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The pivot to whiskey

Artificial whiskey is coming, and one company is betting you’ll drink up

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For more than two years now — from the second floor of a repurposed warehouse in the Dogpatch district of San Francisco — the young scientists and chemists at Ava Winery have been attempting to save the planet and conduct commerce by producing wine without grapes or fermentation. Recently, the company rebranded and shifted its focus: now known as Endless West, it is attempting to make brown spirits without the hidebound utilization of barrels for maturation.

The pivot was accompanied by a new round of funding. The Ava website was taken down in early August, replaced by an Endless West website that says, “Coming Fall 2018.”

“Coming Fall 2018”

In Endless West’s 1,800-square-foot lab, there are no implements ordinarily associated with making wine or whiskey. Instead, one sees chemists quietly sitting at computers beside beakers, gas chromatography and mass spectrometer machines, and something called a liquid handling robot, which is loaded with test tubes that are filled with liquid from “real” wines and spirits. The white-smocked bio and analytical chemists are measuring and mapping the molecular profiles of standard alcoholic beverages. There is even a scanning area with an “electronic nose” to measure olfactory properties; something you likely won’t find in a standard winery lab.

The quest is to tease out which “naturally derived” carbohydrates, sugars, proteins, amino acids, and lipids comprise a wine or spirit, and which components encompass the organoleptic profiles of various alcoholic beverages. Key aromatics and flavor molecules are being identified such as citrus-like esters from ethyl isobutyrate and pineapple-y aromas derived from ethyl hexanoate or the buttery qualities found in the compound diacetyl.

Once recognized, neutral distillates or grain alcohol is then added to the recipe to synthetically formulate a wine or whiskey.

Alec Lee, co-founder CEO of Endless West
Alec Lee, co-founder CEO of Endless West

Endless West doesn’t yet sell any “products,” which is what co-founder and CEO Alec Lee calls its synthetic wine and spirits, and won’t until the end of this year at the absolute earliest. The planned first release is a brown spirit — a rum, bourbon, or whiskey. In another year or two, Lee says, the next product will be a wine. But he’s made big promises before — especially when it comes to wine.

In 2016, the company, then called Ava, had just closed a seed round in which it received $2.7 million led by Horizon Ventures of Hong Kong, according to an article in Business Insider.

At the time, Ava had promised to release 499 bottles modeled on a 1992 Dom Pérignon Champagne later that summer, “with plans to go to market in the next six to 12 months.” The sparkler has not yet been released.

Horizons, an investor in the 2016 funding round and the most recent one, also invested in Impossible Foods, the hamburger company that has produced plant-based meat that “bleeds.” The amount from the most recent round hasn’t been disclosed, and Endless West declined to say how much it was.

There are other, smaller investors who also think that Endless West can produce profitable imitation alcoholic beverages. One of these is IndieBio, the biotech brand of SOSV, a venture capital company. Managing director Arvind Gupta declined to say how much IndieBio invested in both rounds, but he did say it was in addition to the investment by Horizon.

“We have wildfires out of control so we need to invest in companies that can reduce the load on the environment.”

“It was an easy decision,” Gupta said of the investment. “When they brought me the moscato, it made a lot of sense. We are investing in companies that are making products more efficiently. We have wildfires out of control so we need to invest in companies that can reduce the load on the environment. A huge amount of land, labor, and water is being used.”

But why make fake wine and whiskey at all, except as a novelty? Those associated with Endless West say its procedures uses less water and less land. Lee thinks that Endless West will ultimately either meet or surpass traditional wines and spirits with their offerings, using a method that’s more cost-effective and environmentally sustainable. (This is also the pitch behind the Impossible Burger.)

“If things that we are doing were not necessary for the environment, we would not do it,” he says. “As a brand we are telling stories that no one has told before: there’s craft behind science; we’re not evil mad scientists behind the curtain.”

There are at least six companies attempting to speed up the process of making spirits, and each uses different methods.

In fact, Endless West has a great deal of competition when it comes to unusual alcoholic beverages. There’s a Denver-based company that calls itself Replica Wine because its unabashed MO is to replicate higher-priced, high-profile wines using scientific techniques, purchased grapes, and blending regimens. Replica is trying to make its wines taste like the higher-priced thing, but at half the cost to the consumer.

