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Camper English on the Served Up Podcast

So What is a Molecular Spirit Anyway?

I wrote a story, my first for AlcoholProfessor.com, about Glyph "molecular spirit" that's meant to taste like aged whiskey without the barrel aging.

One great thing about writing for this website is that writers have permission to repost the story on our own websites after 30 days as long as we acknowledge:

This story first appeared on AlcoholProfessor.com. You can read the whole thing below. 


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Whiskey from Lab to Bottle: Can Glyph Make Better Spirits Using Molecules & Compounds?

Editor’s note: Camper English is widely acknowledged as one of the top spirits and cocktails writers in the world and a pioneer and leading authority on making clear ice. We could not be happier to welcome him as a contributor! Get ready to geek out as he explores some of the more scientific topics in the industry.

Many modern whiskey producers try to speed up the barrel aging process to make their liquor taste more mature with less of a wait. Inside a traditional barrel full of whiskey in a warehouse, the spirit is slowly transformed by interaction with the wood, spirit evaporation, and other reactions. Whiskey makers in a rush sometimes put their freshly distilled spirit into smaller than usual barrels or add wooden staves into the liquid for increased wood surface area contact. Others try to speed up the natural cycle of the spirit interacting the wood. They may cycle the temperature in the barrel warehouse to mimic the changing of seasons at a faster pace or put the distillate and wood under high and low pressures to force the liquid to pass into and out of the wood.

Glyph Lab

Glyph Lab

A Molecular Shortcut To Aging?

The makers of Glyph, however, take an even quicker route to mimicking aged whiskey, a shortcut through the lab. The abovementioned procedures are usually employed on young whiskey, and when it is finished it is still young whiskey, but (if they’ve done it right) older tasting. Glyph “molecular spirit” on the other hand doesn’t start off as whiskey and doesn’t get anywhere near a barrel.

The base of the product is grain neutral spirit just like that used to make vodka and most gin. To this spirit, flavors and texture components are added. Alec Lee, CEO of Glyph’s parent company Endless West, summarizes the difference between their process and that of others as, “Instead of starting with whiskey to create a more mature whiskey like other companies, we start with ethanol to create a whiskey through the sequential addition of different molecules and compounds.”

Endless West CEO Alec Lee

Endless West CEO Alec Lee

The trick of course is choosing the right molecules and compounds to make what is essentially vodka taste like aged whiskey. The Endless West team first analyzed traditionally made whiskeys to see what was in them down to the molecular level. “We benchmarked a variety of whiskeys - Scotches, American, Japanese, and Canadian whiskeys were all inspirations,” wrote Lee in an email interview. But they weren’t attempting to copy one specific brand or bottling. “We referenced a variety of whiskeys while developing Glyph, priced anywhere between $12 to $300+ a bottle. We were big fans of Macallan 18 at the time, so we took a lot of inspiration from that.”


What’s In A Spirit?

Endless West CEO Alec Lee

Endless West CEO Alec Lee

The staff scientists used both gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) devices to identify molecular components of the whiskeys’ aromas as well as their textures. Then they could purchase these individual flavor/texture molecules in the form of food-grade chemical compounds, or isolate their own compounds in the lab, and add them to the neutral spirit.

While maybe someday in the far-off future the whole process could be automated like the food replicators on Star Trek, in the short-term human intervention is necessary. Lee writes, “We do sensory testing throughout the development cycle - whether it’s benchmarking products in the market or refining our formulations to more closely hit a target flavor profile. In creating our products, we’re combining both science (using chemistry and data) and art (using the human touch). The human palate is the final checkpoint to knowing how good a product is.”


The Product Portfolio

The first products to launch were whiskeys, Glyph Original (“In tastings, Glyph is most similar to a Japanese or Canadian whiskey,” according to Lee.) It was then followed with two variants, Glyph Spice (inspired by bourbon) and Glyph Royal (inspired by sherry-aged scotch). But Endless West makes more than just whiskey.

“One of our goals is 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. We extend that philosophy across all categories of alcohol beverages,” says Lee. Those other beverages include a sake named Kazoku and a wine named Gemello.

As these products also begin with the same neutral spirit as Glyph, Lee says these are legally classified as distilled spirits. Glyph is classified as a “spirit whiskey with natural flavors.” Using equipment like GC-MS to analyze and mimic other products isn’t unique in the spirits industry but choosing to make a range of different spirits all with the same neutral base alcohol is pretty odd. And frankly, it also seems like a lot of extra work.

Lee said that each of their products presented its own challenge, particularly in matching the mouthfeel or texture of the wine/spirit/sake. Lee writes, “For wines, it’s elucidating the tannin structure. Generally, wines have more complex tannin and polyphenol structures - and therefore take more time to develop. For sake, it’s mimicking the rice character. [For whiskey] it’s important for us to analyze the molecular composition of oak - specifically, what molecules in oak contribute to the ‘woody’ character present in all whiskeys.”

Glyph Bottles

Glyph Bottles

Three whiskeys, one wine, and one sake seem like an unusual portfolio of products with widely different proofs and textures. I asked Lee, why start over with a widely different product each time? And do they really expect molecular sake to be a big enough selling product to justify all the research and development? Why not start with something easier, like flavored vodka or gin?

“It’s timely that you mention flavored vodka,” Lee wrote. “This year, we launched Blank Collective - the B2B arm of our business, that serves as a one-stop-shop commercial alcohol producer for our partners. Under Blank Collective, we manufacture private label alcoholic beverages and bulk spirits, in addition to a full suite of branding, product development, and manufacturing services to customers seeking to launch their own spirits brands. Under Blank Collective, we have produced and launched almost every kind of alcohol beverage imaginable (e.g. vodka, gin, whiskey, cocktails, etc.).”

So it turns out that they’re making plenty of other products, just not under their own brand name. The development of Glyph and Kazoku and Gemello was in part research for their consulting business, as well as advertising for it- Glyph has picked up some awards in spirits competitions. Lee wrote, “As we analyze more samples and generate more data/formulations, we shorten our product development time considerably. It’s much easier for us to create our ninth whiskey than it is to create our first sake.”



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