Inside Endless West, the startup synthesizing spirits in a San Francisco lab
From Wall Street Journal By Hannah Goldfield
Oct. 1, 2018 649 p.m. ET
In 2015, Mardonn Chua, a biotech engineer living in San Francisco, took some visiting friends on a daylong tour of wineries in Napa and Sonoma. At their last stop, Chua noticed a bottle behind glass. It was a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, the wine that won a competition known as the Judgment of Paris and put California on the map as a producer of the world’s greatest white. That blind tasting, in 1976, pitted unknown California wines against top
Burgundies and Bordeauxs. In a historic upset, Chateau Montelena was chosen over storied Burgundy producers Joseph Drouhin and Domaine Laflaive. Chua, who is originally from the Philippines but grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, found himself gazing longingly at the bottle. “I was almost mesmerized,” he says. “There was something strangely attractive about it.” He asked an employee for a taste—half joking, he says—and was denied. The wine was just for show, and the last bottle to sell at auction fetched more than $10,000. Chua, now age 26, was disappointed. “It was right in front of me,” he says. “If it weren’t for the price or the story behind it—or the plexiglass—I could have tried it.” On the bus ride back to San Francisco, he got to thinking: “If I took out the story behind it and the marketing and looked at it from a purely objective and scientific point of view, it seemed very possible to figure out exactly what was in the wine, or any wine, to break it down and build it back up from scratch.” Wine, like everything, is made of molecules. Chua figured that if he could combine the right molecules in the right proportions, he could make something that smelled and tasted exactly like a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. He could make any wine, he reasoned, down to the last molecule, without grapes.
On a sunny Wednesday in July, I sat in the kitchen at the offices of Chua’s startup, which recently changed its name from Ava Winery to Endless West. The company is based in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, a former industrial zone now packed with startups. I was there to tour Endless West’s facilities and participate in a blind tasting with Chua and his co-founders, Alec Lee and Josh Decolongon. Six short pours of whiskey sat on a table in front of me; five had been purchased by Endless West and one had been synthesized entirely in the lab a
few feet from where we sat. No journalist had tasted Endless West’s whiskey before.
The three men looked on intently as I sipped from the stemmed snifters. The first sample seemed like a caricature of whiskey, with strong but plain caramel flavors and a serious burn going down. It had an almost cartoonish harshness and astringency and wasn’t particularly complex. It turned out to be Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-Year-Old Family Reserve, one of the most expensive and sought-after bourbons in the world. Decolongon bought the bottle online for
$1,600, which he described as “a steal.” My favorite was immediately identifiable as a Scotch. Its odors and flavors—smoke, spice, toasted marshmallow and brown butter—told a story; suddenly I was sitting around a campfire
on the chilly, peaty moors of Scotland. It tasted expensive. This was the single malt Lagavulin from the island of Islay in Scotland; it retails for about $100.
The contents of the second snifter gave me pause. It shared hints of licorice and apple with another whiskey in the tasting (which turned out to be Balvenie DoubleWood 17), but this one was significantly sweeter and more floral, almost like a fortified wine. It was Endless West’s first product, Glyph, as in a typographical symbol. “Each of the molecules is a symbol,” says Lee, who is Endless West’s CEO, “and each has its own meaning, and collectively they tell this story.”
According to Chua, the hint of fortified wine is intentional; Glyph was modeled in part on whiskeys that have been aged in casks first used to make sherry. It will be available at select bars and retailers by the end of the year and sold for $35 to $50. It seemed to be missing some ineffable, essential whiskey quality—I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what—but I liked it. I certainly liked it better than the Pappy Van Winkle, which costs $1,600 a bottle for the same
reason that a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay fetches more than $10,000 at auction: The producer has a story, a history and a limited output. One goal of Endless West is to provide a limitless supply of whiskey that tastes as good as or better than Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, at a much lower cost.
Chua and his team learned to synthesize whiskey by synthesizing wine. Shortly after his Sonoma epiphany, Chua began experimenting. He had access to a lab—a few years prior, he and Lee, along with several others, had co-founded a startup that was developing technology to mass-produce stem cells for use in medical research. When Chua told Lee about his Chateau Montelena revelation, Lee’s response was: “This is either the worst idea I’ve ever heard or the best idea I’ve ever heard, and we have to find out which.”