There are at least six companies attempting to speed up the process of making spirits, and each uses different methods. Some traditional spirits are aged in their barrels for more than 20 years; these companies want the same results in far less time. Lost Spirits in Los Angeles has developed technologies that zap its products with high-intensity light and heat in a reactor.

Cleveland Whiskey in Ohio utilizes an aggressive, highly oxygenated, vacuumed, and pressurized environment to extract flavor from different strains of wood to produce its products rapidly. Terressentia in South Carolina and Kentucky uses a proprietary technique which can produce whiskey in barrels in only six months to a year. It uses ultrasonic energy or “transesterification” — the conversion of a carboxylic acid (fatty acid) ester into a different carboxylic acid ester (methanol) — which occurs in actual barrels over time, using natural heat and movement as an energy source.

Highspire Whiskey in Paso Robles, California uses wood chips it dumps into barrels to accelerate the process. Tuthilltown in upstate New York and Spirit Works in Sebastopol, California even blast music into filled barrels, wrapped with headphones, believing it quickens the process.

But back in the reawakened Dogpatch neighborhood in southern San Francisco, Endless West is the one firm that is trying to make alcoholic beverages far differently — by not using a grape, a barrel, or yeast to ferment its simulated products.

Surely this is interesting, but is it drinkable?

Surely this is interesting, but is it drinkable? The Verge participated in a blind tasting that included Endless West’s version of what the company calls a moscato d’Asti — a perhaps flip reference, since Asti is a growing region in Italy, and only grapes from that region can be said to be d’Asti. It was Endless West’s first and presumably only finished product at the time of this writing. Surprisingly, no spirits were offered that day, even though Lee had previously said they would be available.

Two moscatos stood out from the rest, which were mostly innocuous moscatos from various regions of Europe. One tasted and smelled like an ashtray. The other simply didn’t taste like grapes. The ashray moscato was in fact a canned wine made from grapes. The other was Endless West’s.

Alan Goldfarb, the author of this piece, at the blind tasting
Alan Goldfarb, the author of this piece, at the blind tasting

Endless West’s moscato had a plastic aroma and taste, and reeked with artificiality. There wasn’t much in the way of fruit, nor was there a hint of acidity, which would have brightened the flavors and balanced the wine. The basic components that always make up the profile of a wine were nonexistent, and the whole flavor was masked by inauthenticity.

Lee has something of a philosophical treatise on authenticity. “Authenticity does not require a grape,” he says, as though he’d addressed the subject a hundred times. “Our product is just as authentic as any other product on the market. For every action a winemaker takes, there’s a corresponding action that we take.”

“Authenticity does not require a grape.”

Lee likens EW’s project to digitizing a faded photograph. A digital upload of an old photograph isn’t identical to the original, in Lee’s view, but that doesn’t lessen its ability to take a person gazing upon it back in time.

“What people miss — this is a different expression,” Lee says. “It looks different from what people are used to as to what is authentic. The concept of natural is an evolving concept.”

IndieBio’s Gupta shares Lee’s view. “If you believe wine is a process — terroir, the story of the making of the wine — and if that’s important to you,” then Endless West’s project might be confusing, he says. But if wine is simply a delightful beverage made for drinking, then the process matters much less.

The tasting, in some ways, made Gupta’s point clear: the ashtray moscato was indeed authentic. It was not, however, good. But when my editor and I tasted the wines, we both immediately identified the two “wrong” wines as that one and Endless West’s grapeless offering.

Immediately after the tasting, Lee says he is “unfazed” with our assessment. “I was thinking about the tasting and how I felt about it,” Lee says in a phone call eight days later. “I don’t think the results of that tasting are binary. It’s not a pass / fail.”

I told Gupta how I’d felt about Endless West’s wine and he, too, was undeterred. “To do really big things, you’ve got to try; it’s easy to say ‘nothing will work’ or ‘nothing is perfect,’” he says. “Through trial and error you can get it right and change the world.”

As for the grain-alcohol product Endless West plans to make: does it count as whiskey? Eric Simanek, head of the organic and biological chemistry department at Texas Christian University, is skeptical of EW’s endeavors, but intrigued nonetheless.

