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Analytical Chemistry

Lab-Made Whiskey, Lab-Made Wine

Via Chemjobber’s Twitter account comes a link to a really interesting Wall Street Journal story on a chemical approach to things like wine and whiskey (last explored here in this 2015 post). The startup company involved, Endless West, began by looking at the constituents of various types of wine and seeing if these flavor profiles could be recreated by adding the exact compounds to, basically, water and ethanol. Because, to get reductionist, that’s all a bottle of wine is, physically: a bottle of water, mostly, with some ethanol, and with a range of other (generally trace) compounds. That doesn’t sound too romantic (or perhaps even too appetizing), and it certainly doesn’t play to any sense of terroir or the other factors that wine lovers might find more important.

But what terroir does, physically, is help to determine the blend of those compounds in the mix. The variety of grape, the type of soil, the growing conditions (weather, precipitation, sunlight), the time of harvest and all the important handling thereafter (blending, aging, bottling, storage) – all of these and more are altering the final product by changing the variety and levels of various compounds in a solution of aqueous ethanol. Your mouth and nose do not sense history or price. It’s definitely true that other cues affect the sensory experience, starting with the color of the wine, and most certainly including the amount that you have paid for it, the setting in which you drink it, and other things that have nothing to do with your mouth or your nose per se. But as far as what’s in the bottle, well, it is what it is. And it can, in theory, be recreated. Vitalism is dead, you know,

The company moved on to whiskey, and now has one they’re calling Glyph. As the article shows, it’s an easier market to deal with for a variety of reasons (chemical, commercial, and legal ones):

. . .Early results surprised everyone: The whiskey was good. And in a number of ways, making whiskey made more sense. “People are a little bit more decoupled from how [whiskey] is made,” Lee says. “They don’t conjure up vineyards and rolling hills and say, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Federal regulations established by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, a division of the Treasury Department, would have prevented Ava Winery from selling its lab-made wine as wine (wine must be made from grapes, fruit or approved agricultural products). But there was an existing regulatory category that would encompass Glyph: “spirit whiskey.”

. . .To satisfy the Tax and Trade Bureau, Glyph contains some traditionally made whiskey. The bureau defines spirit whiskey as “produced by blending neutral spirits and not less than 5% on a proof gallon basis whiskey.” About 5% of Glyph consists of “distilled clean whiskey” that, according to Lee, isn’t noticeably distinguishable in flavor from pure ethanol.

As you read the article, it’s obvious to a chemist that the company is using LC/MS and GC/MS machines to break down the flavor profile of their targeted beverages, then recreating them (or going into new areas) with food-grade reagents. An interesting thing, one that might not be known to people who haven’t cooked a lot, is that some small amounts of compounds that are themselves vile are needed in any complex flavor profile. Getting rid of isovaleric acid, for example, from the early wine mixtures gave what one company insider described as “fruit punch” instead. But if you’ve ever smelled isovaleric acid or its relatives, you can forgive them for thinking that wine would be better off without it. In small concentrations, though, things like that are essential.

There’s a very interesting taste test from the WSJ‘s writer in the article, and I’d be happy to hear from readers who have had the chance to try some of the whiskies mentioned in it. I’m absolutely the last person to have an opinion of my own in whiskey comparisons, as a lifelong nondrinker, but I can certainly see how this could work. For some values of “work”, that is. Another distillery executive is quoted in the article making the same points about whiskey as one makes for wine: some of the experience is knowing how old the beverage is, etc. He doesn’t mention it in so many words, but some of the experience, just as with many wines, is knowing how much you paid for it and how good or famous it’s supposed to be. This would be a good place to note that a lot of high-end distilled spirits in this country are not quite what the label and advertising would have you think they are, anyway. There are big distillers whose products are turned into any number of “craft” vodkas and whiskies, sometimes with extremely minor modifications (or none at all).

So it’s possible that Glyph itself, or something like it, could find a place as a novelty man-made whiskey, but it seems likely that that might stay as part of its appeal. Perhaps, though, recreated whiskey-oid spirits could end up taking over the low-cost end of the market, too, since you’d have to imagine that they’d be cheaper to make once you know the ingredient list. It will be quite something to see how this plays out.

And it’s going to play out in other areas past whiskey and wine. We’re going to be contending with a lot of foods that will have had some laboratory pedigree in them in the coming years – sometimes because they can be sold more cheaply, sometimes because they can be more expensive, sometimes because they can bring a famous but rare experience to more people or perhaps because they can provide an interesting and appealing sensation that no one has ever really experienced before, and sometimes because they will come with the possibility of environmental benefits (for which you may well be asked to pay more as well). It’s going to be a tangled situation, and it’s going to set off all kinds of arguments about what’s real food and what isn’t, what’s authentic, and what tastes good and what doesn’t. But we already know that some of these arguments can have no real resolutions: de gustibus non disputandum est. It’s the dispute that don’t have to do with taste that will be the fiercest.

