The Redemption of Bryan Davis

Last year we learned about a new distillery south of the Bay Area called Lost Spirits that was making peated single malt whisky. It was being run by a guy named Bryan Davis who brought us two of his newest creations: the Seascape and the Leviathan. Bryan had worked as a distiller in Spain before relocating to California and building a steam-powered, outdoor still near Salinas. These were the first whiskies he was ready to bring to market. They were bold, exciting, and interesting, but they weren't for everyone. Nevertheless, I thought they deserved an audience, even if it meant taking back a few returns for people who didn't "get it."

There were a lot of people who didn't "get it." Bryan was using Canadian peat, Canadian barley, an odd type of still, and wine casks for maturation. It wasn't surprising that his distillates didn't at all resemble anything one would find on Islay. They were experimental. They were works in progress. Most importantly, however, they were quite polarizing.

While Bryan quickly drew the attention of single malt enthusiasts all over the world, not all of that press was positive. Many drinkers found the whiskies simply too bizarre and they weren't afraid to share their opinions with the blogosphere. Like most people that put themselves out there for the world to judge, Bryan was nervous about the public response and quite sensitive as well. To him, the criticism was personal because he had invested everything he had into these whiskies. It got to the point where he emailed me wondering what he should do. I told him to lay low for a while and just keep working. He told me he was considering just shutting everything down. After a lukewarm response from some online reviewers, Bryan was wondering if he even should be making whisky.

I told Bryan that we had actually lost money selling the first batches of his single malts, which is not what he wanted to hear. I told him that the amount of returns we had on those bottles eclipsed any of the profits we made from selling them. However, I made sure to point out to him that I was completely fine with that. As a retailer, it's my job to anticipate this kind of response. I knew full well what I was putting on the shelf and I knew it might not go over well with many of our customers. I was willing to take that risk. I believed in what Bryan was doing and I didn't care about the revenue. I just wanted to support a local guy who I thought was capable of doing something great.

I didn't hear from Bryan again for a few months until he emailed me again last week, wondering if he could stop by the store to taste me on a few new samples. He came to Redwood City yesterday with two bottles in hand: one labeled as Ouroboros and the other called Bohemian Bonfire. We went to the tasting bar and poured them off into the glassware. I nosed and sipped. I asked him, "How much of this stuff do you have and how much can you get me?"

After the debacle that occured post-Seascape/Leviathan, Bryan was discouraged and disheartened. He was looking for inspiration and doing a bit of soul-searching. That's when he stumbled upon a single barrel of Kilchoman at a whisky tasting he attended. The flavors were bright, clean, and surprisingly drinkable, despite the youth of the whisky itself. When Bryan inquired into what Kilchoman's magic consisted of, he learned that the distillery takes one of the smallest heart cuts in the business (with pot still distillation, the distiller usually takes the middle cut, dumping off the heads and tails for redistillation). Bryan didn't add the cuts back in, however. He took a small middle cut and left it at that.

That was step one. The next step was to get better cooperage. Rather that use the wine-soaked casks for extra flavor, Bryan wanted mild oak aging as to not detract from the high-quality distillate. He scrubbed out his wine barrels and cleaned profusely, leaving only the wood in its place. His new, ultra-spirit was placed into the barrel and laid down to rest. The result is the Bohemian Bonfire, the same whisky as Leviathan with a smaller heart cut and normal oak aging. It's by far the best whisky Bryan has ever made and it's much more mainstream without losing the Lost Spirits character. It's also, without a doubt, the best peated American whiskey I've ever tasted.

The other bottle Bryan had with him was called Ouroboros and it was dark like sherry. When Bryan was unable to secure fresh sherry butts, he decided to create his own. He took his own cooperage, filled them with sherry, let the barrels sit, emptied them out, and filled them with a new distillate - comprised of 100% California single malt and smoked with 100% California peat (sourced from the San Joaquin delta). Again, the result is outstanding. It's all of the plant-like, beery flavor of Lost Spirits distillery with the mellowing agent of sherry to help balance it out.

Instead of folding under the pressure and criticism, Bryan Davis used the negative attention as fuel to get better. He went back to the drawing board and retooled his whisky. I think the Bohemian Bonfire is so good that I bought all of it - every single bottle. If that means I'm going to lose money again, then so be it, but I don't expect anyone to object this time around. That whisky has the soft sweetness found in Bruichladdich's outstanding Bere Barley release with the sweet peat of Laphroaig, never losing the beery malt flavor that has become Bryan's trademark.

I can't wait to get these in. I love a good comeback story.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll