Behind the Bar Snap Shot

Is the Distillery Tour at Lost Spirits the Wackiest in the World?

Lost Spirits distillery in Los Angeles Image: Juliet Frew

For longtime fans of Lost Spirits, distiller Bryan Davis has been many things: crafter of some of the most fascinating U.S.-made rums on the market, maker of out-of-the-box whiskeys distilled with the likes of Pacific seawater and the creator of a controversial reactor that cheats time to “flash-age” spirits.

Last year, with his longtime partner, Joanne Haruta, he opened the brand-new Lost Spirits distillery in downtown LA, arguably the most whimsical booze destination in the world—one that’s inspired as much by Walt Disney and H.G. Wells as by the art of distilling. It’s the kind of place you waltz into for a taste of overproof rum and walk away having witnessed a parrot show.

Over the years, Davis has developed cult rums and whiskeys from a still he built by hand in Lost Spirits’ original Santa Cruz distillery. After years of nonstop experimentation—aging whiskeys in California wine barrels, playing with different bacteria to produce funky, overproof rums—he earned a following. Bartenders and spirits geeks couldn’t get enough. Production ceased for a while as they searched for a new distillery space and the patented reactor started being used by spirit makers around the country.

Bryan Davis. Nic Coury

“We couldn’t scale our old facility,” says Davis. “Instead of being in a barn in the middle of an artichoke field, it was either going to be LA, San Francisco/Oakland or New York; and LA had favorable zoning laws.” They got in just under the wire, says Davis, as zoning laws are due to change in the coming years.

Lost Spirits is buying an Islay Scotch whisky base and experimenting with it in Davis’ reactor until he can expand the distillery with stills for whiskey production. Produced on his hand-built, fire-breathing dragon stills (no joke), Davis has already released two rums, with more to come.

“The rums are all coming back,” he says, “But modified.” Given complexities like the differences in airborne bacteria between Lost Spirits’ original countryside location in NorCal and its urban environment in LA, its Polynesian and Cuban rums, for example, taste different distilled in LA. This means Lost Spirits is experimenting with different styles to lock in the best versions.

On the Lost Spirits distillery tour, the first pours of rum are dispersed in this lantern-lit room. (caption: Dario Griffin).

On the ever-developing, eastern side of downtown LA, Lost Spirits’ boxlike red building belies the wonderland that awaits inside. The inspiration for the one-of-a-kind facility comes from Davis’ first job out of college, where he helped build amusement park rides.

“We wrote a list of everything we’ve always wanted to do, and the single biggest thing everybody agreed on was the jungle cruise,” says Davis.

Guests entering the building are greeted by large topiary shaped like triceratops. The tour begins in a dark and breezy hallway set to automated voices that recall the haunted elevator at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.

Juliet Frew

A curtain opens to a dim lantern-lit room that looks like a 19th-century opium den. Here, the first pours of rum are dispersed. Rum in hand, you board a wood-carved boat marked by dragons through a dark waterway where the temperature fluctuates and impromptu storms, humidity, breezes and even a volcano can pass through unexpectedly.

Though it’s part of the show, even the canal is part of the distilling process, cooling the still and fermenters as the boat floats down the dark, narrow waterway.

“The idea is that you can drink booze in the terroir we imagined it had,” says Davis. “It’s like how much better scotch tastes when it’s drunk in a castle in Scotland. You can’t quite put that in a bottle, no matter how hard you try. The idea was to create that effect but for places that don’t exist. For example, imagine if you were able to jump into Pirates of the Caribbean, reach out and grab the rum and drink it.”

Bryan Davis. Nic Coury

There are no pirates on the tour—yet. As the tour progresses, you’re led from fermentation tanks to Davis’ futuristic-looking reactor, where the booze is aged, to an outdoor tropical garden and a safari tent lined with a dinosaur head that looks as if it was pulled from an archeological dig. There are also artifacts from Africa, a miniature ship and a first-edition H.G. Wells books, including one of the distillery’s influences, “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” After a whiskey tasting, you’re whisked off to the gift shop where an international crew of plastic parrots badger you in different languages.

This was all built by Davis and his team, and they’re not finished. Each month, new elements are added to the facility so that the tour constantly feels fresh with surprises. And as they just expanded with a new warehouse space next door, expect the evolution to continue.

Details: There are multiple tours weekly, capped out at eight people per tour (the max number that fits on the boat). There are also evening tours, but they book up quickly, so plan ahead. At $35 a ticket, the tour runs approximately one-and-a-half to two hours. You can get tickets here.