84 comments on “Lab-Made Whiskey, Lab-Made Wine”

  1. Scott Stewart says:

    Some of this is already being done e.g “truffle oil.” The foodies will hate it, but I would bet these things improve over time to where they are indistinguishable to the blinded observer.

    1. tangent says:

      I”Truffle oil” (Me-S-Me-S-Me) flavor is even ‘better than truffles’ for its purpose, which is to go on popcorn. It’s a caricature of white truffle, not trying to be indistinguishable. Which is normal in the food flavoring industry — isoamyl acetate and methyl anthranilate go places where bananas and grapes really wouldn’t sell as well.

    2. Skeptical says:

      Also synthetic vanilla/vanillin.

  2. Peter S. Shenkin says:

    This reminds me of the old Italian wine maker who, on his deathbed, whispers the final secret of the business to his eldest son. Into his ear, he says, “It can also be made with grapes….”

    1. Insilicoconsulting says:

      You are a hoot hahahahahahaha

    2. Nick K says:

      Most droll!

      One of the dark secrets of Parisian restaurateurs is surreptitiously to substitute a cheap plonk for the second bottle of expensive wine as the diners can’t tell the difference by then.

  3. Isidore says:

    I like the idea that these synthetic wines or spirits may provide new, interesting and appealing sensations hitherto unexperienced by drinkers. I am sure that similar arguments against them were made when synthetic fabrics started being used to make clothes instead of cotton, wool and linen.

    1. Dan says:

      Excessive sweating under the armpits?

  4. Stu West says:

    I’ll believe this is possible when I can buy prepackaged supermarket orange juice that tastes anything like an actual orange.

    1. Ursa Major says:

      Orange juice presumably has shelf-life issues and part of the strange flavour of it will be due to added preservatives and/or constituent changes from some kind of treatment like pasteurisation. Wine from grapes has already had the shelf-life problems solved and chemical changes from preservation processes are part of the accepted flavour. Asking for orange juice that tastes like oranges is actually analogous to asking for wine that tastes like grapes.

  5. @BrianJMurphyWAT says:

    If you like whiskey, and you’re intrigued by Endless West’s approach, check out what they have been doing over at Lost Spirits

  6. Polynices says:

    Seems like there could be a “best of both worlds” approach to this stuff where you use the deep analysis of just exactly what is in the food or drink you want to copy but then find “real” ingredients you can blend together to create roughly that result. Then the label is listing recognizable herbs and spices or whatever rather than chemical names that turn off the more ignorant.

    Personally, I love great tasting wine and the cheaper it is, the better. The same flavor profile that makes me happy in an $8 bottle can make me sad if it’s a $30 bottle. I have had superb $100 wine but I liked it because it was superb, not because it was $100. I’ve had mediocre $100 wine too which definitely didn’t taste better because of the price. Cheaper wine tasting the same can only increase my personal well being.

    1. Roger Moore says:

      In terms of labeling, this isn’t a big deal. Spirits aren’t required to include ingredient lists the way foods are. That’s why a liqueur like Chartreuse can keep its recipe secret. Even for foods, you don’t normally have to list the complete set of flavoring compounds you add, at least in the USA. It’s sufficient to say that you used natural and/or artificial flavoring.

  7. SirWired says:

    Most domestically-produced vodka is, literally, just diverted from the same distilleries that produce Ethanol for industrial purposes. The WSJ had a funny article from a few years back called “Make Mine a 020001” (after the Archers-Daniel-Midland product catalog number for 190-proof beverage alcoho.l) You can order it one of three ways, Bulk Truck, Bulk Rail, Tank.

    And their arch-rival Grain Processing Corp., proudly boasts their fine spirit is the “same high-quality grain neutral spirit is used to produce a variety of 190 proof and benzene-free anhydrous industrial ethyl alcohol products.” Sounds delicious! I’d be thrilled to hear that I’m drinking the exact same stuff used in products as diverse as gasoline and industrial solvents!

    1. zero says:

      Yes, please. Catalysts are often much more sensitive to contaminants than my relatively durable human gut. Industrial food-grade ethanol sounds both cheap and safe.

      In general, I wish we as a society would get over our irrational chemophobia. (I also wish we did quite a lot more safety testing with ‘fragrance’ and other such undisclosed ingredients.)

  8. electrochemist says:

    I recall attending a seminar on a similar topic in the 1980’s given by a food chemist working at a multi-national consumer products company. They had the idea to formulate ” synthetic orange juice” from typical constituent components. Capillary GC/MS had recently become accessible to industrial labs and they had done quite a bit of work trying to ID all of the components of freshly squeezed orange juice.

