This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Espresso and Whisky: The Place of Time in Food, first released on October 9, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
NICOLA TWILLEY: Alright, puffs of smoke, green lights. Oh, a boat. Of course.
TWILLEY: This sounds dramatic. And it is: we’re traveling through time!
CYNTHIA GRABER: I’ve always wanted to hop in a time machine! But I have to admit that since childhood I’ve wanted to use it to visit ancient Egypt.
TWILLEY: This particular time machine is not suitable for children. Nor will it take you to Ancient Egypt. This time machine is dedicated to a single purpose: making 20-year-old aged booze in just six days.
GRABER: And this episode is all about time. You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber,
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode we decided to visit a time machine because we had some questions—about time.
GRABER: Why does whisky take decades to reach perfection, and can that time actually be reduced to less than a week?
TWILLEY: The more time we spent thinking about time, the more we realized that time plays a role in everything we eat and drink—and in ways that we didn’t necessarily expect. Like fish—why does fish cook so quickly? And what is the “wasabi window?”
GRABER: And why should you go against all your instincts and not eat cheese right out of the fridge? Why should you wait?
TWILLEY: More to the point, how can you wait. But yes, this episode, we have answers to all of these mysteries, plus, as we said, a time machine.
GRABER: We promise to take you in a whisky time machine, but, before we get there, we wanted to explore the idea of time a bit more first.
TWILLEY: Because this episode was actually inspired by a brand new book all about time and food. It’s called The Missing Ingredient: The Curious Role of Time in Food and Flavor. And it’s by a British food writer called Jenny Linford.
JENNY LINFORD: I’m quite a light sleeper, you know. I often wake up at like 4 or 5 in the morning.
GRABER: Jenny organizes food events in London. And so one night she was lying in bed, and her mind was spinning about work—as mine often does, too—and she came up with a new idea for an event.
LINFORD: And I thought could I take people on a journey through time using food. And then I’m literally lying there, half-asleep, sort of thinking thoughts, and I thought time! But time is an ingredient! I had this sort of incredible epiphany. I got really excited and sort of sat up in bed.
TWILLEY: But unlike many of my seemingly brilliant middle-of-the-night epiphanies, Jenny’s idea survived into the grim light of day. And then, some time later, it turned into a book.
LINFORD: Obviously, I first of all, as someone that likes cooking, I thought of how I used time when I cook.
GRABER: That was the obvious one. But, as Jenny started to think of time as an ingredient, she realized it’s much more interesting and more complex than just cooking.
LINFORD: It’s actually—the making of food involves time. And it’s a very multifaceted thing. You know, things like ripeness and freshness and seasonality are about time.
TWILLEY: The more Jenny thought about it, everything food-related also had to do with time. So then she had a problem. How to squeeze all of this into a book.
GRABER: So Jenny decided to break it down—somewhat logically—by time.
LINFORD: You know, I begin with seconds. And seconds is a short section, which seems very appropriate.
TWILLEY: Short, sharp, and to the point. Like an espresso.
LINFORD: Coffee is an interesting example of how a beverage was speeded up.
GRABER: Usually you make coffee by letting water drip through ground coffee beans, or maybe you use some device to push that water through the ground beans. Either way, it takes a few minutes to brew.
LINFORD: And then with the discovery of steam power, people in the 19th century are trying to use steam power to make coffee faster.
TWILLEY: The Italians led the charge in this effort to speed up coffee. The first patent for a steam-brewed coffee machine was issued in 1884. But the term espresso wasn’t coined until 1906.
GRABER: Two inventors launched their brand new espresso machine at the Milan Fair that year. It was called The Ideale. And it did just what they wanted it to—it used steam power to push water and steam quickly through ground coffee. They called the resulting brew ‘cafe espresso,’ ’meaning literally, express coffee.
LINFORD: They do manage to make coffee faster but it’s just really thin and bitter and sort of unpleasant.
TWILLEY: The pressure was too low and the temperature was too high to extract any of the flavor notes or the nuance of coffee beans.
GRABER: The major breakthrough came a few decades later, by a man named Achille Gaggia.
LINFORD: He invents a way of making coffee using steam in 1938, which uses a piston which forces—that sort of leverage allows us to force through the very finely ground coffee. And that is what makes the espresso coffee, which is what we know it as now.
TWILLEY: And in fact, it is this dude’s name—Gaggia—that you still see today on lots of high-end espresso makers.
GRABER: But think about the timing of his invention. His coffee might have been express, but the timing of the launch was kind of off. 1938—World War II is just about to break out.
LINFORD: So it’s really after the war that he—that then he starts promoting and it spreads. And it is in the early 1950s, in London, that we have our first espresso bar opens in Soho. Opened by Gina Lollobrigida.
TWILLEY: A super sexy super famous Italian actress of the era—she literally starred in a movie called The Most Beautiful Woman in the World—playing the role of the most beautiful woman in the world.
LINFORD: And it becomes very sort of glamorous and hipster of that time to go and sit and drink. Can you imagine, you know, a small bitter shot of espresso, if you’ve never really had a proper coffee before and then your first coffee is an espresso. You’d have to be pretty sophisticated.
TWILLEY: Sophisticated in that European way, where death and despair are also sexy.
LINFORD: So you’d sit there in your black jumpers. I was told by an old coffee seller in that area in Soho—he said, oh Jenny, that used to be a bar called the Macabre and you went in and you—and all the waiters wore black. And then when you got your coffee, you sat and drank it at a coffin because that’s how sort of bleak and existentialist it was to have coffee.
GRABER: Of course, today, espresso is, yes, sure, it’s sophisticated, you can get all sorts of beautifully crafted drinks. But it’s also the coffee you get on the fly. Now, unlike in the past, it takes almost no time to get a good cup of coffee.
LINFORD: Yeah—30 seconds, which is quite remarkable. And really interesting in that massive coffee culture that we have, and the heart of it is the espresso. Because that way of making coffee using that power of steam allowed you to make a very strong concentrated shot of coffee that could then be effectively diluted with milk, but still taste of coffee.
TWILLEY: This express coffee— it launched us on a journey towards today’s pumpkin spice lattes and cappuccinos.
GRABER: But the clock is ticking. Two espressos adds up to a minute—which is the next section of Jenny’s book.
TWILLEY: It’s a little bit chunkier than her section on seconds.
LINFORD: Lots and lots of things take minutes because—partly because we have 60 minutes in an hour and that’s a long time.
GRABER: Each section in the book—like seconds, and minutes—it’s a collection of stories about different foods and drinks. And there’s one food Jenny put in minutes that surprised me. I thought it should have gone in seconds. It’s savoring the taste and flavors of chocolate.
LINFORD: One of the qualities of of eating chocolate is that it melts with our body temperature. So it’s that sensual contact within seconds. But the savoring I put in minutes because I wanted people to take—to think about savoring taking longer. Take some minutes, savor your food.
TWILLEY: So chocolate melts in seconds but you’re supposed keep the chocolate in your mouth for a whole minute? I mean come on. I can practically eat a whole bar in a minute!
GRABER: I have a really hard time imagining leaving chocolate in my mouth for a full minute.
TWILLEY: But this is what Jenny recommends.
LINFORD: What was quite fun to do is to take two bits of the same chocolate, same good chocolate. Let one melt in your mouth, think about what you’re—what flavors you’re getting as it melts. And then if you take the same bit of chocolate and you eat it really quickly, it’s much more limited.
GRABER: I have certainly had moments where I just needed chocolate fast, and I didn’t exactly linger on what notes I was picking up. But Jenny’s right, it’s a totally different experience to slow down. You taste so many more flavors in the chocolate—it is genuinely a much richer experience.
TWILLEY: And there’s actually a scientific reason for that. It’s all to do with the time it takes for the cacao butter in the chocolate to melt.
LINFORD: When the cacao butter melts, that releases those flavors in your mouth and then allows you to perceive them. Whereas if you just eat it and you don’t really let the cacao butter melt you just don’t get it, you know. So it’s really worth doing.
TWILLEY: Jenny’s point is you are literally cheating yourself of chocolate’s full flavor if you don’t take the time to savor it. Because different flavor notes take different amounts of time to register, depending on how heavy each particular chemical is. So the taste of one single square of chocolate— it will actually change over the course of a minute.
LINFORD: And, you know, you might be getting citrus-y notes depending on the cacao, or you might be getting, you know, berry notes.
GRABER: On top of that, chocolate will taste more bitter if you eat it quickly. Cocoa fat helps with the tannins in chocolate. And in really good dark chocolate, there are a lot of tannins. If you eat it quickly, your mouth feels kind of dry—it’s a little bitter. Because the fat hasn’t melted to balance the tannins.
TWILLEY: So, if you think you don’t like dark chocolate, maybe you just need to slow down. It genuinely tastes a lot better if you eat it slowly.
GRABER: Time yourself!
TWILLEY: I did, and it is all but impossible to make chocolate last a minute. But it’s fun trying.
GRABER: So chocolate was a surprise in the minutes section. But one of Jenny’s other choices made more intuitive sense to us, and that’s cooking fish.
LINFORD: All the recipes for fish are quick, you know. And I was just thinking, why?
