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Location: Home / Article / Can technology distill a new breed of molecular spirits? - San ...

Can technology distill a new breed of molecular spirits? - San ...

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By Veronica Irwin – Contributing Writer

May 14, 2021


May 18, 2021, 11:25am PDT

See Correction/Clarification at end of article

Alec Lee, co-founder and CEO of Endless West, compares the company’s beverage-making technology to Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.”

Its spirits are created “note by note” by combining naturally derived chemical compounds – like aroma molecules from fruits, or vanilla flavors from wood – that Lee says are indistinguishable from their traditionally aged counterparts. This enables the San Francisco startup to make its drinks in a lab, overnight.

The comparison to the world’s most famous painting is grandiose, but not without its symbolism.

The “Mona Lisa” is partly known for the way it modified the artistic rules of the day, spurring innovation without discarding craft and tradition.

“What we’re doing is more than saying the incumbent way is bad and we should replace it,” says Lee. “What we’re instead doing is saying we want to tell a new story that hasn’t been told before.”

Endless West is indicative of a paradigm shift in the alcoholic beverage market, which has seen novel categories gain in popularity in recent years. Low-carb seltzers, practically unheard of just a few years ago, hit $4.1 billion in sales in 2020, and new THC- and CBD-infused drinks have also seen parallel growth patterns.

Similarly, a new breed of wines and whiskeys that defy what the drinks are known for — terroir, time and tradition — are staking their claim in a crowded field. The entrants present a culture clash between industry incumbents and a startup mentality that chases rapid growth and technology-enabled scale.

“With winemakers and distillers, people are used to hearing that story of where their product came from,” says Jamie Evans, a certified specialist of wine and founder of the culinary-meets-cannabis brand The Herb Somm. “That being said, I do think there’s room for these new innovative products that arecoming out in the beverage space. We’re also seeing consumer habits changing.”

Though Lee sees his company as a purveyor of craft beverages and cringes at the “disruptor” label, the startup’s origin story belies some of that denial.

Endless West was founded when Lee and co-founder and CTO Mardonn Chua embarked on a 2015 Napa Valley wine trip while working at a biotech startup. During their vacation, they came face-to-face with a legendary vintage: a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that was one of the wines that put Northern California vintners on the map.

The two men wondered if they could chemically recreate the wine to taste a “preview” without destroying one of its last remaining examples. “It was the perhaps deep sense of curiosity that I think a lot of founders share, of ‘I have to know whether or not it can be done,’” says Lee.

That question sparked the creation of Endless West, formerly known as Ava Winery. Over the past six years Chua and Lee have created three different whiskey-style beverages, a moscato-style drink and a riceless sake.

Because regulators prohibit the company from using terms like “whiskey” and “wine” to describe their products, they market them as “spirit whiskeys” and “molecular spirits.” Each drink takes magnitudes less natural resources than their traditional counterparts to produce — the moscato, for example, uses 95% less water and 80% less land. That translates to major energy and cost savings.

And because their products are created in a lab, they’re also entirely free of pesticides or heavy metals. Lee stresses that, at a molecular level, their beverages are exactly what they imitate.

“It’s not a trickery in the way that like, let’s say aspartame, tricks your brain into thinking that you’re consuming something sweet,” says Lee. “Where there’s alcohol, we put in alcohol. Where there’s sugar, we put in sugar. If there’s some flavor molecules or various aroma molecules from fruits, or the vanilla that comes out of the wood, we’ll add those same molecules.”

Though unconventional, their pitch has gotten investors knocking. In April, they announced a $21 million Series B, bringing their total capital raised to $33.7 million. Both investors and founders chart Endless West’s potential to that of imitation meat startups Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Unlike those two examples, however, Endless West makes a cheaper product than the original. While a 30-year-old Scotch can cost upward of $1,000, a bottle of Endless West’s spirit whiskey (which they are comparing it to) retails for $40.

“I basically don’t ever invest in things that rely on sustainability for people to purchase,” says Sarah Cone, founder and managing partner of Social Impact Capital, which led the company’s Series A. Endless West, she says, is “a sustainable product that’s incredibly high quality, at a lower cost.”

The startup also recently unveiled a business line developing white-labeled beverages for celebrities and well-known brands, using its technology to quickly and cheaply adapt flavors for personal tastes. “It’s a technology that is more broadly applicable to pretty much any kind of beverage, and certainly any kind of alcoholic beverage,” says Lee.

Endless West isn’t alone among Bay Area companies in this endeavor. Menlo Park’s Bespoken Spirits uses a process involving microstaves, or miniscule pieces of wood, to flavor their whiskey-like drinks. While Endless West can't legally call their product “whisky,” both companies have won multiple awards at blind tasting competitions for their proprietary drinks. Bespoken, for example, won two Double Gold awards at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition earlier this month.

However, the two companies have distinct approaches to the market. Endless West underscores the unique complexity of their in-house drinks while Bespoken Spirits co-founder Stu Aaron says his company is most intent on building a B2B business. Where Endless West sees themselves as the “Mona Lisa” — influential and one-of-a-kind — Bespoken Spirits aims to be the printing press, the vehicle by which a high-level product can be quickly distributedto the masses.

Though the market has been flooded in recent years by a slew of celebrity tequila brands, Damien Wilson, the Hamel Family Faculty Chair of Wine Business at the Sonoma State University Wine Business Institute, says white labeling may be the most sustainable business model for either company. Finding a celebrity endorser is a “tried-and-true method,” he says.

Many skeptics in the wine industry assert that success in the category can be elusive without a traditional story to tell. Wilson, however, disagrees. “The wine industry is not typically good at speaking to consumers — it’s very good at listening to itself,” he says.”

Both startups are also pitching new applications for their technology. Bespoken Spirits talks about how they might help whiskey makers “tweak” products when a batch doesn’t quite turn out as planned. And, in a nod to its inspiration, Endless West sees the potential of archiving rare beverages by making molecular copies so they aren’t lost to posterity after the final pour.

While many winemakers might cringe at the idea of copying wines — after all, the worth of some bottles is in part dependent on their rarity — Lee just sees the

Mona Lisa


Just as the portrait transitioned to pop-culture icon when people began printing it on t-shirts and posters, Lee sees potential to multiply great products. For him, the contrast drawn between his new technology and decades-old heritage is a false dichotomy. Endless West, like all alcohol companies, has its own story: one of innovation, science and ambition.

“That’s the beauty of being a company based in Silicon Valley,” says Lee. “You can have a bold view, have all the experts tell you that what you want to do can’t be done and then you just go anddo it.”

Endless West's products


Glyph is Endless West’s first proprietary molecular spirit, and has picked up 14 awards including the Platinum award at the 2020 SIP competition. Though original is meant to taste like a traditional barrel-aged whiskey, while Glyph Spice is inspired by an American Bourbon, and Glyph Royal carries the hearty flavor of a sherry cask aged Scotch.


Gemello is named “twin” in Italian because of the close similarities between it and a traditional Moscato d’Asti wine. However, it’s backstory is all but traditional: Gemello is made without grapes, and thus without any pesticides or sulfites. Overall, it exerts 40% less carbon emissions than a conventional wine, per bottle.


Kazoku has the flavor of a light and crisp Sake, with hints of green apple skin, peach pit, and rosewater. The fruity notes make it slightly sweet, though more savory flavors round out each sip. Kazoku requires 75% less water and 60% less land than a traditional bottle of sake.

Veronica Irwin is a San Francisco-based freelance reporter.


The story has been updated to clarify that Bespoken Spirits' products can legally be called whisky.