    One of the conclusions the team reached was that food products from natural sources contain small amounts of relatively toxic compounds that contribute to their complex tastes and mouth-feel. Orange juice, for example, contains methanol. It quickly became apparent to the team working on the project that there would be significant liability issues for their company if they deliberately added methanol to formulate a food product. This is one step beyond your example of isovaleric acid due to public perception of “wood alcohol” and what would happen in the legal realm if it were proven that a company deliberately added wood alcohol to orange juice consumed by children (among others).

    1. loupgarous says:

      Methyl salicylate’s another “natural” flavor “generally recognized as safe” in small amounts in foods such as “Wint-O-Green” Life Savers, but which has killed people just from being absorbed through the skin as a muscle rub (in quantities far in excess of those ever found in “natural” foods).
      Bitter almonds contain 4-9 mg of hydrogen cyanide (from the action of emulsin on amygdalin) per almond, though the essential oil of bitter almonds is almost all benzaldehyde.

      When A.E. Housman wrote about Mithridates

      “He gathered all that springs to birth, From the many-venomed earth; First a little, thence to more, He sampled all her killing store”

      he didn’t realize he could have been describing the corner grocery’s spice rack.

  9. Derek Freyberg says:

    Way back when I was an undergrad in New Zealand, chem lab ethanol was either denatured alcohol (denatured with methanol, “methylated spirits” but without the usual blue colorant) or absolute ethanol – there was no 190 proof such as is commonly available here. Denatured alcohol was the common solvent unless you needed anhydrous, when you used the more expensive absolute ethanol. But absolute ethanol was known to contain small quantities of benzene from the water removal process. So for recreational alcohol purposes, you had the interesting choice of trying to get the methanol out of the denatured alcohol or the benzene out of the absolute ethanol. As I recall, most people favored the latter, because you could add water and distill out the benzene as the benzene-water-ethanol azeotrope relatively cleanly, but trying to get the methanol out was harder.
    But this is long ago and far away.

    1. Emjeff says:

      I remember my Organic II professor warning the class, during the prep for a lab in which we needed to use absolute ethanol, “Don’t drink the ethanol! It has benzene in it, and you will get a horrible headache”. Also leukemia…

      1. A Nonny Mouse says:

        Probably just scare tactics; benzene hasn’t been used since the ethylene hydration process started. We were using or lab absolute in punch in the late 1970s and there was certainly no benzene in there by NMR (we checked!).

        1. Isidore says:

          This brings back memories of “Purple Jesus”, frozen concentrated grape juice mixed with 180 proof ethanol.

        2. Emjeff says:

          Huh. Wouldn’t be the first time a professor lied to me…

        3. CMCguy says:

          Late 1970s means like not an FT-NMR as not widely available yet where my experience on attempting quantitative measurements on such older instruments suggests anything under 5% may well have not been detected. Perhaps you where just lucky or even used were using benzene as a solvent so commonly, like most people did back then, that had a built up tolerance.

  10. JSR says:

    And with fully legal marijuana in so many states in the US, all of Canada, and countries around the world, we should all expect to see this kind of chemistry moving into beverages that don’t contain any ethanol at all.

    My guess is that THC is where the money will be.

  11. none says:

    I’m okay with this as long as the resulting drink is served in a round bottom flask.

  12. Crocodile Chuck says:

    Terroir arises from the specific micro biome of the grapevines; on the rootstock, vines, fruit & leaves: both bacteria & yeasts.

    I reckon its going to be challenging to whip up a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in the lab.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      True – but the outcome of that microbiome is a set of compounds, dissolved in water and ethanol. It may well turn out to be a lot easier to let the grapevines and their owners do the job the way that they do now, in much the same way that it’s a lot easier to get erythromycin from living organisms, but if you wanted to go completely full throttle, I don’t see why you couldn’t replicate it.

      1. Some idiot says:

        Regarding unpleasant compounds used in small quantities: in some varieties of red wines, as a chemist, I can certainly smell pyridines and indoles which are quite unpleasant at higher concentrations…!

  13. loupgarous says:

    Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “Moving Spirit” (which you can find in his anthology Tales From the White Hart) is about making scotch whisky in just this way.

    The one drawback I can think of to this project is that some of the chemicals which contribute to the taste of wine, beer and liquor may be carcinogens, and thus banned by the Delaney Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (if present in greater than the de minimis level of 1:1,000,000).

    Several toxic chemicals exert toxic effects at nanomolar levels; we may discover one or more of the things that gives, say, Glenmorangie its unique flavor is one of those (I picked that example because since I’m mostly not a tippler these days, I tried some of my wife’s Glenmorangie and found it reminded me of how duplicator spirit, from the old “wet copier” days, smelled).

    It could be argued that the Bureau of Alcohol. Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (sounds like a few fun weekends I had in college) analyzes every brand of liquor, wine and beer legally sold in the US for toxicity here (and has even walked its ban on absinthe back a little, as long as itsthujone levels fall within certain limits), so that compounds naturally present in wine, beer and spirits are “generally recognized as safe” at the levels they are found in wine, beer and spirits which are legally sold in the United States.