TWILLEY: This is something I’d never really thought of, but there’s a surprisingly logical reason why fish cooks so fast. It’s because they live in water.
LINFORD: Which is a supportive medium. And so they are supported. And so their flesh is lighter and less dense basically.
GRABER: Land animals are working against gravity and have to stay upright. And so all of those animals, including us, we all have lots of cartilage and denser muscles. And it takes a lot of cooking time to break that all down.
TWILLEY: So fish really are the ultimate fast food. But there’s a downside to how fast they cook, too.
LINFORD: It makes it remarkably easy to overcook fish.
GRABER: Jenny interviewed a woman named CJ Jackson. CJ runs seafood cooking classes at London’s biggest fish market.
LINFORD: She just said, Jenny, everyone is always amazed at how quickly it cooks.
TWILLEY: CJ said, look, if you’re frying a thin fillet of fish, it can be cooked in as little as a minute. And then overcooked in a minute and a half. This can be quite anxiety-inducing for the home cook. And so the tendency is to give it a little bit longer, just in case, and then you end up with overcooked, spongy, dry fish. I speak as someone who has made this mistake.
LINFORD: She always said look, you know, it’s always—you know, be brave! It’s quicker than you think it’s going to be.
GRABER: Be brave, indeed. It’s worth it. Even for a thicker, denser fish that takes many minutes to cook, like salmon, give it an extra couple of minutes and it’s just not as good.
TWILLEY: A little under-cooked is way better than overdone.
GRABER: Some fish of course isn’t cooked at all—that is, sushi—and there’s an accompaniment to sushi that Jenny also included in her minutes section. Which totally surprised me.
LINFORD: It was a revelation to me, too.
TWILLEY: You know that little blob of green stuff you get with your sushi? I thought that was wasabi.
LINFORD: But it’s Japanese horseradish, which is much cheaper.
GRABER: Jenny told us that true wasabi is hard to grow. In Japan, it grows in mountain streams in clear running water. It takes a full 18 months before you can harvest it. All of that made it really expensive, and only high-end Japanese restaurants would have flown the real thing in from Japan.
TWILLEY: Which means that most of us, including me, have never tasted real wasabi. But Jenny told us that a few years ago, a British watercress farmer decided to try to grow real wasabi.
LINFORD: It was a very secret project, which I think they loved doing it because it was all top secret and they had code names and everything.
GRABER: Jenny ordered some wasabi from the company and she grated it. Because you can’t get that distinctive wasabi sensation without grating it to break down the cell walls and kick off an enzyme reaction.
TWILLEY: And she said that the flavor is much more nuanced that the normal green stuff she was used to.
LINFORD: It has got the heat of wasabi, that you get from the Japanese horseradish. But it’s got a sweetness, a really beautiful sweetness, and a very sort of delicate grassy flavor to it.
TWILLEY: The reason Jenny included this wasabi story in the minutes section of her book is because it’s one of the most time-sensitive foods there is.
LINFORD: I called it the wasabi window. You grate your fresh wasabi. Nothing happens at first, but within five minutes, this sort of chemical reaction takes place. Then, after five minutes, you’ll start to taste the heat and the flavor. But then it will trail away again. So you’ve probably got sort of ten, fifteen minutes to enjoy your fresh wasabi.
GRABER: This is the magical wasabi window—you can’t taste anything at first, and then after a few minutes the fantastic flavor all fades away!
TWILLEY: Get it while it’s hot. Literally!
GRABER: The week after we spoke to Jenny, I was at a restaurant where they advertised fresh wasabi from a New England farmer. I knew I had to enjoy it in about ten minutes! It gave the whole dish a little extra thrill—I had to savor it while I could before the flavor just disappeared. And, yes, it was really tasty.
TWILLEY: So the wasabi window is just ten minutes. But, as Jenny collected her stories, she found that there’s a sort of magic number in food and cooking, which comes up again and again: thirty minutes. This is a number you’ll see a lot at the bookstore—sometimes it seems as though every other cookbook promises recipes that are on the table in 30 minutes or less.
GRABER: That might be a marketing gimmick. But 30 minutes is a really useful block of time when it comes to recipes—maybe not in the way you’d expect. It has to do with how long you should just let your food be.
LINFORD: What I noticed in a lot of recipes is half an hour comes up quite frequently as a sort of useful time for various aspects of food. Including resting.
TWILLEY: When you roast meat, for example—often a good recipe will tell you to let the meat rest for 30 minutes before serving. That is not just to ramp up the anticipation for your delicious roast dinner—it’s actually because that time period allows the meat to reabsorb some of the juices it released while it was cooking, so that it tastes more succulent.
