Updated July 24, 2021 - 12:40 pm
The Jules Verne of booze leads the way.
In a nondescript warehouse space just outside the Area15 arts and entertainment complex, we’re about to be submerged in a faux-aquatic fantasia of fish with human faces and 105-proof whiskey. And, of course, there’ll be a moment when the lights go down and ’90s novelty relic Big Mouth Billy Bass serenades us with Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”
It’s all part of entering the “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” tasting room.
“Welcome to the Nautilus, if you will,” says Bryan Davis as he heralds guests into a re-creation of the submarine from the aforementioned science fiction adventure novel.
Anthropomorphic sea creatures swim outside the vessel’s portals; the candelabra casting a dim glow from above sway in unison, as if the submarine is being pitched about in the depths of a roiling sea. Leonard Cohen’s subterranean-baritone plays in the background, his voice as deep as the ocean itself.
“It’s my favorite room,” says Davis, a man who’s been likened to a rum-and-whiskey Willy Wonka enough times in various publications that he should probably have it inscribed on his business card by now. This is his newest dream factory: Lost Spirits Las Vegas, which could be equated to an adult Disneyland where you can sip high-end hooch on the rides.
“I liked the idea of building a crazy distillery that’s also kind of an amusement park,” Davis explains.
So, in 2016, he did just that, opening what would be prove to be a popular themed distillery in Los Angeles. He’s bringing the concept to Vegas, debuting on August 15.
It’s an oddly unique experience destined to have booze hounds baying at the moon — Davis’ spirits have taken home the gold medal at the 2016 International Rum Renaissance Festival in Miami, won best in class the following year at the same event, been named the 2019 American Craft Whiskey of the Year at London’s Wizards of Whisky awards and more.
And it’s all designed by a 40-year-old autodidact who takes the occasional life cue from a fictional pirate.
“You’ll sometimes hear business people talk about different old famous business people as their idols, and who they look up to and get guidance from. I tend to look at Jack Sparrow,” Davis grins. “Just that moment of the boat sinking into the pier as he then steps straight off it is, like, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty much my life.’ But it gets bigger and cooler each time.”
Down the rum rabbit hole
Davis gives the marching orders from the behind the wheel of a gilded-looking, gold-and-red motorized cart that could pass for something that The Great Gatsby might tour his estate in.
The Lost Spirits experience begins inside Area15, where visitors sip spirits in a pair of rooms before being transported to the adjacent distillery.
Even though he owns the place, Davis still serves as a tour guide from time to time, and he’s good at it: One minute he’s waxing about the process that yeast cells use to pull oxygen out of sugar molecules, the next he’s detailing how elephants schedule their mating seasons when fruits are fermenting on the ground.
He’s got a scientist’s mind fused with a beach bum’s affable, come-as-you-are demeanor, the kind of guy who breaks down complex chemical reactions off the top of his head while dressed like a Jimmy Buffet die-hard in a light blue Hawaiian shirt and shorts, frequently punctuating his sentences with an easy laugh.
He steers the cart to our destination, where it takes your eyes to adjust a minute to adjust to a darkness that consumes you as completely as guests consume the spirits that Davis shares.
The distillery opens with a drink in a tree-and-candle-festooned jungle setting, before leading guests into a what looks like a centuries-old town to wander about. Visitors can sample five rums and whiskeys during a trip here.
There are Easter eggs throughout the complex. One of Davis’ faves: the tucked-away Dorian Gray opium den.
“Most of the spaces are sort of all my favorite books,” he says. “It’s all my favorite stuff out of literature. I always loved the opium den scene in the ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray.’”
From there, a guided tour culminates in the “20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea” tasting room.
Everything here seems like a direct reflection of Davis himself.
He was the kid who took apart his Nintendo in order to find out how the thing worked before putting it back together again. After college, where he specialized in sculpture and sought to eventually do large-scale municipal projects, he designed amusement park rides for a time.
Lost Spirits embodies this background: It’s constructed from the depths of his imagination as much as from steel and wood.
“One of the fun elements is sitting around with a pen and paper and kind of doodling this out and then turning it into cut files and diagrams and make it into architecture,” Davis says. “It’s a kick watching something go from a drawing pad on the table into a thing you can walk around and go explore.”