    The liquor, brewing and wine industry will have a lot of fun explaining to the press why it should be able to sell beverages which contain things known to cause cancer or other dread ailments, because the working press sells advertisements and commercials by making that information available to the public. They just won’t be selling much space for such ads and commercials to the alcoholic beverage industry.

    1. Anonymous says:

      “The one drawback I can think of to this project is that some of the chemicals which contribute to the taste of wine, beer and liquor may be carcinogens, and thus banned by the Delaney Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.” – I mentioned the Ames test in yesterday’s topic about Predictive Tox. I am quoting from a website which quotes Ames:

      “In 1987, Ames and his collaborator Lois Gold ranked natural and synthetic pesticides and found that cancer risks from traces of pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables are minuscule compared with the cancer-causing potential of some natural chemicals in plants. “We wrote a review pointing out that every plant has a hundred or so toxic chemicals—nature’s pesticides—to kill off insects, animals, and other predators, and that we were getting 10,000 times more of them than [of] man-made pesticides.

      Still, everybody is buying expensive organic food,” says Ames. “It’s the new religion. We won the scientific battle but we lost the public-relations battle.” For that work and more, arguing that traces of synthetic chemicals are not a cancer risk, Ames and Gold have been criticized as being in the pocket of the pesticide industry, despite never accepting money, consulting with industry companies, or testifying in trials.”

      Instead of buying purified synthetic chemicals from the Flavor and Fragrance companies, maybe they can use concentrated NATURAL extracts to get the essential but tasty carcinogens into the mix in order to produce a desired flavor and aroma spectrum. Now that IS a problem that can be solved with computers. You know the complex analyses of a variety of extracts. You know the final amounts of each ingredient that you want. A program can work out how much of each extract to add in order to get as close as possible to that desired outcome.

      Which leads me to another question, re: environmental pollution. Don’t some of the natural wines have traces of pesticides, antibiotics, PCBs, dioxins, heavy metals, and whatever else is in the local soil and water supplies?

      They could either go for the exact “natural” match or they could point out that they are producing a great copycat beverage WITHOUT the pesticides, chromium, etc., found in the plant derived product.

      1. loupgarous says:

        Just as “vaping” might offer that nicotine high without the polonium-210 and other radionuclides one gets from tobacco-making soils.

    2. Jim Mowreader says:

      Loupgarous sends:

      “The liquor, brewing and wine industry will have a lot of fun explaining to the press why it should be able to sell beverages which contain things known to cause cancer or other dread ailments, because the working press sells advertisements and commercials by making that information available to the public. They just won’t be selling much space for such ads and commercials to the alcoholic beverage industry.”

      Ethanol is an IARC Group 1 carcinogen. It causes a laundry list of non-cancer dread ailments, it’s addictive…and the opportunity to drink it is why we buy alcoholic beverages in the first place.

      1. loupgarous says:

        True. But ethanol’s been grandfathered in after the long, painful national experiment called “Prohibition” ended with anyone who really wanted liquor getting it from crooks, anyway. The consensus seems to be you know the price of admission for an ethanol buzz going in.

        (Excess calories in the diet cause analogous liver and metabolic damage to ethanol. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a national epidemic because of cheap carbohydrates, ditto type 2 diabetes, et cetera.)

        Making up an analogue of whisky with all the aromatic congeners that give whiskies their unique taste, however, may involve addition of carcinogens besides ethanol to a beverage – aromatic hydrocarbons, that sort of thing, in quantities over 1:1,000,000. That’s the magic number FDA came up with when implementing the Delaney Amendment above which known carcinogens are banned from food and drink in the US.

  14. BernYeeMusicLessons says:

    Meat that is meatless and whisky-less whisky,
    Theranos leaders at night they get frisky,
    AI and VCs in SF with Bling,
    These are a few of my favorite things!

    Big data freaks that lack data skills
    Chemists keep dreaming while Chemjobber shills,
    Pharma consultants with Foreigner’ Cash,
    Low-paid bench chemists can go kiss our A%%!

    When the Flask Breaks, When the Job goes,
    When the stock shares tank,
    I simply remember my favorite things!
    And then I just say “Science is going off the Rails”

    sung to the tune “Favorite Things”

    1. musical lover says:


    2. The scan and ending are some off. Might want to fix those!!!!

      1. doc says:

        there’s always a critic!

  15. loupgarous says:

    Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “Moving Spirit” tells the story of how a British scientist’s eccentric uncle made scotch whisky synthetically (a little handwavium about ultrasound taking the place of being “aged in the wood” figures here), but was caught doing it by the local Customs and Excise cops during the second world war.

    After being acquitted on the nephew’s expert testimony that what his uncle was really making was “the osmotic bomb” (during testimony, the bottles taken in evidence detonated in the way i remember my brother-in-law’s homebrew beer doing on hot days, reinforcing the claim), the two men had to “destroy the evidence”.