LINFORD: And then 30 minutes is also the period you told to rest pastry after you’ve made it, and that’s to do with allowing the gluten to develop, so that when you roll out your pastry it doesn’t crack. So there are different reasons, you know, depending on the food. And then you have this really unlovely expression: de-chilling.
GRABER: De-chilling might not sound lovely, but what it does to cheese it quite lovely indeed.
TWILLEY: Fridges are not the ideal environment for cheese. They’re very dry and very cold, and that makes cheese seize up a little. It gets tough.
LINFORD: And then bringing it to room temperature allows it to relax a bit to get more of the texture that the cheese maker wants you to experience.
GRABER: The texture of cheese improves dramatically if you leave it out of the fridge for half an hour. And so does the flavor. Cold makes it harder to pick up on all the aromas in the cheese, the smells. And those are critical to the flavor.
LINFORD: So if you’ve bought some good cheese and you want to enjoy it then you should definitely bring it out of the fridge a half an hour, if not more, depending on temperature, before you eat it.
TWILLEY: I believe Jenny to be correct about this. But this kind of delayed gratification and planning—it’s not my strong point.
GRABER: It only really works for me if my partner Tim and I are specifically planning on having cheese for dinner. Then I can remember to take it out early and fully enjoy cheese’s wonderful cheesiness. Otherwise? Straight out of the fridge.
TWILLEY: De-chilling cheese for 30 minutes is already difficult. At least for us. But some foods demand yet more patience. Weeks, even.
LINFORD: I wrote a chapter called in defense of hanging. And that is hanging meat,
GRABER: Meat starts to go bad right away. Microbes love it.
LINFORD: So really, you know, the sort of safe thing to do would be like to get your meat. You know, kill your animal, eat it at once. But hanging is an interesting process where you’re sort of playing with the process of decay.
TWILLEY: A good butcher can draw out this flirtation with decay over three or four weeks.
LINFORD: I visited a hanging room with all these cattle carcasses hanging around me. And it makes you realize the word “hanging” literally is hanging, because the carcass is suspended from a hook.
GRABER: There are a few things that are going on as the beef hangs. First, as it dries out, it is, of course, losing moisture and losing weight.
LINFORD: As it dries out you’ve also got enzyme reaction in the meat which is tenderizing it and creating flavors.
TWILLEY: Hanging beef is a costly process—meat is sold by weight, and because you’ve lost a bunch of water, it’s now technically worth less. But you can then charge more for the flavor.
GRABER: Normal supermarkets don’t do this. It’s really specialized.
LINFORD: It looks quite daunting. I talked to a young guy who was an Australian butcher, and they don’t have this tradition in Australia and when he first went into—and he saw carcasses hanging, he was really shocked because they’re mouldy and they look like they going off.
TWILLEY: When it comes time to sell the meat, the butchers just trim the mold off. And the beef underneath is delicious.
LINFORD: When you eat it, you’ll really taste the difference and it will have an added savoriness to it.
GRABER: So, for the best tasting beef, it seems like you really need to wait a few weeks. But for the best-tasting whisky? You’ll have to wait for years.
TWILLEY: You would think so, Cynthia. But there’s an inventor and entrepreneur here in Los Angeles who says he can make 20-year-old Scotch whisky in 6 days.
GRABER: We’re obviously focusing on time this episode, and whisky is a great example of how time translates into money. The most beloved whiskys are usually around 20 years or older, and they can cost from about a hundred bucks to even more than a thousand.
BRYAN DAVIS: So welcome to the distillery, or at least the first part of it.
TWILLEY: This is Bryan Davis. He’s built a whisky time machine slash theme park in downtown Los Angeles.
GRABER: But Bryan didn’t start out as a mad scientist. First, he started off making booze the normal way with his partner Joanne.
DAVIS: When the absinthe company took off like a rocket, it was a complete accident. Joanne and I had moved to Spain. We’d opened an absinthe distillery when we were psychotic in our 20s. And we ended up getting lucky.
TWILLEY: Very lucky. One of the world’s most famous mixologists decided that Bryan and Joanne’s absinthe was the best.
DAVIS: And then the business really sort of took off like crazy and we ended up with 25 employees and all the stresses and nightmares that go with having 25 employees. And when the absinthe market crashed and we sold it, Joanne and I decided to basically do a retirement project.
GRABER: Bryan and Joanne bought some land on an artichoke farm in California—not most people’s first thought when they picture retirement.
TWILLEY: But they couldn’t leave the booze alone.
DAVIS: It was the two of us. We were really into the Islay-style whiskys. And so that’s what we decided to produce to start.
TWILLEY: Islay whiskys come from the Scottish island of Islay, in the Hebrides, and they’re known for their smoky flavor.
