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How CEO and co-founder of Endless West Alec Lee is tearing up the whiskey rule book and making his own

The San Francisco-based startup’s making drams aged not in a cask, but a test tube (figuratively).

What goes – or doesn’t – in the world of spirits, has, for a large part been etched in stone over the better part of a couple of millennia. Adherence to liquor and its various regional provenances, let alone methods of doing, are as fervently upheld as they are highly regarded. To alter a step – let alone the process – is sacrilege.

Which might make San Francisco-based Endless West one of the whiskey world’s most overt heretics. Their startup’s raison d’etre? To skip the whole shebang of aging a spirit within a dank cellar – the very process that imparts said spirits with bouquets and flavours that make the drink worth the wait – in favour of what’s essentially, lab-grown liquor.

(Related: Cocktails of the future: can technology make a better drink?)

If you’re wondering, the last time something similar was attempted, many hackles (and probably pitchforks) were raised. Lost Spirits Distillery, founded in 2010 by Bryan Davis, shot to fame after producing a series of, shall we say, unusual whiskies. One of these whiskies got a Liquid Gold award in Jim Murrays Whisky Bible (think of it as a Michelin guide for whiskey). It was eventually revealed that its founder found a way to replicate aging – producing barrels of the stuff that used to take decades in days. Lost Spirits has since been closed, and reopened years later as a thematic distillery in Vegas. 

Then again, over in the world of viticulture, people are warming up to new-age (or is it old-age) ideas like biodynamism. So we know that the paradigm, though resistant to change, isn’t completely inured from it. 

Or at least, that’s what CEO and co-founder Alec Lee thinks. Pending controversy or no, the company’s made bold steps forward in the world of spirit making. They’ve got a signature line of Glyph whiskies – the first of which managed to pick up 14 awards at the 2020’s SIP awards – as well as a molecular fruity white, titled Gemello, and a rice-free sake, which they’ve christened Kazoku. Read on to find out how Alec and his team have broken one of the cardinal rules in the world of liquor, and lived to tell the tale.

Endless Founders

How did you come up with the idea of lab-made spirits?

We learned to synthesize whiskey by synthesizing wine first. My colleague and co-founder Mardonn Chua was first inspired to make wine during a trip to the Napa/Sonoma region of California back in 2015. He was touring wineries and came across the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, the wine that won a competition known as the Judgment of Paris and put California on the map as a producer of the world’s greatest white. 

Mardonn wondered what it would take to recreate such an iconic wine from a purely objective and scientific point of view. It seemed possible to figure out exactly what was in the wine, or any wine, from a molecular perspective – breaking it down and building it back, from scratch. Mardonn figured that if he could combine the right molecules in the right proportions, he could make something that smelled and tasted exactly like some of the most notorious and sought-after wines in the world. Without touching a grape. Thereafter, he began identifying what was prototypical about a particular style of wine, and determining the factors responsible for those flavours and aromas. 

The possibilities for customization were endless. We set out to make wine that smelled and tasted exactly as we wanted it to, without purchasing land, planting grapes or concerning ourselves with the effects of climate change that are wreaking havoc on wine regions around the world.

How long did it take to get the whole operation up and running?

It took us about three years. In the first six months we spent a lot of nights and weekends on R&D, focused on tinkering with various formulations and working through academic research. Then another six months honing the formulations which led to our first fundraiser. From there, it took us another two years before we were able to launch the first product.

(Related: New Zealand distillery Auld Whisky is offering a seed-to-sip dram)

What are you hoping to achieve by upending the traditional spirit production process?

First and foremost, Endless West is interested in adding to the art form of spirit making using a different and broader set of tools.  Our motto: “All of the Spirit, None of the Rules” is a daily reminder to celebrate the everyday societal rule breakers and benders — those who live their lives on their own terms. 

We believe that time isn’t necessary to create a fantastic spirit, so we want to continue to explore what it would take to recreate spirits that typically “require” aging. We aim to provide a limitless supply of whiskey that tastes as good as – or better – than the best whiskeys in the world, at a much lower cost both financially and environmentally.

EndlessWest_Glyph_BehindTheBar

Could you elaborate on the environmental part?

Endless West’s molecular spirits production process has strong environmental advantages across four areas: water consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, land use, and pesticide applications. Our process is most advantageous when compared to traditional winemaking because we use grain alcohol as a raw input. 

For example, our Glyph whiskies need 94 per cent less water, and 92 per cent less agricultural land use in comparison to traditional whiskey-making processes. We also emit less carbon dioxide – 87 per cent less.

(Related: Whisky staves seasoned with the essence of adventure)

How’s the reception been then? 

No matter what you do in life there will always be people who support you and people who don’t, so while we will undoubtedly receive less than favorable feedback from some people, we are focused on those that are willing to join us in breaking the rules a little. 

We have immense respect for the history and tradition of spirit-making and all we are doing is adding our unique perspective and techniques to the mix. Some people aren’t receptive to new ways of doing things, but we celebrate the everyday societal rule breakers and benders — those who live their lives on their own terms.

Will the product be available in Singapore?

Of course we’d love to expand as much as possible and we look forward to hopefully doing so down the line, but for right now our only international distribution is to Hong Kong.

 

Click here to head to Endless West’s website.