    The story ends:

    “We invented all sorts of things that week. We just can’t remember what they were.”

    A word to the wise, anyone wanting to try duplicating Endless West’s Glyph at home.

  16. Lustig says:

    How removed is this from modern production of (cheap) wine?
    Many different wines are fractionated and blended to create a uniform product that doesn‘t change with each harvest. And mixing pure substances or mixtures of substances is basically the same.

    Furthermore recreating a simple fruit, in the shape of aroma is still a unfinished task, why would they fare better with the arguebly more complex wine.
    And while working on all this you have to be sigfificantly cheaper than a real bottle or it is unsellable.

  17. Adam Shapiro says:

    Synthetic scotch made in a Hollywood movie, Mr. Roberts (1955), from alcohol, Coca-cola, iodine, and hair tonic (with a coal tar base).

  18. David Edwards says:

    When the people involved in this research succeed in making a wine that’s blind-taste indistingushable from a 1945 Château Mouton Rothschild, but can sell it at, say, £20 a bottle instead of the £12,000 per bottle the genuine artcle currently commands, that’ll be the moment to sit up and really take notice. 🙂

    1. fajensen says:

      Then one can *practice* on the £20 bottles before finally shelling on a glass of the real thing.

      Going straight “from zero” to a really good bottle or smoke will simply be a waste for most people, they cannot really taste the difference enough for it to matter.

      It takes quite a lot of practice and contemplation to be able to properly taste the different nuances of many things one can enjoy – like wine, cigars, whiskey, cognacs, coffee, tea, food and so on. If one wants to drink / smoke / eat more expensive things, I believe it is a good investment to join some form of club or even a course in the matter, simply to practice how to get something out of doing it.

      1. DH says:

        “If one wants to drink / smoke / eat more expensive things,…”

        Such a desire seems exceedingly stupid: “I really enjoy my Two Buck Chuck and Jim Beam, but the snobs tell me they’re crap. So I guess I’ll spend thousands of dollars learning to detect what are to me irrelevant differences between the cheap and expensive stuff. Maybe then they’ll like me.”

        1. fajensen says:

          Sure, It is quite possible that I am the stupid one for wanting different experiences and the smart person is the one staying the same, experiencing the same, for perhaps 75-90 years, For Free 🙂

          I believe there is a cost to everything. If one wants to enjoy doing some ting – whatever that thing is – one will have to make the effort to become good at it. Now, If one wants to be good at something, one will have to practice. In order to practice effectively and consistently, one will need motivation. If that motivation is not there internally, then the whole thing is just Work and we get paid to work exactly because it sucks just hard enough to make us not want do it voluntarily.

          1. DH says:

            “Different experiences” need not be expensive. The world is a very big place, and filled with numerous experiences ranging in price from free to outrageously costly — most of which do not require “training” to enjoy. Yes, developing a *skill* takes time, effort, and cost. But I really don’t think enjoying life’s pleasures such as food and drink requires any special skill or advance preparation.

    2. Derek Lowe says:

      Are there enough bottles of the 1945 left in the world to prove that, I wonder?

      1. Ursa Major says:

        In order to create this synthetic 1945 Château Mouton Rothschild you would also have to first open a bottle of the original stuff in a lab and inject it into your machines so you know what your target is. I suppose the toiling lab assistants would then have to “dispose” of the remainder.

        1. Hap says:

          I’m guessing the bosses would be around that day to supervise. If the bosses are good enough, it might even be like classified missions staffed only by higher officers in on the secret and no one else.

    3. Adam Brunet says:

      I confess to a certain skepticism, here, anyhow. What is the baseline that has to be surpassed? That is, how many people can tell the 12K pound drink from a 20 pound bottle in a blind taste test anyway? We don’t have to wait for synthetic booze to be perfected to test that, and I’m pretty sure we’d find the bar isn’t really all that high to begin with. In fact, with controls of this sort we could apply an alcoholic “Turing test” – if people can’t meaningfully tell the difference, we’ve succeeded!
      I bet I could produce some pretty high end stuff by this standard, without even bothering with LC/MS. Give me some Everclear and twenty minutes in the grocery section at Wal-Mart and I bet I could produce something that all but real experts would find indistinguishable from “the good stuff”. Before writing the grant proposal or seeking VC, a few well-done controls might be worth considering.

  19. milkshake says:

    I remember Japanese were thoroughly analyzing flavor components of whisky already in 70s and 80s. Incidentally, Japanese whisky is excellent.

    1. Shazbot says:

      I have heard that quality Japanese whisky is a fairly recent phenomenon. Apparently, it used to be quite terrible decades ago. Perhaps the incentive to synthesize it was driven by demand.

      1. loupgarous says:

        Suntory’s flagship brand was the first Japanese scotch to get really favorable reviews, in the 1970s.