GRABER: So Bryan and Joanne, they had this great idea. They thought: we’ll make whisky in our retirement home. But then they started running into all sorts of different questions as they thought about all the different steps they’d need to follow to make whisky.
DAVIS: It’s, okay, how do we sit there and say you know we want this malted barley versus that malted barley? How do we know if we want it to be malted for a longer period of time, where the seeds are more mature before you dry them?
TWILLEY: Where should your peat come from? What kind of wood do you want to use for your barrels?
DAVIS: There’s like ten different variables in here that all had to be dialed in and orchestrated together for each individual different product offering. And so distilleries in the whisky space traditionally have spent hundreds of years doing exactly that.
GRABER: Even if Bryan and Joanne made a decision or twelve, it would take a decade to find out if they’d bet correctly, because that’s kind of the minimum amount of time needed to age your whisky.
TWILLEY: Brian realized he needed a way to peek into the future, to make sure he wasn’t spending a fortune—and 20 years of his life—aging a whisky that was going to taste like crap.
DAVIS: I was trying to develop a process that would give me a rough sketch so that I could then traditionally fill barrels.
GRABER: People have in fact tried to make these types of whisky time machines before.
TWILLEY: The basic idea is that people already knew that much of the flavor of whisky was created by the wood in the barrels breaking down over time and reacting with the alcohol.
GRABER: So they tried to get the wood to break down faster, and not take a decade to react with the alcohol. And so Bryan decided to try some of these existing time machines to see if they worked.
TWILLEY: Each of the ones he tried used a slightly different, equally out there technique to break up the wood super fast and mix it with the whisky. Like putting it under super high pressure.
DAVIS: You know what happens if we turn it up to 10,000 psi and break the wood apart that way? What happens if we vibrate it? What happens if we put it on—there’s a patent for putting it on a gondola and running up to the top of a mountain and then back down and it would just go endlessly in a loop on a ski lift.
GRABER: Those didn’t work. Then Bryan tried just soaking lot of little chips of wood in whisky like a teabag, that didn’t work either. And then inspiration struck.
DAVIS: So I was standing on my deck and I had this old deck made of reclaimed wood I had gotten from a friend who was the manager of the dump. And I needed to put a new layer of paint on it to protect it from the sun because it was falling apart in the sun.
TWILLEY: So Bryan made a mental note to add painting the deck to his to-do list. And then he carried on with his day.
DAVIS: And so I got about maybe 100 feet away and then went like, hey, wait a minute! Okay, if the deck is falling apart in the sun, that means the polymer structures are degrading in the light.
GRABER: Bryan thought, maybe he could mimic that process. Maybe he could find a way to expose wood to the equivalent of incredibly strong sunlight so that it would break down like his deck did.
TWILLEY: And this idea worked! That moment of inspiration on his deck— that was in 2009. So obviously this whole process took a few years to perfect. But Bryan patented his time machine in 2015, and now his distillery is up and running in a big building in downtown LA. It’s called Lost Spirits.
DAVIS: You guys ready to go to Whisky Island?
DAVIS: Alright, cool, this way, guys. So, off we go.
TWILLEY: Some of you will have no doubt done a distillery tour before. This is not like them.
DAVIS: Well, I worked in theme park design out of college for about a year. Not very long. But I love doing it.
TWILLEY: Bryan has set up his stills and his time machine and his lab inside a completely fantastical Disney-fied world—to get to Whisky Island, we had to go through a jungle, ride a pirate ship along a river, and then get on a carousel under starry skies, surrounded by odd sea creatures
DAVIS: Yeah, no, I painted all the fish faces and the creatures in here and the carousel benches and—
GRABER: Yes, this is not the usual distillery tour. And then Bryan pointed out a special item he has in his lab next door.
DAVIS: Probably the most fun thing that’s hiding back here, beside some exotic and rare bottles of stuff for study, but hiding back there is a first edition of The Time Machine.
TWILLEY: That’s H.G. Well’s famous book, The Time Machine. And then we got to see Bryan’s time machine.
DAVIS: It’s glass tube that’s about maybe 14 inches around that’s full of, in this case, whisky I believe, at the moment. And then it’s got these grid-like stainless steel baskets inside that are holding all the wood up against the glass.
GRABER: The stainless steel baskets look like the ones you might dip into a deep fryer. And they’ve got wood chips suspended in bubbling whisky instead of bubbling oil.
DAVIS: And then it’s got a whole bunch of arrays of really, really, really bright intense lights that are aimed at it and then shields to keep the light out of your eyes.
GRABER: The lights are three times as powerful as sunlight at the equator. That’s intense—and that makes the wood disintegrate into the alcohol. Instead of a barrel breaking down slowly over decades, the lights are powerful enough to cause the same amount of disintegration in six days.
