Conversation with Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits Distillery

Bryan Davis is the Master Distiller for Lost Spirits Distillery which is one of the most innovative American single malt producers. I wanted to get inside Bryan’s brilliant mind and find out he’s thinking when he’s developing new whisky. In this insightful interview Bryan discusses the history of Lost Spirits distillery and his penchant for experimenting with different types of peat to create new flavors. Bryan Davis drops some serious knowledge in this interview which makes me appreciate the whisky production process immensely.

Tell us a about the history of Lost Spirits Distillery

Bryan: We got here in 2009. Joanne and I had a distillery in Spain, sold it then moved back to the US with the intention of making whisky. We were actually planning to distill bourbon, but that didn’t happen. Joanne’s parents had an old abandoned piece of property, so we took it over and started building. I think we built a pretty interesting and innovative distillery. We launched Leviathan I, II, Seascape and another whisky called Paradiso which is exclusive to Europe. We have gotten a pretty fun response so far. We have some ardent supporter and we also have been reviled by some conservatives. It’s been fun and interesting so far.

How did you decide to produce single malt whisky as opposed to bourbon?

Bryan: When we got here the plan was to do bourbon because I managed to find these diagrams for an old style wooden pot still which was used to make the highest grade of bourbon in the 19th century. The equipment is basically extinct, the only remaining one besides what we built is at Demerera Distillers in Guyana. So we were thinking that we would make an extinct form of bourbon in these pot stills. We started making prototypes and had some friends over who were really into bourbon to get their opinion. The ones that we really liked were pretty much out of profile and the ones that our bourbon drinking friends liked were similar to what you can currently buy already. We didn’t think the world needed a little distillery in California making a bourbon similar to what’s made in Kentucky already. The customers didn’t really like the out-of-profile bourbons that we liked because they were too similar to single malts (they were 51% corn and 49% barley).

Joanne and I had really fell in love with Octomore while we were in Europe. We looked at each other and were like, “Why don’t we do that?” So one thing led to another and thought that it’d be great to use a our extinct american still to distill some different whisky. Then we started asking questions like: What happens if we leave the grain in during fermentation instead of taking it out? So we decided to ferment [the grain] like an American whisky. This changes all kinds of stuff in the biochemistry and yields a whole different style of whisky. We wanted to start with a bang, and wanted to distill a whisky with a high phenol level. Unfortunately we couldn’t export any Scottish peated barley higher than 45ppm. And we thought that was kind of boring so we started looking at sourcing peat from other parts of the world. That is the short version of how we ended up here.

What spirit did you distill in Spain?
Bryan: It was a gin and absinthe distillery (Obsello Absinthe). The gin is still produced in Europe and it’s readily available all over Barcelona. We still make the absinthe here in California and fill orders for it.

What’s your inspiration for producing whisky?
Bryan: The big thing that I’m really interested in right is the effect of different types of peat on the flavor profile of the whisky. Believe it or not, 2% of the land on planet earth is peat. There is probably a peat bog within a 100 miles of you anywhere you’re standing. Of course desert areas don’t have them, but generally speaking any waterlogged wetland area coastal or otherwise is loaded with peat moss.

Lost Spirits peat smoking
Smoke has a huge impact on the flavor of whisky. The flavors produced by the smoke are volatile organic acids that can bond with other organic compounds to form new esters. So when you use new forms of peat you can form completely new flavors in the whisky.

A good example of the effects of peat on whisky is comparing whisky from Jura and Ardbeg. Both distilleries use a very similar production process, but the peat is very different. Jura uses heather peat which means thousands of years worth of flowers and leaves from the heather plants have been falling into the bog. Ardbeg uses peat that is full of seaweed, salt water and such due to it’s location. When you compare the whiskies side by side they’re incredibly different and that’s mainly due to the differences in peat.

The environmental conditions that produces the peat are so incredibly different throughout the world. For example the Philippines is covered in peat bogs and the Amazon river is full of peat – I wonder what new flavors would be produced by these untapped sources of peat. Peat bogs preserve anything that falls in. So you can imagine every peat bog location has different types of stuff in it, which would produce new flavors. It opens up a giant rabbit hole of possibilities.

Could you tell us about future plans for special release? 
Bryan: There is a single malt coming soon in which we use Florida peat. Another one coming in a while will involve blueberry peat. We found a peat bog that was covered in wild blueberries. For several thousand years blueberries were falling into the bog and becoming part of it.

When is Leviathan III scheduled to hit?
Bryan: We make more Leviathan as soon as our former batch runs out. It’s our core expression because we can get the peat very consistently. The peat used in Leviathan is registered for agricultural use in the US, so it’s something we can import without enormous customs headaches. Leviathan is something that we’ll keep doing for a while.

What’s your favorite dram of the moment?
Bryan: The Single Cask Nation Kilchoman 4 year. The guys at Single Cask Nation really get some good stuff. I’m also fascinated by this weird spirit I’m drinking called Rum Fire from Jamaica. It’s wild because they use this rotted yeast rich foam called dunder as part of the fermentation process. From a distilling point of view it’s really bizarre and kind of trippy. I don’t know if I like it, but I’m fascinated by the process.

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