esters.
To answer your question, we are laying down casks for long aging. I can’t even imagine how they will evolve. They are quite dense already – so it is going to be exciting to see what a 10 year Leviathan tastes like. I can’t wait! (WTF: You’re not the only one!)
WTF: Single cask, cask strength, un-chillfiltered – that combination is a winner and will win you loads of fans! Does that combination make the production process a bit simpler (and more cost effective) for you?
Bryan: We did it because we are spirits geeks! We don’t even filter the whiskey at all. We rack the casks clear so nothing is filtered out. I do dilute them before barrelling though. I tend to like the profile of the wood better at a lower proof.
WTF: What are your short, medium and long-term plans for Lost Spirits? How much whisky are you able to produce at the moment? And who is your market?
Bryan: We are making 500 cases per year at this point. But we are working to ramp that up (more construction).
WTF: How do you plan on increasing your capacity as demand for your whisky grows?
Bryan: We will expand for a little while but we didn’t get into this to make a bunch of money. We got into this to make something beautiful. We don’t have any plans to expand past what is comfortable for us to make… Maybe 1000 cases / year?
WTF: Will you expand your range to include other expressions?
Bryan: Are you kidding! How could we not! It’s tough for me not to change the recipe every batch. I love experimenting and have several things in the pipeline.
WTF: Any plans to experiment with different cask types?
Bryan: Yes 🙂 I can’t get enough of the botrytised wine casks to use them exclusively. These wines are not mass produced in California, and most of them are aged in stainless so there are very few casks available.
WTF: That concludes the interview. A big “thank you” to Joanne and Bryan for taking the time to share their story and give us a glimpse into their world. Fascinating stuff!
And there you have it folks, whiskey (we’ll stick with the American spelling for now even though every fibre of my body wants to call the Leviathan I a whisky) produced in the Golden State by spirits geeks who are striving to put a stamp of authenticity on what they produce and I commend them for that. An inspirational story that I hope motivates others to take the plunge and enter the world of craft distilling.
If you want to learn a bit more about them, check out their website and these other great articles:
- Introducing Lost Spirits Distillery
- Exclusive Preview: Lost Spirits Distillery Seascape Peated American Whiskey
- Lost Spirits “Leviathan I” American heavily peated single malt whiskey
In Part 2 of this series, I’ll be tasting the Leviathan I and Seascape and sharing my impressions. It should be quite interesting!