What do you get when you cross a booze enthusiast with an amusement park designer? The Willy Wonka of whiskey, who has turned your regular run-of the mill distillery tour on its head, creating an adults-only theme park.
Bryan Davis and his partner Joanne Haruta recreate alcohol from decades past with a Jurassic Park-like science, hence the name 'lost spirits'. Whiskies and rums that taste like they've aged 20 years are produced at lightning speed and have been gathering accolades since the distillery flung open its mysterious door back in 2016.
This may not please purists of the whiskey industry, who've spent thousands of dollars ageing their drink. So their first 'immoral' whiskey iteration became known as "Abomination'.
"Welcome to the jungle," Davis beckons to our group. We've stepped through a door with an old-fashioned brass door knocker shaped in the head of an indistinguishable creature. Despite this, it's just another inconspicuous building in downtown LA's arts district. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.
What we've stepped through to, however, is another world. A colonial-era verandah looks out to a strange tropical jungle, filled with chirping crickets, colourful, conversational birds and other bizarre creatures. Then there's a sudden thunderstorm on this sunny LA day . It's The Island of Dr Moreau meets Pirates of the Caribbean for grown-ups. "You can't make rum in a dry arid climate, you need a hot humid jungle. So we built one," Davis explains.
Like the mad scientist in HG Wells's 1896 tale, Davis spent seven years trying to "hack" the whiskey method. Using modern analytical chemistry, Lost Spirits were able to replicate the chemical reactions which take place as spirits age in barrels. The result was 'aged' whiskey in under a week. Properly aged bottles routinely cost more than $1000 each; Lost Spirits are able to sell them at the much friendlier price point of $US40.
While science is key to Lost Spirits, art school graduate Davis doesn't hold any sort of science degree. He downloaded everything he needed to know from the internet.
"You can get a lot from Wikipedia, clicking through each word you don't recognise, and MIT have their entire coursework online so you can learn for free."
While we're digesting the DIY science lesson behind the distillery's success, we're ushered onto a barge, which Davis remarks is inspired by Fred Flintstone, motioning towards his foot which sets the boat in motion along the distillery "river". He spends a lot of the tour smiling and laughing, often reacting to the expressions of delight on people's faces.
Another chariot awaits to take us to the next part of the distillery, and we're plunged further into the warehouse district of downtown LA. In fact we've got no idea where we are going, which is the illusion Davis wants to create.
"Amusement parks are generally for children only because adults don't really let themselves drift into an imaginary world. Building it around booze works," he explains, chuffed as we gaze in awe at the round "windows" which appear to be filling with water.
"We originally fitted [the vehicle] with a GPS blocker that would show on your phone that you were in the South China Sea. Then we discovered it was a felony." he laughs. "It screws everyone around you too, so if a taxi was heading in the opposite direction they may suddenly find themselves in the Nanking Trench."
But this is just a small challenge for a distillery that ages whiskey in a week.
We're escorted through a maze of vines, whistling cicadas and talking parrots to a showcase of Jamaican and Navy rums. Davis takes great delight in describing the "super cool" production process for Jamaican rum in Jamaica. It involves a sacrificed goat's head, left in the sun for a week to go rotten, and rolled it into a pit to use as a "metal" bacteria starter, creating a "horrible rotten cesspool of doom". Known as a 'dunder pit', distillers use the putrid liquid in their fermentation tanks and the end result is, surprisingly, fruity rum flavours. Understandably, there's a few uneasy laughs and expressions of disbelief. "It's totally a thing!" he maintains, and he's right.
Visitors will be relieved to know no goat was sacrificed for the rum at Lost Spirits, but the same guarantee cannot be made for any Jamaican-produced rum you drink outside this distillery.
A phantasmagorical carriage takes us past the precious rapid-aging alcohol reactor through to a bright white room which resembles a lab. Incredibly, it has a GC-MS machine - you know, the kind forensic scientists use to solve crimes. This can also be used to map the chemical fingerprint of a decommissioned spirit.
It's here where Davis' explains his current project - to create a rum that was used to make mai tais. Problem is it stopped being made in the 1950s.
The key to finding it is to first get a sample of the rum, which has proven tricky. They just need a drop but they also need to source the endangered chestnut wood the barrels were made of. The fascinating story behind the search is saved for the tour's grand finale and is almost deserving of an award from the Academy itself.
As for the search, "We are about two years and $30,000 into it," Davis laughs and adds, "We don't even know what it tastes like!"
The writer was a guest of United Airlines and Discover Los Angeles
More information about Lost Spirits distillery and tickets to the distillery tours can be found at lostspirits.net
United Airlines flies to Los Angeles daily from Sydney and from Melbourne three days a week. See United.com
Figueroa Hotel is a new, hip boutique hotel in the heart of Downtown LA with excellent nightlife under its roof, including two bars and a restaurant.