      2. Something recognisable as single malt whisky has been produced in Japan since the early 1920’s, following years of study in post-World War I Scotland (which was ironically rebuilding its own pot still single-malt production after the swing to Coffey still production). Japanese whiskies still use malted barely from Scotland and other countries, with slower maturation and local woods adding distinct elements.

        As a member of the Scottish Malt Whisky Society, I’ve had the pleasure of sampling single-cask Japanese whiskies, and can attest to their excellence (sufficient to fool a very experienced whisky guru and writer on blind tasting).

  20. I am a chemist, but I also am a winemaker/winery owner. I am absolutely enthralled with these types of investigations because wine is chemistry/biochemistry in a bottle irregardless of the marketing hype of its terroir origins. Much of that chemistry is conducted in the vineyard by the grapevine, but the winemaker plays a huge role in the subsequent “labwork” in the winery. Makes total sense that with a lot of LCMS analysis, one could replicate any fermented beverage (which gets a little scary if one considers the possibilities for forgery). And these investigations yield tremendous insight into how our senses work and the myriad of chemical profiles that give rise to our favorite flavors and aromas.

    On the practical side, I question where this is going. Will these “reconstructed” wines and whiskeys simply end up be a novelty item for the geeky few of us that love this sort of thing?
    Could it develop a cult following yearning for the unique taste of the latest crafted “vintage” (similar to the cult craft beer releases). Or is this the wave of the future for cheap bulk “wine”? Or will entrepreneurs create entirely new beverage categories?

    There will always be a market for the true artisan product plucked from the vine and lovely tended by the winemaker because the story sells the wine. But even here, knowledge of desired aroma/taste profiles can help guide viticulture and enology practices to push the grape in different directions.

  21. C says:

    While I’m not a whisky/scotch drinker, clearly a huge element of the cost in these spirits is the time required for aging. Although not a de-novo reconstruction that Derek mentions, a Cleveland company is making what appears to be high quality whisky using an ultra accelerated aging process using pressure cycling.

    Critics still tend toward vitalism but blinded tasting seems indicate they are making a good product.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Patent App 20130149423. The pressure variation is from “-2 ATM to 10 ATM”. (Minus 2 ATM? I know that 0 ATM is an absolute vacuum of 0 mm Hg = 0 pascal. What does -2 ATM mean in this context?).

      But this reminded me of a story of some student researchers studying the “pressure reversal of anesthesia”. It seems that yeast will ferment until the alcohol concentration puts them to sleep (the upper EtOH limit varies with the strain). Under high pressure, the anesthesia is reversed and the yeast will continue with their EtOH output. The students managed to get a meeting with management at a distillery and presented their idea and results. Although it promised to increase efficiency and yield, the industry guys pointed out that the costs of operating safely under high pressure are enormous and that was the end of that (at least at that time)!

      Today, of course, you just go to YCombinator with a proposal to transform yeast into 1-atm sleep resistant ethanol factories. With high enough alcohol content, you can save money and skip the distillation step and the customers won’t even notice that they are consuming 190 proof muck.

      Another post asked about distinguishing natural (recently fermented) from synthetic (non-fermented, fake) booze. Isotopic ratios from high res MS should tell you whether the ingredients came from a 650 million year old vintage fossil source or from a more recent harvest. There are some claims that isotopically labeled compounds have different smells than the unlabeled compounds. It would require a lot of sampling to see if humans can tell the difference in these beverages … but I think there would be plenty of volunteers.

      1. fajensen says:

        skip the distillation step and the customers won’t even notice that they are consuming 190 proof muck.

        Someone, I can’t quite remember the name of, came up with a similar idea, only with less Science so it’s better … “Goop” or something like that.

      2. Ursa Major says:

        It actually says “Pressure variances between -2 ATM and +10 ATM can be employed, with the variance being at least 1 ATM, at least 2 ATM, at least 3 ATM, at least 4 ATM, at least 5 ATM between the maximum pressure and the minimum pressure”. Although a pressure variance of -2 atm still implies Pmin > Pmax, which doesn’t make sense.

        The invention is changing the pressure inside a single container which contains both the distillate and the wood. Before reading it I wondered if they were pushing the distillate backwards and forwards through a wood membrane. In that case a negative pressure would presumably imply a pressure in the opposite direction to the positive one.

        1. Anonymous says:

          I still don’t get the “-2 ATM” thing. I assume that the barrel is filled at ambient pressure and that that is 1 ATM. Apply a vacuum to suck it down by 1 ATM and 1 ATM – 1 ATM = 0 ATM. You can’t get lower than that. On the high pressure side, heat up the barrel and, according to Gay-Lussac, P2 = P1T2/T1. Add a flexible diaphragm or membrane or piston to the barrel and push it in (+pressure) or pull it out (-pressure).

