Desert Companion

Dive Bar

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Photo courtesy of Lost Spirits Distillery

A new distillery blends science and ambience

With a steampunk submarine vibe, Lost Spirits Distillery serves fine liquors crafted by weird science


Bryan Davis sits in the dark, laughing.

We’re seated in a cramped room at Lost Spirits Distillery designed to resemble a kind of luxury Victorian submarine. Spinning red lights slice through the locked-closet gloom. Klaxons blare. “I guess you have to have a certain sense of humor,” he says, giggling.

When the fake submarine finishes its faux dive, Davis leads the way to the grand set piece of Lost Spirits, which opened this summer at Area 15: a Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea-inspired lounge with twin sets of club chairs lining the room, leading up to a woodcut octopus at one end. It feels like Ernst Stavro Blofeld will come waltzing in at any moment to upbraid SPECTRE’s leadership committee.

Davis brings out a glass of American-made whiskey tuned to taste like an Islay Scotch. Neither as aggressive as Ardbeg nor as evocative of ships breaking against a rocky shore as Laphroig, it nonetheless has a deep smokiness and smooth finish. You’d be comfortable sipping it next to fellow Scotchophiles as the lounge’s chandeliers synchronously sway and flicker with a Frankenstein electric hum that drowns out Leonard Cohen moaning “Everybody Knows” over the speakers. The whole place smells like paint and fresh-cut wood. Ironic, considering the operation was built on the illusion of old, long-aged timber.

Photo by Randy Phommahaxay Davis, who has a degree in art and spent a year designing amusement park rides, got into the spirits business when he went in big on his passion project, decamped for Spain, and brought his first product, Obsello absinthe, to market. As that Iberian adventure wound down, Davis and his girlfriend, Lost Spirits co-owner Joanne Haruta, returned to Monterey County in California, where Haruta’s mother owned part of an artichoke farm. They took a 1972 mobile home and turned it into their workshop on the property as they delved into Lost Spirits, reviving long-forgotten liquors — and honing a method to dramatically reduce the aging process from decades to days.

On the first stop on this tour, Davis pours a brandy that’s rich and complex. It hits like a 12-year single malt. It aged over the course of only several dozen hours. The forbidden knowledge of dark liquor sorcery made it possible. Or chemistry. Possibly both.

For the last six years, Davis has been turning out spirits using his own proprietary technique that, long story short, shines intense light on a glass cylinder full of wood and booze to mimic the aging of raw hooch in barrels. The technical explanation for why the process works is dizzying for anyone unfamiliar with the chemistry behind distillation, but it works. As soon as he had dialed in the process, Davis knew it was game on.

“It was like, oh, shit, we actually did it. I think this is kind of bigger than us,” Davis says. “We were just a little tiny 2,000-case craft distillery in an artichoke field with the most important piece of technology in the last 100 years of the beverage industry.”

Davis and Haruta eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where they first opened a no-frills tasting room in 2017. The frills soon followed as Davis went back to his amusement park roots to add embellishments that turned the L.A. outpost into a hotspot for disquisitive dipsomaniacs. Lured east to Las Vegas by the people behind Area 15, Davis and Haruta are doing the L.A. model here, just bigger, badder, and brandy-er.

The distillery tour checks off exotic locales that incorporate two of Davis’ twin loves: rum (a Havana nightclub staffed by holographic singers in full, glitchy Max Headroom glory), and Victorian literature (a dank English village, the aforementioned Jules Verne trip). But between the Six Flags Over Moe’s Tavern stops, there are moments of genuine art and science. Davis’ handmade copper still is gorgeous — and massive. The dragon head that tops it isn’t quite Game of Thrones-sized, but it’s not far off. Another section of the tour leads to a glassed-off R&D lab and a look at Davis’ wood-destroying reactor that runs at surface-of-the-sun levels of brightness. (Seriously, the light is the equivalent of the equator at noon, times three.)

All of it is in service of the sauce. For this outpost at Area 15, Davis is bottling four new tipples and Lost Spirits’ signature navy-style rum. (Coming in at a burly 122 proof, it goes down so hot it’ll get you ready to swordfight a pirate — it also comes with the story of where the term “proof” came from. It involves lighting gunpowder soaked with rum. Frankly, we’ve all been drinking wrong this whole time.)

The new offerings include a rum made with Pacific Ocean brine; an English-style rum distilled from Japanese ingredients including Okinawan black sugar and Mizunara oak; a Cuban-inspired anejo blanco rum; a raspberry brandy; and soon, a passion fruit brandy.

Brandy, woefully forgotten in the craft distillery renaissance, is a current favorite of Davis’. (He’s quick to point out that’s what Dorian Gray was quaffing in the opium dens, not any fruit of the poppy.)

He says the plan is to keep building onto the distillery. The first addition will be a jungle set using leftover cooling water from the stills. He has plans to serve a $240, 12-course tasting menu in a room off the lounge. (There’s a mural of an octopus with a man’s face on one end. It’s unsettling.)

Michelangelo apocryphally said all he had to do to sculpt David was look at a block of marble and take away anything that wasn’t David. Davis — a sculptor himself back in his art-school days — may have subtracted years from the distilling of rum and brandy, but he’s still more about addition, addition, addition.

“(Studying distillation) just sort of drove the need to understand the artistic medium, which was no different than clay,” Davis says. “It just so happens that you can’t see it. It’s all theory and math. As we got better and better and better at it, it became an opportunity to do really cool stuff nobody else was doing. Now you’re starting to create like avant-garde distilleries for the first time. And then we layered all this shit on it somehow.” Davis’ game-changing scientific spirits are certainly worth the deep dive.

Lost Spirits Distillery is now open at Area 15. Visit lostspirits.net for more info.

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