TWILLEY: And this is why those earlier whisky time machine ideas didn’t work. They just tried to increase the surface area of the wood-whisky interface. But it turns out that more wood is not the same as old wood.
DAVIS: In other words, what you get out of the wood is it degrades in year one are completely different chemical products than what you get out of the wood in year 15.
GRABER: Bryan’s sunlight process compresses that multi-year timeframe into just a few days. So that’s one problem that Bryan solved. But he wasn’t done. Because when the wood first degrades, it doesn’t taste so great.
DAVIS: So there’s two main polymers we care about. Lignin is the hard brittle polymer that makes the tree able to stand up straight. And then hemicellulose is the polymer that makes them soft and spongy and lets them bend in the wind and not snap apart.
GRABER: The lignin breaks down into compounds that taste like plastic and rubber and tar.
TWILLEY: And meanwhile, the hemicellulose is breaking down into equally delicious things that smell like vomit and rancid orange juice.
GRABER: These are not flavors I want in my whisky.
TWILLEY: And that’s okay, because there is another step. It’s called esterification, and basically what happens is the gross-smelling chemicals from the decomposing wood bind to the alcohol molecules and make new chemicals that taste much better.
GRABER: They turn into flavors like honeysuckle and leather and pipe tobacco and vanilla.
DAVIS: Now imagine there’s hundreds of different combinations therein taking place and you get all of the complexity that makes old booze, old booze.
GRABER: And so just like people thought that soaking wood chips in booze would speed up the aging process—and they were wrong—people also thought that you couldn’t make the esterification process happen more quickly. They thought it just took time for all those chemicals to interact and react and create delicious flavors.
TWILLEY: Chemists and whisky makers believed that these reactions just happened, over the course of years. Whereas in reality it was a chemical—a catalyst—that was making them all happen.
GRABER: People had thought that time was the only catalyst, but Bryan discovered that the wood sheds a catalyst as it breaks down. He’s proven that it’s there, though he hasn’t been able to isolate it yet.
TWILLEY: Bryan is still working on identifying this mysterious catalyst that the wood naturally gives off, because he wants to name it after himself.
GRABER: But meanwhile, now that’s he’s figured how this reaction happens, he’s built the second part of his time machine. He’s proven everyone wrong again: you can speed up this whole esterification process.
TWILLEY: Amazing. But our whisky is not done yet.
DAVIS: Once you’re to about 15 to 20 years in a barrel there’s really no new chemistry taking place anymore. But, as the ethanol and water evaporate through the barrel walls, they make the flavors more and more concentrated over time. And so we wanted to figure out how to recreate that concentration.
GRABER: This is what is poetically known as the Angels’ Share. Because monks who were distilling in the Middle Ages didn’t understands pores in wood or evaporation. They just knew some of their whisky disappeared.
DAVIS: The monks studied the phenomenon for a long time and they ultimately concluded that the angels would come in in the night and they would have a drink and then they would bless the barrel in exchange.
TWILLEY: This Angels’ Share is the third step in any good whisky time machine. You have to evaporate a little of the whisky. But this evaporation process is not as simple as just maybe heating your whisky up a little bit and letting some evaporate.
GRABER: Different chemicals evaporate at different temperatures, over different time scales. Bryan hasn’t quite been able to mimic that part of aging, the final step to make a thirty-year-old whisky in six days.
DAVIS: Essentially that machine’s recreating that effect and it doesn’t work all the time and we don’t really understand why.
TWILLEY: So it’s not quite there yet. And in fact this three-step whisky time machine—Bryan makes it sound like it was just the eureka moment on his deck, but, really, it took quite a bit of tinkering to make it work.
DAVIS: When I first came up with the idea of using the light to degrade the wood, I was able to get something that had all of the right composition of an aged bottle of booze in terms of its total compounds. But all of the ratios were batshit crazy. Like nothing was right.
GRABER: Bryan didn’t really care at first, because he was like, okay, it’s weird, but it still tastes pretty good.
TWILLEY: But he’s a Scotch whisky obsessive at heart, and he couldn’t let it go.
DAVIS: But then we spent the next—well, I spent maybe next year and a half doing nothing but trying to fine tune that process. So changing bands of light, changing relative concentrations of different bands of light in the process. Changing intensities, changing you know wood treatments. Different strategies for toasting or charring. Like going through all sorts of different possible strategies to try to tweak which polymer degrades first and in what concentrations in order to re-balance it
GRABER: I find Bryan’s time machine building process insanely fascinating, of course, but what I really want to know is: Can he successfully replicate aged booze? He uses his time machine to make all sorts of aged liquors: rum and brandies and of course whisky. Does it work?