A D.I.Y. distillery
An empty bottle of booze swiped from his father’s liquor cabinet. A champagne cork found in a drawer. A copper refrigeration coil bought for $20 at Home Depot. A bucket, some silicone sealant, a cordless drill and a hot plate.
You could say that all this began with those seven items.
At age 16, using information gleaned from the internet, Davis used that stuff to build his first still. A self-professed socially awkward teen, Davis found that drinking helped him loosen up a little. So he started distilling rum at home.
“This really increased the quality of life for the next two years of my high school career,” he chuckles in a 2015 TED talk.
While in college, Davis got interested in the potent spirit absinthe after reading about it in GQ while on the john. He was an art major and learned that Vincent Van Gogh allegedly sliced his ear off while drinking it.
The problem: absinthe was illegal in the U.S. at the time. Undaunted, Davis once again returned to the internet to research how it was made, scoring its key, hard-to-find ingredient, wormwood, at a witchcraft supply store.
He’d take backpacks full of the stuff with him on trips to Burning Man and began to see that there was a market for it.
Davis and business partner Joanne Haruta relocated to Spain — did they bother to learn Spanish first? Nah— to launch their own absinthe line, Obsello Absinthe, which was successful for a time until the market for the spirit crashed. The two returned stateside, founding their own distillery in Monterrey, California in 2010.
Davis builds his own stills, making every one himself and then topping each with a dragon sculpture. It was an act of necessity at the time.
“We didn’t have any money,” he says of the early days. “We had 80,000 bucks, which isn’t even enough to buy one piece of equipment like that. So we got very creative with figuring out how to build our own equipment. I built little scale models of all these different stills from different distilleries, measuring their proportions from photos online.”
The business grew. “By 2014, we were a contender — off and on — for distillery of the year,” Davis says. “We were certainly in the top five or 10 in the United States.”
And then a year later …
“I ended up inventing a piece of technology that’s particularly valuable to the industry,” Davis says.
The booze time machine was born.
Just getting started
The hologram calypso dancers are getting the party started on a Tuesday afternoon.
“Fiesta! Fiesta!” the singer bellows as the orchestra plays loud, lively salsa music that soundtracks the ladies’ shimmying.
“These things are so much fun,” Davis says from the back of the “Havana Hologram Lounge,” taking in the computer-generated entertainment with a satisfied grin.
He pours some Cuban anejo blanco rum that he developed five years ago but never brought to the market. He’s sharing it here for the first time.
The idea: to pair spirits with settings evocative of what led to their creation.
“We thought it’d be really fun to combine the concepts of matching the individual tasting rooms throughout the distillery with the thing that inspired whatever its backstory is,” he explains, “and then creating the environments in which you could drink them where they were sort of imagined to be from.”
It’s a recurring theme in his company’s history. The distillery’s flagship liquor, its Navy Rum, was inspired by watching all the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies back-to-back.
“We were going, ‘What do you think that would taste like?’” Davis recalls. “What do you think it would taste like if you could be in that hypothetical movie environment and you could reach out and grab the bottle and take a swig?
“We know it’s an English pot-still rum,” he continues, “you know some of the basics based on the historical reference and era, but there are so many blanks you can fill in — you’re trying to capture some of the parts of the ocean or the gun-powder smoke of the sea battles, tropical fruits from the environment. What are all the different notes that you’re building based on the imaginary place that it’s coming from?”
Naturally, when Davis opened his L.A. distillery, one of its signature attractions was a “Pirates of the Caribbean”-inspired boat ride.
Its Vegas counterpart features all-new rooms and booze.
It’s a lot to take in — with a lot more to come, including a restaurant to open in October, its centerpiece a massive wooden table befitting a feudal king’s dining hall.
“We have so much more,” Davis says. “This is just, like, the bare minimum to let people start coming in. It’s only 25 percent of the way done.
“This thing will never really be finished,” he says. “It’ll be under construction for the next 10 years. We’ve only scratched the surface of the space we have to use.”
That said, a significant amount of space is already in use in the winding, labyrinthine distillery. Just how many rooms are there right now?
“Great question,” Davis responds. “We never get straight answers, because every time we send scouts out, they don’t make it back,” he quips. He apologizes for being a little cagey.
He needn’t, really: Conjuring a sense of the open-ended, of continual discovery is what this experience is posited upon.
“I don’t want to give it out, so that people can check a box,” he explains, revealing what defines both this place and himself. “I want to leave them wondering.”