“Does a sum of most of the parts constitute the whole? The verdict is still out on that one especially when it comes to whiskey.”

“I think the laws of nature suggest that it’s possible to reconstruct any known mixture,” says Simanek, who is the co-author of Shots of Knowledge: The Science of Whiskey. What’s difficult is replicating whiskey — in part because we don’t really know how the chemical parts of whiskey interact with our senses of smell and taste. “Does a sum of most of the parts constitute the whole? The verdict is still out on that one especially when it comes to whiskey.”

Sure, but would he drink the “whiskey” Endless West is making? “As a scientist, I think I’m compelled to,” Simanek says. “As a whiskey lover, even more so.”

Simanek is partial to the single-malt Scotch Laphroaig. But he notes something else that’s important about drinking: the environment where one drinks matters. So should he taste-test Endless West’s projected product, “I would enjoy finding the right environment to enjoy this synthetic concoction with good friends who have strong opinions.”

One person who does not believe Endless West can produce synthetic wine and make it taste like grape-based, fermented wine is Clark Smith. He is the wine industry’s go-to guy for taming tannins and reducing alcohol, all from his huge old Mary Shelley-like manufactory in Sonoma County, California.

A bookshelf at Endless West
A bookshelf at Endless West

Endless West’s project to create wine and spirits from chemistry relies on a faulty assumption, Smith says. Wine is more than an ideal chemical solution, with a function derived from its chemistry alone, says Smith, the author of Postmodern Winemaking: Rethinking the Modern Science of an Ancient Craft.

“The sensory properties of a lump of coal, a graphite tennis racket, and a diamond are in no way direct artifacts of their chemical composition, which is 100 percent carbon in each case,” Smith says. “The key is the molecular structure — the way the atoms relate to each other. Great wine is about architecture, not composition.”

“You can’t judge the architecture of a building by counting the bricks,” Smith says. And in his view, that’s exactly what Endless West is trying to do. “They don’t have a clue how wine works.”

“They don’t have a clue how wine works.”

At least one entity agrees with Smith: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which regulates wines. Currently, Endless West’s wines don’t meet the definition of wine, according to the ATF, Lee says. Ava Winery hadn’t looked into these regulations before it started to make wine, which has caused Endless West to change course.

“We pivoted away before we dug into that matter,” he says. Endless West has registered as a distilled spirits company.

The pivot to spirits from wine is a pragmatic one because the regulation is easier to deal with, according to Lee.

“In this case it might be an easier path,” says Rachel Dumas Rey, founder of Compli, an alcohol beverage compliance company based in Paso Robles, California. “If they’re not starting with fruit or agricultural products, it’s difficult to classify that as wine.” Endless West’s spirits may have an easier route because the company isn’t producing distilled spirits — just modifying them. Though, she warns, “there may be a loophole that we’re not aware of.”  

So, is there a market for synthetic whiskey? Dashiell Mann of the Whiskey Shop in Brooklyn, which specializes in small batch spirits, says, “It sounds interesting. I’d definitely like to try it but I think a serious whiskey-head would be dubious.”

If Endless West’s product tasted good and the price was right, Mann says he’d carry it. There’s a catch, though: “It would have to be better than the equivalent whiskey at the same price.”

“If it tastes good, we don’t discriminate about something that doesn’t have the cachet of age.”

Christopher Donovan, of The House of Glunz in Chicago, agrees. He thinks the environmentalism is a marketing gimmick. The real question is if Endless West can make something great and at a lower price point.

Would his shop carry Endless West?

“If it tastes good, we don’t discriminate about something that doesn’t have the cachet of age,” he responds. “We’d open on a Saturday and let people taste it.”

So then the question of whether there’s a market for fake wines and spirits may revolve less around authenticity and more about taste, which might come as a relief to Endless West’s CEO. But Lee and his 14 employees are still saddled with a formidable task: making good booze in a new way, and making it good enough to satisfy critics.  

“The beauty in the thing that keeps me optimistic is that this is a technology that is rapidly progressing,” Lee says. “Two years ago we were nowhere.” Fortunately, we still have Laphroaig — which, itself, makes a good case for traditionally made alcoholic beverages.