Just off the hustle and bustle of the bright lights on the Las Vegas Strip is a destination for the experiential-themed adventure seeker and drinker. Lost Spirits, a rum distillery inspired in part by Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, can be found at Area 15, an array of eclectic dining and interactive holes in the wall, like Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart.
This is the geek’s place to play and Gizmodo was recently given a tour of the unconventionally unique location that’s more of an immersion into the realms of classic literature — and boasts a novel way to age booze in a week.
Yes, a week! Bryan Davis, distiller and themed experience creator, explained. “In 2015, I got to be the first person to ever make booze in a laboratory successfully,” he said. “We figured out how to make 20-year-old stuff and it takes a week in a lab.”
Follow us along for a look at just how that process came to rock the industry that takes pride in the natural ageing process — and how Davis leaned into the chaotic and mad scientist genre as a theme for his distillery and invited all to partake in it, like a theme park for adult beverages.
We had to ask what comes first — the booze then the literary pairing? Or the story then the booze inspired from it? — as we looked around the lab and barrels, which felt like a slice of real science in a sci-fi steampunk setting. “It actually kind of depends on the story,” Davis explained. “So, for example, [we themed the] the distillery in LA [which has since closed] after Island of Dr. Moreau, because we were making the most sacred thing in the world that you could bastardize in this way and sort of, like challenge everyone’s belief in God in the way that they treat booze as a religion. It just screamed Island of Dr. Moreau.”
“We had this factory in Vernon [California] that we were already building, and it was almost finished. It was meant to be a real serious factory but we were like, ‘OK, we can turn this into a wonderland.’ So we built a tram ride in it and we’re like, ‘Oh yeah, but we have to get people here.’ So we bought a fleet of busses, gutted the insides, and then built them into submarines and gardens and all sorts of different things. It didn’t look like you were on a bus at all. We bought a restaurant in the arts district and then converted it into a jungle maze that we took people through and then loaded them onto busses.” he said. “The whole distillery back then, was themed around the Island of Dr. Moreau.”
Mad Cap Cuisine
And then, of course: “What does the Island of Dr. Moreau look like as food?,” Davis continued. “Eventually we started with English Tea Service, and then it just kind of morphed.” Davis recruited José Andrés protege Taylor Persh to be his sous chef. “You basically went all the way through this really elaborate, very serious dinner. But as you eat the food, it had all this alcohol gelled into it. So you got progressively drunker and drunker with each dish and then we would lower the temperature. And there were faux fur shawls on the chairs. So eventually you’d end up wearing them everywhere. And then chef would sort of eventually get them to all come up and pick parts out of the carcass of a carved up animal from one of the courses. So by the end, you got all of these people in their Sunday best wearing fur, ripping the skull apart. And it was like, ok, our work is done here.” (The Las Vegas location has a 16-course dining experience based on 20,000 Leagues that’s just as unhinged, allegedly.)
Naturally, we wanted to understand the science behind that — but he said it’s important to understand “how a barrel works” first, which requires a bit of an in-depth explanation. “The reason you put booze in a barrel is because during fermentation, short chain fatty acids [are produced]. Anyone with a chemistry background knows short chain fatty acids in nature are the thing your nose identifies as rotting smells; bacteria produces them as their chemical signatures when they’re eating stuff. Humans evolved gazillions of years ago to sniff food out: I smell the chemical signature of friendly bacteria, ie cheese, or I smell the chemical signature of bacteria that’s going to kill me … So those components, when it goes into a barrel, undergo a catalyzed chemical reaction; they’re bonded to alcohol molecules to form short chain fatty acid esters–a totally different molecule made out of those building blocks. That totally different molecule [combines into] the things in nature that make fruit taste like fruit … so basically, those chemicals bind up with alcohols to turn into fruit flavours and then the wood decomposes over the course of decades into booze and sheds phenols, which taste smoky.”
Machine Maketh Strong Proofs
“Those phenols can chemically bind and undergo the same reaction, the same catalysts in the wood, and turn into short chain fatty acid esters where the phenol is actually accumulated. Short chain, fatty acid esters. Those taste like leather or tobacco books. Honey flowers. In a nutshell, the way that you hack the process is by taking the wood and putting it in the tube and turning super high intensity light on it… They then get heated up in the tanks behind it, and the wood triggers that reaction to bind it all together. And you get that molecule [that creates] 20 year old booze in a week. Well, six days. I rest on the seventh.” Davis joked.
Davis shared the success of the Los Angeles location helped his team — co-led by Joanne Haruta, the co-founder — spin-off into Las Vegas, but then 2020 happened. “We were off to Vegas before [the Vernon location] closed due to covid. But we were conceptualizing what to do as a sequel before the pandemic hit,” he said, “And so we’re sitting there going, ‘What direction do we want to go when we get to Vegas? Do we want to stay in H.G. Wells or do we want to go Jules Verne?’ You know, there’s not a lot of other great choices. It’s going to be one of those two. And so we settled in on 20,000 Leagues — we wanted to do something that was a riff on it. The submarine bus was probably the coolest thing we had, so we basically blew the bus up to scale and then went, ‘What does the dining room underwater look like?’ We started watching all the Georges Méliès movies and going, ‘What would Méliès do?’”
Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum
The selections available at the Las Vegas Lost Spirits location along with the themed room pairing are surrounded by live musical acts, Olympic performers, and burlesque that make you feel like you wandered onto the set of Moulin Rouge.
Here are the main rum attractions; the first and last were our favourites:
“20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA”: GRADE A MOLASSES, AMERICAN OAK, LIGHT MUSCOVADO SUGAR
Served aboard the “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” submarine. 102 Proof
“CHERRY BOUNCE” GRADE “A” MOLASSES, MONTMORENCY CHERRIES, AMERICAN OAK CANE SUGAR
Made in 18th Century London Style Served in the “Dorian Grey” (located near the submarine docks) 92 Proof
“NAVY STYLE RUM” GRADE “A” MOLASSES ENGLISH DARK TREACLE TOASTED & CHARRED AMERICAN OAK
Served in the “English Parlor” & “Candle Lit Forest” 122 Proof
“PINEAPPLE RUM” GRADE “A” MOLASSES, AMERICAN OAK PINEAPPLES CANE SUGAR
Served in the “Enchanted Tasting Room” (Home to the Worlds 4th Best Animatronic Bird Show) 90 Proof
Drink Till You Feel Like You’ve Time-Travelled
Davis took us through the corners that felt like side streets. “Because we knew this one was going to be a rum distillery, we were going to build it off the boat rides and then we started with the whole thing as a submarine world and being an underwater adventure. So how about we build the docks around the submarine? And so I tied it into a whole lot of English literature — Verne is maybe my one French exception. And so the booze and the settings are all meant to kind of intertwine,” he said. “What does The Portrait of Dorian Grey booze look like? How do you blend the contexts and the different flavour profiles that would go with those, in order to get something that you would then drink? And you imagine where Oscar Wilde would want to hang out.”
Stay a While
“I knew I wanted to do the Dorian Grey Bar. And so as soon as we got from that point, I was like, ok, what’s your connective tissue?” he recalled, “And so I started thinking about what the docks would have looked like in Victorian England from The Portrait of Dorian Grey and then trying to build sort of a cityscape around the docks — and then build the rooms that you would duck into or the buildings you would duck into as you travelled in and out of that world. And that’s sort of the basis of all the different spots.”
And it is. As we made our way from room to room among the snake charmers and contortionists, we half expected to run into Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the spirited haunt. You can visit Lost Spirits Distillery at Area 15 in Las Vegas, NV. To book a tour or dining experience check out the official site.
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