As the co-owner of Melbourne bar Whisky & Alement, I taste a lot of whisky – up to 20 new bottles a week.
Glyph is different to what I’ve spent the past decade drinking and serving. Produced in a lab, using organic chemistry, it looks, smells and tastes like a clean, single-cask grain whiskey. But only in America and Japan can it be sold as such. In the other major producing countries, local laws say whisky must spend a minimum number of years in wooden barrels – two in Australia and three in Scotland, Ireland and Canada.
Endless West, the San Francisco-based company that makes Glyph, was founded in 2015. Originally it called itself Ava Winery, and the three founders wanted to reverse engineer the world’s greatest wines, recreate them in a lab and sell them for a fraction of the price. The next year, they announced they were close to releasing 499 ersatz bottles of Dom Pérignon 1992, synthesised from pure ethanol and precise concentrations of specific acids, sugars and other organic molecules.
But there was a problem: the word “wine” can’t legally be used to market something made without grapes. So the guys – two biotechnology grads and a certified sommelier – pivoted to whisky, where there’s much less regulation. They also gave up trying to copy the greats, in favour of creating something original and distinctive.
“We bought a lot of whisky,” recalls Alec Lee, Endless West’s co-founder and CEO. We’re standing in the sunshine outside EvokeAG, an agritech expo he’s in town to speak at. “As a team, we tasted through dozens of bottles and started picking out the styles we liked. From there, a lot of consumer testing was done.”
Working with 200 whisky drinkers in Denver, New Jersey and Boston, Endless West found the market is split into three nearly even slices: people who like rich, peaty whisky; people who prefer lighter, fruit-forward whisky; and people in the middle.
Glyph targets the lighter-whisky audience. In part because this style of whisky is more approachable for newcomers, but also because a peaty character can only be replicated with carcinogenic petrochemicals, a legally fraught zone that real whisky skirts due to tradition. A bottle currently retails for about US$60, roughly the same price as a 12-year-old single-malt Scotch such as Macallan, Glenlivet, Laphroaig or Balvenie.
Near us, a couple of bartenders are mixing Glyph into cocktails for expo attendees. I ask for a neat pour. Tasting professionally from a plastic cup is limiting, but my immediate response is … it’s disappointingly good. Clean, light, and vanilla-forward with a hint of fruit. Pitching somewhere between a vanilla vodka and the lightest Speyside whiskies (such as Glen Moray), it’s the first lab-produced whisky that doesn’t taste like sucking on woodchips. In a mixed drink, I doubt the average consumer would be able to distinguish Glyph from the real thing. Compared to real Scotch, though, it still lacks viscosity, mouthfeel and complexity. Sooner or later, technology will overcome these flaws, while also making it cheaper to produce.
Historically, every advance in the whisky industry has been met with resistance. The continuous or column still, introduced in the early 1800s, increased production 10-fold but sacrificed the depth and palate weight of the older pot stills. Irish producers, then the world’s pre-eminent whiskey makers, shunned the new invention, only to be swallowed up by Scotland’s more open-minded industry (which continues to use pot stills for its finest single malts). Are we witnessing another significant moment in whisky history? Will those who stick to old, romantic, time-consuming methods be left behind?
“This is going to be, I hope, an addition rather than a disruption,” Lee says. “Some people, they want the story of the barrel. Other people, they’re like, ‘I’ve heard that story. I hear it every time I talk about any whisky. Now I want to hear something new.’”
One of Endless West’s largest backers is Horizon Ventures, a Hong Kong-based investment firm that, alongside Bill Gates and Google Ventures, has also poured money into Impossible Foods, known for its lab-made, plant-based hamburgers that “bleed”. The star additive is a meaty-tasting molecule called heme, which the company synthesises in vats using genetically modified yeast.
Glyph’s proprietary process takes about a day and involves adding “hundreds” of organic flavour and aroma compounds to cheap corn-derived ethanol alcohol. There’s no artificial colouring – the finished spirit gets its light caramel hue after a brief period of contact with wood. This from-scratch approach makes Glyph different to the real (albeit also sped-up) rum and whisky produced by Los Angeles’s Lost Spirits. The company made headlines in 2015 by using heat and light to accelerate the barrel-ageing process, condensing 20 years into seven days.
Uncomfortable as we may feel about food and drink made in labs, there’s more coming and widespread take-up may be one day be necessary to meet the needs of a growing global population faced with climate change. If things don’t change, whisky in particular may once again become prohibitively expensive for all but the most wealthy.
Atomo, a startup in Seattle, plans to launch a bean-free molecular coffee this year, while Impossible Foods’s main competitor, Beyond Meat, is already widely available in Australian supermarkets alongside the meat substitute Quorn, invented in the ’80s. Glyph, which is still made by hand in a small warehouse in the centre of San Francisco, has no immediate plans to launch in Australia, but others like it may be here soon. How they might overcome whisky and other spirit-labelling laws remains to be seen.
“There’s a bar in New York City that already has Glyph on the menu, under the ‘molecular spirits’ category,” Lee says. “I think that’s a perfectly appropriate place for it to be. It doesn’t fit into any of the traditional buckets of whisky, and it’s not really supposed to. It wouldn’t be fun for them, or for us, if it tasted exactly like a Speyside or a wheated bourbon.”
Brooke Hayman is the co-owner of Melbourne bar Whisky & Alement and won the Australian Malt Whisky Tasting Championship in 2018.