          They argue that the temp / pressure changes cause the wood to expand and contract, sucking in and expelling liquid. I wonder what the loading is: pore volume or grams of wood to mL of booze. (Remember your recommended loadings from flash chromatography! But in flash, the key is that resolution is inversely proportional to particle size.) Is that all that aging is, diffusion of components out of the wood, into the booze?

          How about adding a small motorized stirrer to the inside of the barrel to get better mixing to shorten the aging time from 9 months to 2 months. Remote charging and control is easy these days. (I was going to suggest using a pump to continuously circulate the booze, in a closed loop, over fresh wood, like a garden fountain, but that will lead to loss of volatiles if not in a sealed system.)

  22. Hap says:

    If you can make lab-grown whiskey or spirits that are pretty close to the originals, how do you tell them from the real ones? Lack of expected trace impurities by GC/HPLC/etc.? Dating labels or bottles or other organic materials?

    Part of the attraction of wines and spirits is the rarity of special ones, which makes them valuable (if anyone wants them). If anyone can get close to the real thing, it’s neither as exclusive as it was nor as certain for other people that what they have is real and not fake (since faking valuables could be lucrative).

    1. Eugene says:

      Depletion of Carbon Isotopes would indicate synthetic origin. I recall reading about this here in regards to sports doping.

      1. Hap says:

        Yes, someone above said that too – considering the hubbub over recent American success in bike racing via chemical enhancement, I should have remembered.

  23. Walter Sobchak says:

    Whisky is not the product of 21st century laboratory processes, but it is an artifact of deliberate chemical manipulation. It is in fact the result of some of the first laboratory experiments using the process of distillation — a process that chemists and chemical engineers still use. Of course, whisky is the Gaelic word for water of life or eau de vie which is what those first chemists were seeking to create. They may not have hit the target on their intial goal, but the product turned out to be useful and popular. The production of whisky has moved from laboratory to industrial but in that it is no different than many drugs produced by the modern pharmaceutical industry.

  24. Mark says:

    Aren’t there a ton of regulations regarding alcoholic beverages that exist for a large variety of reasons? I met a man a long time ago who did quality control work for a distiller. He said that the company was forbidden by law from using synthetic mint and other flavorings which was the reason for his job. Also, petrochemically sourced ethanol would result in vodka that cost pennies, but the law demanded grain sources, and we actually have laws mandating maize based ethanol as a fuel additive in defiance of any economic or automotive sense.

  25. Gene says:

    Most of the wine and spirit snobbery is just that, snobbery.

    Here’s just one source,

    1. loupgarous says:

      Since my sophomore days at LSU, I confined my wine-buying to stuff I and my girlfriends liked. Fortunately, at that time a nice Anjou vintage was selling for $3/bottle – more costly than Trader Joe’s “two buck chuck”, especially back in the 1970s, but it was a smooth, lightly sweet vintage with notes of peach.

      A bottle of that, two plastic goblets and a corkscrew in my backpack got many a date off to a nice start.

    2. DH says:

      Great article, and illustrative of the importance of psychology in how we appreciate things. Thanks to my father, I am lucky enough to possess a “cheapskate contrarian” psychology that on the one hand questions the correlation between price and quality, and on the other hand gets great enjoyment from anything I perceive as a bargain by the mere fact of it being a bargain. I pity those more numerous souls who are cursed with snob psychology, as their pleasures will always be more expensive than mine, without being any richer.

  26. CET says:

    Some thoughts, as a chemist and a regular whiskey drinker:

    I think people tend to underestimate the complexity of chemical mixtures from biological or traditional processes, and there is a tendency for note by note products to taste ‘thin’ for lack of a better word. While it is theoretically possible to recreate a bottle of Lagavulin-16 from its component chemicals, I thought Derek’s erythromycin analogy was a good one. I bet you it’s going to be much (much) more expensive to make really good scotch in the lab than it is to just age the stuff in barrels near the North Atlantic.

    Skepticism aside, I’ll certainly try a bottle if I find one out here in flyover country – maybe a blind tasting against a good $30 blended scotch like Monkey Shoulder or Chivas. If I were investing in something like that though, I’d probably look into making bitters, or maybe gin.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Gin is more or less already a post-hoc chemically altered ethanol/water mixture, as I understand it, so that should work out pretty well. . .

    2. Mournelithe says:

      I’ve had quite a lot of the flash aged rums from Lost Spirits, and drunk neat they are quite interesting and comparative to genuine aged products.

      They also fall apart completely when you add ice or drop of water, let alone mixed in a drink – even trivial dilution alters the balance and the taste changes for the worse. Temperature changes once poured also tend to result in a loss of complexity.

      I suspect that the wines and whiskeys mentioned above will suffer from a similar problem for quite a long time – you can engineer a product to match a sample, but it is a digital product not analogue – you miss the broad range of flavours that the more complex sample has.

