Lab-Made Whiskey, Lab-Made Wine

By Derek Lowe 31 October, 2018

Via Chemjobber’s Twitter account comes a link to a really interesting Wall Street Journal story on a chemical approach to things like wine and whiskey (last explored here in this 2015 post). The startup company involved, Endless West, began by looking at the constituents of various types of wine and seeing if these flavor profiles could be recreated by adding the exact compounds to, basically, water and ethanol. Because, to get reductionist, that’s all a bottle of wine is, physically: a bottle of water, mostly, with some ethanol, and with a range of other (generally trace) compounds. That doesn’t sound too romantic (or perhaps even too appetizing), and it certainly doesn’t play to any sense of terroir or the other factors that wine lovers might find more important.

But what terroir does, physically, is help to determine the blend of those compounds in the mix. The variety of grape, the type of soil, the growing conditions (weather, precipitation, sunlight), the time of harvest and all the important handling thereafter (blending, aging, bottling, storage) – all of these and more are altering the final product by changing the variety and levels of various compounds in a solution of aqueous ethanol. Your mouth and nose do not sense history or price. It’s definitely true that other cues affect the sensory experience, starting with the color of the wine, and most certainly including the amount that you have paid for it, the setting in which you drink it, and other things that have nothing to do with your mouth or your nose per se. But as far as what’s in the bottle, well, it is what it is. And it can, in theory, be recreated. Vitalism is dead, you know,

The company moved on to whiskey, and now has one they’re calling Glyph. As the article shows, it’s an easier market to deal with for a variety of reasons (chemical, commercial, and legal ones):

. . .Early results surprised everyone: The whiskey was good. And in a number of ways, making whiskey made more sense. “People are a little bit more decoupled from how [whiskey] is made,” Lee says. “They don’t conjure up vineyards and rolling hills and say, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Federal regulations established by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, a division of the Treasury Department, would have prevented Ava Winery from selling its lab-made wine as wine (wine must be made from grapes, fruit or approved agricultural products). But there was an existing regulatory category that would encompass Glyph: “spirit whiskey.”

. . .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.

As you read the article, it’s obvious to a chemist that the company is using LC/MS and GC/MS machines to break down the flavor profile of their targeted beverages, then recreating them (or going into new areas) with food-grade reagents. An interesting thing, one that might not be known to people who haven’t cooked a lot, is that some small amounts of compounds that are themselves vile are needed in any complex flavor profile. Getting rid of isovaleric acid, for example, from the early wine mixtures gave what one company insider described as “fruit punch” instead. But if you’ve ever smelled isovaleric acid or its relatives, you can forgive them for thinking that wine would be better off without it. In small concentrations, though, things like that are essential.

There’s a very interesting taste test from the WSJ‘s writer in the article, and I’d be happy to hear from readers who have had the chance to try some of the whiskies mentioned in it. I’m absolutely the last person to have an opinion of my own in whiskey comparisons, as a lifelong nondrinker, but I can certainly see how this could work. For some values of “work”, that is. Another distillery executive is quoted in the article making the same points about whiskey as one makes for wine: some of the experience is knowing how old the beverage is, etc. He doesn’t mention it in so many words, but some of the experience, just as with many wines, is knowing how much you paid for it and how good or famous it’s supposed to be. This would be a good place to note that a lot of high-end distilled spirits in this country are not quite what the label and advertising would have you think they are, anyway. There are big distillers whose products are turned into any number of “craft” vodkas and whiskies, sometimes with extremely minor modifications (or none at all).

So it’s possible that Glyph itself, or something like it, could find a place as a novelty man-made whiskey, but it seems likely that that might stay as part of its appeal. Perhaps, though, recreated whiskey-oid spirits could end up taking over the low-cost end of the market, too, since you’d have to imagine that they’d be cheaper to make once you know the ingredient list. It will be quite something to see how this plays out.

And it’s going to play out in other areas past whiskey and wine. We’re going to be contending with a lot of foods that will have had some laboratory pedigree in them in the coming years – sometimes because they can be sold more cheaply, sometimes because they can be more expensive, sometimes because they can bring a famous but rare experience to more people or perhaps because they can provide an interesting and appealing sensation that no one has ever really experienced before, and sometimes because they will come with the possibility of environmental benefits (for which you may well be asked to pay more as well). It’s going to be a tangled situation, and it’s going to set off all kinds of arguments about what’s real food and what isn’t, what’s authentic, and what tastes good and what doesn’t. But we already know that some of these arguments can have no real resolutions: de gustibus non disputandum est. It’s the dispute that don’t have to do with taste that will be the fiercest.