DAVIS: In the rums, we’ve actually published the chromatogram and published the overlays and comparisons.
TWILLEY: A chromatogram is a read-out from a machine that tells you exactly which chemicals and how much of each of them is in your sample.
DAVIS: And we’ve been able to do almost identically recreate the chemical signature of—I use 1975 Port Morant as my control sample.
GRABER: This is a very expensive high-end rum from Guyana. It’s super rare and can cost hundreds of dollars.
DAVIS: And we’ve gotten very, very close to recreating its chemical signature, albeit at a lower density, which is why we have a 15 to 20-year-old signature as opposed to the 33-year-old signature, which is what I really, really, really want to figure out how to make someday.
TWILLEY: Basically Bryan is saying: he can make 20-year-old rum in six days that is more or less identical, chemically, to the real deal.
GRABER: But Bryan won’t even admit whether or not he’s tested whisky with a chromatogram.
DAVIS: The reason we’ve never published that kind of data on whisky is because you’re really touching on people’s most deeply held belief systems and we try to be you know respectful and reverent to the fact that this is really a religion for a lot of people as opposed to a beverage.
GRABER: And whisky lovers don’t want you to mess with their religion.
DAVIS: And so it’s really a little bit different than when you’re making rum or brandy, which are really beverages. When you get into whisky it’s, you know—it’s more special I suppose. And so we take a more humble approach to talking about it. You want to say it tastes good, you want to say it’s interesting, you want to talk about the production process, but you don’t necessarily want to go like this is the equivalent of X number of years. I mean if I had to do it, Malt Advocate magazine pegged it at about 10 to 12 years old. And so I could let Malt Advocate magazine do the talking for me, I suppose.
TWILLEY: So, bottom line, and apologies to the members of the cult of whisky, but the answer to your question, Cynthia, is yes. Bryan really can make a 10- to 12-year-old aged whisky in six days.
GRABER: Let’s go back to the rum example. Bryan can create a rum that’s basically identical to a 15 to 20-year-old rum, but he can’t yet match the 33-year-old one. He has the same problem with whisky. Because he hasn’t figured out that angels’ share issue, as we mentioned before.
DAVIS: Which is why those bottles of old Villier independent bottlings of ancient rums and whiskies—why I still spend hundreds of dollars on them.
TWILLEY: Bryan still feels like he has work to do. But whisky lovers in general have been pretty enthusiastic about Bryan’s time-machine bottlings. He’s released two whiskies.
DAVIS: So far we generally get treated pretty well by everybody, by virtue of coming from the point of view of having been priests before heretics you know. And it’s won us a bunch of neat international awards and stuff too.
GRABER: This is great, but we wondered: If Bryan can look at a chart and see what chemicals match in his booze and the aged one, can’t you just buy the chemicals and mix them together and get the aged whisky that way, without the hassle of building a time machine?
DAVIS: It’s such a great question, right? And the answer is that there’s literally like hundreds and hundreds of things that get formed throughout the process and many, many, many of those things literally we don’t have a way to make in a laboratory
TWILLEY: Turns out, it’s actually easier to invent a time machine than to figure out how to synthesize all of these chemicals
DAVIS: Much easier.
GRABER: And now that Bryan’s invented a booze time machine, are all the big liquor companies freaking out about this small upstart who’s going to disrupt their entire business model?
DAVIS: You would think. And a first instinctive knee-jerk response would be to go where you just went there. In reality, it’s not quite like that.
TWILLEY: Bryan’s time machine whisky is not about to wipe out this entire super profitable industry. For a few reasons.
GRABER: For one, Bryan just can’t make as much booze as all those big companies do. Plus, each one of his machines costs about $100,000 to build.
DAVIS: And I mean we couldn’t make enough hardware to be, you know, 2 percent of the market in our lifetimes, right?
GRABER: And so, at the end, a bottle of Bryan’s booze costs about the same amount to make as a bottle of a decent 15-year-old aged variety you can pick up in the liquor store.
TWILLEY: So why bother?
DAVIS: The real advantage comes from the fact that I’m able to compete where I would never be able to if I had to do this the conventional way. Like, I would never have been able to build up the business to the point where I could take all the failed batches and throw them away. And so what the technology really did for me was make it possible for me to compete. In a way that I would have just simply had to—I would’ve been forced and left no recourse but to make a vodka or something.
GRABER: This is actually what new distillers usually do. They make vodka, or gin at first—which is basically flavored vodka—because they have no way to get into any other type of booze at the beginning. It takes too long.
TWILLEY: It turns out that the time machine’s advantage is not primarily economic. It’s that it gives you time to fail.