      On the gripping hand, how long before we can engineer something that can reliably fool human taste just as digital audio compression fools the ear is no doubt much sooner than that.

  27. AQR says:

    Somehow, drinking wine manufactured de novo from its individual chemical components seems analogous to hooking up with a sex-bot. Someone may be able to make the natural and manufactured versions physically indistinguishable, but I’m just not interested.

    1. loupgarous says:

      The analogy breaks down, though, doesn’t it? A sexbot which was as thoroughly equivalent to that which it imitates as Endless West’s “Glyph” purportedly is would probably have enough self-esteem to throw her charger in a shoulder bag and walk away from being a household appliance.

      1. AQR says:

        Still not interested.

        1. loupgarous says:

          Nor am I. By the time you improve a gyndroid to the point she’s so emotionally responsive and otherwise an attractive partner that she’ll get notional and decide she’s not interested in playing, you may as well stick with real women.

          Gyndroids might exert a positive effect on society, however, by serving as an outlet for abusive or inconsiderate men and reducing their contribution to the gene pool. Sort of like releasing sterile mosquitoes.

          1. fajensen says:

            … you may as well stick with real women.

            Well, assuming those “real women” somehow did not like the idea of a male sex-bot that cooks, cleans, walks the dog and looks after the house while she is off with all her friends hiking in the Himalayas or something :).

          2. loupgarous says:

            Same reasoning applies. A fully human male android might decide to hit the gun shows and watch NASCAR instead of doing the chores while his owner’s out climbing K2 or something.

  28. Thomas says:

    Isovaleric acid… ah well, good cheeses are also rather smelly. But synthesizing cheese is a less interesting endeavor, I suppose.

  29. Foodscientist says:

    Fyi most of the honey you get that is sourced from china is mostly not honey. Same for olive oil from south America. Diamonds “natural” vs Synthetic. A lot of it is selling things at different price points. Sometimes people want to spend more for an extra special occasion. It very well may be the exact same product or something functionally indistinguishable from each other, with a different label.

  30. Heinz the Baron Krauss Von Espy says:

    In a weird way this kind of reminds me of the world of high-end stereo equipment and Bob Carver (and engineers like him). Carver was an electronics whiz and could tweak (less expensive and more powerful) solid state amplifiers to sound like the (more expensive and less powerful) tube amps of the time (think mid to late 1980s). He generally succeeded and made expensive products that emulated seriously expensive products.

    Interesting that wine and spirits are being chemically tweaked to taste like the expensive stuff just like the hifi equipment was being electrically tweaked to sound like the expensive stuff. 🙂

  31. GreenGripper says:

    This also reminds me of another vintage feature, the movie ‘Harold and Maude’. In this particular scene, Maude shows Harold a invention of hers. It’s a basically a tube ending in a nose- mask and a box where you can insert cartridges containing olfactory ‘recordings’. Maude has ‘recorded’ these, so her story goes, at locations and times that were important to her. Like the one were she says it smells like a ‘blizzard on 58th Street’, I think? Can’t remember the exact citation.
    This kind of chemistry could do the trick of creating sensory mementoes, for the palate or nose, like a souvenir you picked up at a stall in the Souk in Morocco. Only this time, you lean back on your sofa, close your eyes, put the mask on the nose, and inhale…

  32. loupgarous says:

    The ultimate reproduction of the taste of good liquor or wine will be excitation of the olfactory cortex. Arthur C. Clarke, in “Patent Pending”, one of his “Harry Purvis” stories (available in an anthology, Tales from the White Hart) describes an approach – excitation of the visual and olefactory cortices of the brain .That wouid probably require stereotactic brain surgery now – but with Elon Musk’s “neural lace”, it could happen within our lifetimes.

    1. loupgarous says:

      At the risk of going far off-topic, once we start exciting sensory cortices of the brain, those are literally around the corner from more tempting neighborhoods such as the NAcc shell and NAcc cores of the nucleus accumbens, which are associated with non-addictive release of dopamine.

      The inventor in Clarke’s story “Patent Pending” must have been exciting those areas in the brain which drive the parts of the nucleus accumbens associated with food and sexual activity. While the μ-opioid receptors are involved here, response to excitation of the NAcc shell and NAcc cores of the nucleus accumbens isn’t associated with the “tolerance” phenomenon – release of dopamine actually increases with repeated excitation, in a sensitization-type response.

  33. Zaphod B. says:

    I’m no chemist but I have been doing this for years. Soak some shredded bourbon barrels, toasted pipe tobacco, pinches of various spices and a bit of dried fruit in the purest ethanol you can get your hands on for a few months, strain the result and bottle. Best rum I’ve ever tasted once it has been cut down a bit with distilled water. Probably even better if you could make ethanol from sugarcane…

  34. John says:

    This may eleminate plonk. Bad batches of wine and other drinks will ether be treated with addertives to correct the taste to something good or be savaged to make sythetic drinks.

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