The pair embarked on a nights-and-weekends project. As far as they could tell, no one had ever tried to do exactly what they were doing; if they had, the research wasn’t available. They pored over what was: analyses of wine from academic studies of viticulture. The molecules were often measured imprecisely, but the studies gave Chua and Lee a rough idea of what they needed: alcohol, water, sugars, salts, acids and compounds like ethyl esters, which are responsible for wine’s fruity aromas.
Every compound found in wine occurs elsewhere in nature and can be extracted, often inexpensively, from other substances. Ethyl cinnamate smells, as you might imagine, like cinnamon. It sometimes occurs naturally as wine ferments and can also be extracted from oil made from the bark of the cassia tree. Guaiacol, which can impart a woody, smoky flavor to wine, is found in the oak of barrels and also in pine oil. These compounds and others like them
can be sourced from companies that supply the flavor and fragrance industries.
Chua began by blending various compounds with ethanol and water to approximate wine. “I would make maybe 20 different formulations at a time and then try them, and at the end of every 10, I’d have to take a break and sleep on the couch because I’d be too intoxicated to grade them properly,” he says. “I’d try 10, nap for 15 minutes, try the next 10.”
His early attempts were way of the mark. In addition to trying to nail the exact proportions that viticulture studies hadn’t bothered with, “we made some very wrong assumptions about what we should and should not add,” Lee says. “One of the interesting early insights was that foul-smelling components are critical to wine.”
Isovaleric acid, a contributing factor to the smell of body odor and stinky feet, is frequently present in wine, giving it what sommeliers describe as “barnyard funk.” Lee and Chua assumed it was a fault. “We would smell it, and we would want to throw up, and we’d be like, ‘Well, how much better is our wine going to be than the original if we don’t add these things in there?’” Chua says. “We ended up with a fruit punch, effectively.”
In 2015, Lee and Chua brought on someone with a better understanding of wine and the human palate. In college, Chua had been a member of a wine club presided over by Josh Decolongon, a fellow science major who eventually dropped out to train as a sommelier. Decolongon was working at a natural-wine bar in Vancouver, but he relocated to San Francisco when Chua offered him a job. “Some of my aha wines, the wines that kind of changed my perspective on wine itself, were these very natural, minimal-intervention wines,” Decolongon says. Those broke free of traditional winemaking in a way he found exciting; so did what Chua and Lee were proposing. “I thought this was a really cool way to explore what could be next in the world of wine,” Decolongon says.
With Decolongon onboard, the synthesized wine improved quickly. Chua and Lee pulled out of their stem-cell startup and, with Decolongon, founded a new company: Ava Winery. In 2016 they raised seed financing of $2.7 million from big-name venture capital firms like Horizons Ventures and SOSV. Ava Winery announced it would release 200 bottles of “Champagne,” inspired by the 1992 vintage of Dom Pérignon and priced at $50 a bottle (the genuine article
sells for around $300). The startup was contacted by Dom Pérignon’s parent company. “They’re very unhappy,” Lee told the Journal in 2016. (Dom Pérignon declined to comment.) The wine was never released.
After the Dom Perignon incident, Lee said, he and his co-founders realized “that our intent from a market perspective should not be to try to clone and copy things.” People see making wine and whiskey as art forms and “have a relatively low interest in consuming counterfeits,” Lee said. The goal of Ava Winery was to identify what was prototypical about, say, a Sauvignon Blanc and identify the factors responsible for those flavors and aromas. From there, the
possibilities for customization would be endless. They could make wine that smelled and tasted exactly as they wanted it to, without purchasing land, planting grapes or concerning themselves with the effects of climate change that are wreaking havoc on wine regions around the world.
Although they had moved away from the idea of cloning existing wines, being able to do so was an important part of their methodology. They needed to understand the chemical reactions that occurred when certain components were mixed together and what each component was or wasn’t responsible for in terms of odor and flavor. That was proving difficult with wine. And then Decolongon and Ava Winery’s research director, Ethan Beswick, started experimenting with whiskey. 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.” In the summer of 2018, Ava Winery rebranded as Endless West.
In the spring the company raised an additional $10 million and hired a small staff of food scientists and analytical chemists, then outfitted its lab with equipment that allows them to intricately sequence the molecular makeup of spirits (the machines are also used in food science and life science research). Though they keep the exact makes and models of these machines under wraps—going so far as to cover up their names with stickers reading “Bonnie”
and “Clyde”—Lee let me tour freely throughout the lab. He showed me one machine that he described as “an electronic nose,” which inserts needles into half-filled vials of commercial wines and whiskeys, absorbs the gas trapped above the liquid, then “de-absorbs” the compounds to identify and quantify them.
