The Soylent Green Of Whiskey?

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My Wall Street Journal today included their “The Future of Everything” magazine. Featured on the cover was “synthetic spirits”. That isn’t something for Halloween but a lab-created whiskey from San Fransciso.

The company is called Endless West and was founded by Mardonn Chua. Originally their intent was to recreate expensive wines. The problem was that they couldn’t market them as wine under Federal law. However, due to a loophole in the regulations, they could create “spirit whiskey” so long as it contained 5% on a proof gallon whiskey.

In the spring the company raised an additional $10 million and hired a small staff of food scientists and analytical chemists, then outfitted its lab with equipment that allows them to intricately sequence the molecular makeup of spirits (the machines are also used in food science and life science research). Though they keep the exact makes and models of these machines under wraps—going so far as to cover up their names with stickers reading “Bonnie” and “Clyde”—Lee let me tour freely throughout the lab. He showed me one machine that he described as “an electronic nose,” which inserts needles into half-filled vials of commercial wines and whiskeys, absorbs the gas trapped above the liquid, then “de-absorbs” the compounds to identify and quantify them.


Endless West can then source these compounds, mixing and matching them to taste (and smell). To satisfy the Tax and Trade Bureau, Glyph contains some traditionally made whiskey. The bureau defines spirit whiskey as “produced by blending neutral spirits and not less than 5% on a proof gallon basis whiskey.” About 5% of Glyph consists of “distilled clean whiskey” that, according to Lee, isn’t noticeably distinguishable in flavor from pure ethanol.

“Distilled clean whiskey” is, in other words, vodka to which they are adding flavoring to make “spirit whiskey”.

Eric Simanek of Texas Christian University has this to say about synthesized whiskey:

But technology—and that ineffable, essential whiskey quality—may still be a limiting factor. “Science knows most of the components of whiskey, and most of the relative concentrations, but not all of them,” says Eric Simanek, the co-author of “Shots of Knowledge: The Science of Whiskey” and the chairman of the chemistry and biochemistry department at Texas Christian University. “It’s very much like a cocktail party. You have a guest list. The folks show up. But the outcome of a party isn’t necessarily predictable. And it may be one guest, whom you’ve discounted, who changes the entire tenor of the assembly. This is the challenge that Endless West has.”

I don’t think Jimmy Russell, Fred Noe, Harlan Wheatley, or Jim Rutledge have anything to fear from Glyph.


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