Stepping inside the bright red door that looks like a gothic version of the queen of hearts, with eyes sliding back and forth, I’m greeted by a disorienting forced perspective hallway that looks much longer than it actually is. As I start walking, I experience the dizzying sensation of growing taller the farther I go. I haven’t even tasted a drop of liquor yet and I already feel drunk.
I’m on a tour of Lost Spirits Distillery in downtown Los Angeles, where co-founders Bryan Davis and Joanne Haruta have built a distillery that combines patented liquor-making technology with a great show. The $37 distillery tour, more like an amusement park ride, places each type of the company’s liquor in an appropriate fictional habitat, a sort of Disneyland for adults.
Behind the scenes is the science: Lost Spirits says it can chemically simulate the effect of barrel aging in a matter of days rather than decades — all without adding anything other than oak. This gives the distillery precise control to create spirits that could not exist naturally through traditional barrel aging.
The spirits and experiences along the tour work in tandem to tell a story of each type of liquor. We begin in the “Land of Rum,” with a spirit engineered to taste like what the pirates in Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride might drink. “I don’t think that the bottle of rum in the Pirates of the Caribbean tasted like [generic rum],” Davis says. The rum tasting begins in an underwater theater with waves swirling above an overhead chandelier. As I sit with a glass of powerful Navy Rum (68 percent alcohol by volume in Lost Spirits’ version), rich and dark with a tropical mix of brown sugar and toasted marshmallow flavors, the lights go out — and then come back on to reveal a boat on a jungle river.
I hop on for a ride downriver, which takes me to see a vat of bubbling molasses fermenting away, then to visit the twin copper dragon stills that make the unaged rum. The effect is Davis’ idea of what it would be like to jump off the Pirates of the Caribbean ride to enjoy some rum in a jungle lair.
Moving past the stills, after seeing the equipment that accelerates aging, we make a stop past the lab and enjoy some brandy sipped from teacups while spinning on an Alice in Wonderland-themed carousel. We end up in a large canvas tent themed after the H.G. Wells book “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” There are sounds of the jungle just outside the thin fabric walls. I sit at a large wooden table set with small glasses and two bottles of whiskey from Lost Spirits’ Abomination series, so named because Davis loves to discuss the question of whether or not what the company is doing, using biological and organic chemistry to hack the barrel-aging process, is the right thing to do.
“We didn’t touch whiskey for a long time — we didn’t want to get near it,” Davis says. “It’s because rum is a beverage, but whiskey’s a religion. And if you’re going to mess with people’s faith, you better be totally ready to deal with the full brunt of assault.”
This is the backdrop that Davis wants for a discussion about the moral line where science goes too far, just like Wells’ book, and for that the distillery created two unnaturally “aged” smoky whiskeys, both using late-harvest riesling-soaked oak. (Late-harvest riesling isn’t typically aged in oak.)
The first of the Abomination whiskeys, Crying of the Puma, with toasted American oak, is lush, tropical and fruity, with smoke that fills your mouth as the other flavors withdraw. The second, Sayers of the Law, has charred American oak that unleashes campfire, spices and dried fruit, like a dragon sibling to the Puma.
“The thing I love about ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ is that the whole book is grappling with science and technology versus religion, and reconciling the two,” Davis says. “You can explore all these questions that as a society we are having to grapple with, but through the eyes of a fake religion, which is whiskey, and a bunch of science behind it that has no consequences.”
Which is perhaps the charm of Lost Spirits, that it can make fun of itself while creating immersive settings of terroir for a line of spirits made possible only through the miracle of science.
Exiting the tent into the gift shop, I meet up with the flock of animatronic birds that give me a hard sell on the bottles and merchandise available for purchase, an homage to Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room. Then, perhaps the most disorienting portion of the tour: walking back outside to the downtown L.A. streets and a sudden sense of stepping back into reality — where, sadly, I’m no longer tall.
Lou Bustamante is the author of “The Complete Cocktail Manual.” In addition to being a prolific cocktail drinker, he also has worked at a distillery and behind the bar.
Lost Spirits Distillery
- 1235 E 6th St., Los Angeles
Three More Spirited Tours
- Dry Diggings Distillery: Focused on small-batch craft spirits imbued with the area’s Gold Rush history, this El Dorado Hills distillery features a tasting room designed to transport you to the 1850s.
- Admiral Maltings: Malt is to beer what grapes are to wine, a critical ingredient you can explore at this tiny facility in Alameda with free tours on Wednesdays and weekends.
- Schramsberg Vineyards: Go spelunking for sparkling wine on this tour that takes you deep into the Calistoga winery’s cellars, dug into the earth in the late 1800s.