Endless West can then source these compounds, mixing and matching them to taste (and smell). To satisfy the Tax and Trade Bureau, Glyphcontains 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.
There are obvious comparisons to be made between Endless West and startups like Impossible Foods, which uses a molecule derived from legumes to give its plant-based burger the look and taste of ground beef. “The core thesis of what we’re doing is very similar,” Lee says. But Patrick Brown, the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, set out to replicate ground beef because of the damage cattle farming inflicts on the environment. “The whole mission of this company is to make eating animals unnecessary,” he told the Journal in 2014. “I think very few people ask Impossible Foods, ‘Why are you doing this?’ ” Lee says. “It’s obvious in today’s culture. But a lot of people ask us, ‘Why are you doing this?’ No one is crying about people picking innocent grapes.”
Lee maintains that, first and foremost, Endless West is interested in adding to the art form of spirit making using a different and broader set of tools. He compares his product to electronic music: “People hated the idea that you could make art on a computer for a while, like, ‘What’s going to happen to all the artists?’ But all those things are now art. There are still people who play violin.”
Yet in every conversation I’ve had about Endless West, I’ve heard some version of the Silicon Valley cliché of disruption and, more specifically, the democratization of a luxury product. When Michael Black, the owner of Sebo, a beloved but now-closed San Francisco sushi restaurant, tasted Glyph, he thought immediately of high-end Japanese whiskies—Hibiki in particular, which sells for anywhere from $70 to tens of thousands of dollars per bottle. Glyph,
Black says, “doesn’t have a huge amount of that super-deep, peaty or oaky kind of quality but more of a subtle fruit-and-floral quality. It’s a little smoother.” At the price Endless West is aiming for, Black sees potential for it “to gain exposure in a market that [highend whiskies] don’t currently enjoy,” he says.
Arvind Gupta, the founder and managing director of IndieBio, the biotech brand of venture capital firm SOSV that invested in Endless West, put a finer point on it. “The potential of this business is on the scale of an Uber, where you can reinvent an industry through changing scarcity to abundance,” he told me. “I see Endless West as the first company that can do that scale disruption to the alcoholic-beverage industry. If Endless West can create extremely well-designed beverages that rival what is extremely expensive, for not quite as expensive, then what are those traditional industries going to have to do?” Gupta says. “They’re going to have to evolve and provide a better product at a lower price point. And that’s just great for everybody.”
It’s easy to imagine people in those traditional industries—and the people who patronize them —taking a different stance. Colin Spoelman, the co-founder and head distiller of Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn, N.Y., says that Endless West is not so much synthesizing a spirit as adulterating a traditionally distilled one. “They’re taking ethanol, which is what anybody else would call vodka, and adding flavoring to it,” he says. “At the end of the day, some distiller
in some place in the country, somebody is distilling that product.” Spoelman finds the project interesting and even exciting as a thought experiment, but he doesn’t think it’s a game changer. The reason people drink old whiskey, Spoelman says, “has very little to do with the taste of that whiskey and a lot to do with the social posturing of buying an old whiskey, and the celebration of drinking something that was distilled when you were 12 years old or whatever. In fact, when you get into flavor deeply, there’s a lot of ambiguity among critics, and you can fool experts very
easily in spirits. I just don’t have that much faith in the idea of this perfect aged whiskey that all distillers are trying to pursue.”
According to Gupta, “This company will survive only if it can make a great-tasting product.” Whether it can do that remains to be seen. I enjoyed my taste of Glyph, and I can imagine being happy with it at a bar or a restaurant. Yet in the lineup of conventionally made whiskeys, it didn’t distinguish itself. And the Lagavulin, which I loved, isn’t priced prohibitively higher. Of course, pricing and flavor can change quickly with synthesized products. But technology—
and that ineffable, essential whiskey quality—may still be a limiting factor. “Science knows most of the components of whiskey, and most of the relative concentrations, but not all of them,” says Eric Simanek, the co-author of “Shots of Knowledge: The Science of Whiskey” and the chairman of the chemistry and biochemistry department at Texas Christian University. “It’s very much like a cocktail party. You have a guest list. The folks show up. But the outcome of a party isn’t necessarily predictable. And it may be one guest, whom you’ve discounted, who changes the entire tenor of the assembly. This is the challenge that Endless West has.”