Four Distillers Using Science to Build Better Spirits

From left to right: Mackmyra Intelligens; Endless West; Dirty Devil Vodka and Tres Hombres Rum / Illustrations by Mark Watkinson

Can science build a better spirit? To find out, distillers are using innovative technologies and science-guided techniques that range from computer algorithms to plasma reactors.

Here are four such spirits. Do they hold clues about how future bottlings might be engineered?

Molecular Engineering

Endless West

Whiskey made without traditional grains or barrels? That’s the provocative concept behind Glyph “molecular whiskey,” made by San Francisco-based Endless West. “It starts with what we call our blank canvas: neutral alcohol distilled from grain, usually largely corn,” says Alec Lee, the company’s cofounder and CEO. “We can paint our own flavor profiles over that canvas.”

The “paint,” is pulled from a database that contains hundreds of thousands of molecules. In 2015, a team began to analyze whiskeys and other liquids to isolate colors, aromas, flavors and alcohol levels down to the molecular level. Scientists determined where to source molecules with similar qualities, primarily from plants or vegetables. The first whiskey was launched at the end of 2018.

Endless West can make wine and spirits to order, like “wine” built on that corn-based canvas without grapes, “saké” without rice, or a Scotch-style whisky without malted barley or barrel aging. Gin- and agave-style spirits also are also in the works.

“We can use this technology platform with other partners who want to have access to this faster, more sustainable, more cost effective way of making spirits,” says Lee.

These aren’t exact replicas of familiar spirits. Glyph Spice, for example, bears a passing resemblance to rye whiskey. It’s distinctly lighter and sweeter, however, with an aroma that’s more dried fruit than the vanilla tones that oak tends to contribute. Think of it as computer-generated graphic design as opposed to an oil painting, he says.

“This isn’t an attempt to usurp or replace the traditional way of making wines and spirits,” says Lee. “This is a way to add to those traditional expressions.”

Artificial Intelligence

Mackmyra Intelligens

In 2019, Mackmyra Swedish Whisky celebrated its 20th anniversary with an unusual offering: the first whisky developed by artificial intelligence (AI). Accomplished in partnership with Finnish tech firm Fourkind, this was an unorthodox endeavor for an industry typically steeped in tradition.

Consumer insights, cask types, tasting notes, alcohol levels, expert ratings and sales figures were used to create an algorithm that can determine the best “recipe” based on what people like. Some 70 million variations were winnowed down to 50 AI-generated whiskies that potentially fit Mackmyra’s typically fruity-peppery style.

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After she made small test batches, Angela D’Orazio, master blender and “chief nose officer” at Mackmyra, selected one to bottle: No. 36.

It’s a single malt aged between five and eight years, matured in a mix of ex-Bourbon casks (for creamy vanilla tones), Swedish oak (peppery notes) and former Sherry casks (orchard fruit). A small amount of peated malt adds a smoky whiff.

Since that initial 2019 release, Mackmyra has issued four editions of Inteligens, each selected from the 50 recipes chosen by the algorithm. The fifth bottling is slated for release later this year or early 2022.

“While the whisky recipe is created by AI, we still benefit from a person’s expertise and knowledge,” says D’Orazio. “We believe that the whisky is AI-generated, but human-curated. Ultimately, the decision is made by a person.”

Super-Charged Chemical Compounds

Dirty Devil Vodka

All spirits are made of chemical compounds. But some producers “hack” the components of otherwise traditional distillates to fine-tune the finished product in some way.

For Dirty Devil Vodka, that turbocharged component is—wait for it—water. It seems like it should be the most banal aspect of a spirit. But biologist/chemist Daniel Sdicu figured out how to hyperoxygenate water (H2O) to hold five times its normal amount of oxygen.

“We chill the water to [about 39˚F], then it’s passed through a plasma reactor,” says Sdicu. While oxygenated water typically loses its effect minutes after a bottle is opened, the company claims this process keeps the oxygen “nanobubbles” in the solution for at least 18 months after the bottle is opened. Hyperoxygenated water is prevalent in sports, medicine and agriculture.

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Some believe it can create a lighter-bodied sip when mixed with alcohol. “It’s lower density, less viscous,” says Sdicu. “The oxygen flows through the hydrogen molecules.” Murray Merkley, CEO of St. Lucifer Spirits, the parent company to Dirty Devil, says that means a “crisp, distinctive texture and extra smoothness.”

The distinction is subtle when compared to conventional vodka. The nanobubbles are undetectable, yet the liquid feels slightly lighter on the tongue. Dirty Devil claims that chilling the vodka with ice made from regular water or combining it with standard mixers doesn’t negate the effects of hyperoxygenation.

The bottling was first launched in Canada in 2019 and released in the U.S. in April. Coming next: whiskey and rum, also made with hyperoxygenated water.

Speed-Aged Spirits

Tres Hombres Rum

In a bid to make liquor quicker, some producers will try anything to maximize contact between barrels and the spirits held within. In theory, this would hasten extraction of aromas and flavors from the oak.

Heat, humidity, pressure, even vibration (like through the rhythmic beats of music) have been applied in a technique known as “dynamic aging.”

Perhaps the most picturesque example of dynamic aging is used by Tres Hombres Rum, which is available in just limited quantity stateside. The distillery loads barrels of cask-strength rum onto a wind-powered cargo boat that sails across the Atlantic. The boat’s motion allows the rum to slosh against its barrel, while natural changes in temperature and barometric pressure cause the barrel wood to expand and contract.

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“We are on the water for three to four months,” says Andres Lackner, captain and director of Fair Transport. He’s sailed rum—as well as goods like cacao, coffee, olive oil and wine—between the Caribbean and his home in the Netherlands since 2012.

“The spirit is aging faster, because it takes more friction with oak inside the barrel, and because of the constant movement,” he says. “You don’t have that when a barrel is stored at a warehouse, or at a distillery…Our barrels, they are constantly moving.”

Three months of aging wouldn’t be sufficient in a warehouse, says Lackner. But on a cargo ship, the period creates a “more intense” impact that even rum-makers notice. “We have the distillers tasting their own rum, and sometimes they don’t even recognize it,” says Lackner. “Sometimes they say, ‘Wow, it’s not possible? Is it really my rum?’ ”

Published on September 9, 2021
Topics: Spirits