DAVIS: Well, and the time gives me the ability to iterate. Right? It gives you the ability to R&D and to develop products that you feel comfortable putting on the shelf much more rapidly. So the truth is the time advantage, its biggest single impact is the speed of research and development.
GRABER: And, in fact, Bryan couldn’t share all the details about this because it’s top secret business stuff—but he admitted he’s working with major liquor companies.
TWILLEY: Diageo and Suntory and the big booze conglomerates—they don’t see Bryan’s technology as a rival, they see it as a tool. They can do their R&D that way, too.
GRABER: Bryan has an entire other much bigger distillery where he’s working with those big brands on commercial products.
TWILLEY: He uses the little distillery in downtown LA as a playground for his own ideas.
GRABER: Right now, Bryan’s perfecting a new drink—it’s sort of like a Slivovitz, a plum brandy that’s turns dark and dense and rich after being aged for years.
DAVIS: I’ll probably finish it in like a month and then have it done before Halloween.
GRABER: Halloween 2018 instead of Halloween 2028.
TWILLEY: And these experiments—it’s not just that Bryan can go through and find something that works, quickly. It’s also that he can try entirely new things—things that aren’t possible using the old-school barrel aging method. And that means that he can create entirely new flavors.
GRABER: Whisky is aged in all sorts of barrels. Some are brand new, some have been used to age other alcohols like wine. Putting whisky in a used barrel gives the final product an extra layer of flavor.
TWILLEY: Wood needs to be prepped for the time-machine aging process, and usually Bryan would use water to get the wood ready.
GRABER: But for one of his whiskys, he decided to use late-harvest Riesling wine to prep the wood.
DAVIS: And that sort of has a really particularly fun reason for existing because the late-harvest Riesling wine isn’t actually aged in barrels
TWILLEY: You literally can’t taste Islay whisky aged in late-harvest Riesling barrels any other way. And those Riesling grapes give it lovely, apricot, almost marmelade-y note that I haven’t tasted in other aged whiskys.
GRABER: That’s one type of experimentation. And Bryan also wants to play around with the wood itself. Because out in the world, only three species of oak are used to make barrels.
TWILLEY: But there are lots more oak species. They’re just too porous or too knotty to make barrels. But that doesn’t matter for Bryan’s time machine. Because you don’t actually have to build a barrel.
DAVIS: So African blue oak sounds really interesting. You know? I have no idea what that’s going to do but I really want to try it. California Black Oak was a food supply for Native Americans. That sounds interesting.
GRABER: Bryan wants to not only be a time traveler, but also a flavor magician.
TWILLEY: Which is so funny—what I ended up thinking is so exciting about what Bryan is doing is completely not what I expected. I thought he was speeding up time just to make money. But actually, it’s a much more interesting thing—it’s about manipulating time to explore flavor.
GRABER: Part of why he can do that is he’s actually an expert on flavor, in this particular field of aged booze. And this goes back to what Jenny was talking about, in her research on time for her book. The whole point of using and manipulating time is to get just the flavors that you want.
TWILLEY: Exactly. And what’s funny is that all the chefs and farmers and cheese-mongers and butchers that Jenny writes about in her book—they all prove this larger point, which is that getting to where you have the skill to create those magical flavors—that also requires, of course, time.
LINFORD: I think one of the themes in the book is, you know, you can’t beat experience and experience takes time.
GRABER: Bryan had been making booze for years and drinking it for even longer. This experience is just what gave him the expertise he needed to play with time.
LINFORD: You know everyone I talked to, the food producers, their knowledge was acquired over years. And actually you know I learned how to cook over years because it’s when you do it and you do something over and over again that then you become familiar with it and you learn it and you understand it and you—your senses are telling you, you know, this is smelling good, this isn’t quite right.
TWILLEY: In the end, it’s not about fast or slow.
LINFORD: It’s about taking the right amount of time.
TWILLEY: Listen through to the end for a sneak peek at our next episode—we’re finally taking on one of your most requested topics. And don’t forget to come see us in Madison this weekend or Philly in November—we love getting to say hi in person! Thanks this episode to Jenny Linford—her new book is called The Missing Ingredient and we have a link to it on our website. And we also owe a huge thanks to Tom Gilliford who hooked us up with a recording booth in London. He’s a Gastropod fan but also a Great British Bake Off star
GRABER: And we’re huge fans of the Great British Bake-Off! So we were thrilled. Thanks also to Bryan Davis and his partner Joanne.
TWILLEY: Lost Spirits whiskeys and rums are available at liquor stores around the country, and, if you’re in LA, you have to take their distillery tour. It’s unlike any other liquor tour you will ever have been on. We have photos of his time machine on our website and in our listener email—sign up at gastropod dot com.