As far as we now are into the modern brown liquor boom, it can be safely assumed that quite a lot of whiskey drinkers have a good grasp on what a term like “bourbon” means, when they see it on a label. They know that word implies a spirit that was distilled from a mash of at least 51% corn, and they know it was aged in newly charred oak. Additional labels, like “straight” bourbon go on to imply other markers of relative quality—in that case, that a bourbon has been aged in oak for at least two years. These are the dependable crutches of the industry—words imbued with meaning that all can understand.
The industry, though, is changing. There are pushes happening in many directions at once, whether it’s “zero-ABV,” non-alcoholic spirit replacements that mimic the flavor profile of popular spirits (most of them terrible), or low-ABV aperitifs such as the surprisingly tasty Haus, which chooses not to mimic but instead markets itself as a replacement for higher-proof spirits that contains many of the same flavor notes.
And then there’s Glyph Molecular Whiskey, which is something else entirely. The product of a company called Endless West, this is an admittedly very creative and rather daring attempt to entirely eschew the processes we associate with whiskey making to make a legitimate-tasting spirit entirely with chemistry, rather than established dogma. Which is to say: This “whiskey” (it can still call itself that, as a grain spirit) is not aged, and never comes into contact with any oak, but is still meant to taste as if it had done exactly that. This is the root of the description as molecular whiskey—the company is claiming to produce its product “from the molecule up,” leaning on molecular chemistry to achieve the flavor profile of wood-aged whiskey without either wood or age. As a result, the label bears the words “spirit whiskey with natural flavors.” Here’s how the distillery describes it:
Whiskeys owe their flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of molecules that develop during distillation and barrel aging. These are the building blocks of all spirits. To make Glyph, we source these molecules directly from plants and yeasts, rather than obtaining them through distilling and aging. By using the same building blocks as conventional distillers, we create fine spirits through a process we’ve developed called note-by-note production. Our process is different, but our commitment to quality rivals the best in the business. Each component is meticulously tested for purity. Glyph is biochemically equivalent to the finest aged whiskies.
Now, it’s easy to imagine that the reaction of many whiskey geeks here would be to immediately snark, and assume this is simply a cost-saving measure, but considering Glyph’s $40 MSRP, they’re aiming for the middle-shelf in terms of comparisons at the very least. So too is the brand quick to point out the more sustainable, less resource-driven nature of what they’re creating, saying “significantly less wood, water and land is used in its production process,” as opposed to yet another microdistillery making bourbon in newly crafted barrels from the cooperage. Theoretically, there are upsides here, but the liquid in the bottle still has to measure up in terms of the actual drinking experience, even if you have a piece of paper saying it’s “biochemically equivalent.”
And unfortunately, that’s where Glyph runs into a lot of issues. Beyond the fact that they are casting aside most of the romantic notions of craft and aging that are attractive aspects of consuming American whiskey, the spirit itself isn’t likely to remind anyone of one of their other favorite brands.
On the nose, things actually aren’t too bad, although they’re fairly muted overall. There’s a definite ethanol presence here, with whiffs of too-pronounced acetone, which the notes of green apple and clovey spice really can’t cover. There’s an interesting, seemingly grain-derived character on the nose as well, which presents as a curiously bready/yeasty note that you don’t really expect to perceive very strongly.
On the palate, things fall apart rather quickly. The ethanol is again very harsh, with a “raw” feeling that you would likely associate with bottom-shelf, blended American whiskeys in the mold of Ten High or Early Times. Green apple fruitiness makes for an odd pairing with anise and caraway-like spice notes, but most of the flavors are swallowed up by neutral, pervasive booziness, and a finish that reminds one of the resinous quality in freshly cut pine. It seems curiously “flat” to me, and lacking in richness or unctuousness. Certainly, I’m not reminded of notes of “sherry” or “vanilla,” which are strongly suggested by the back label copy. Put simply, it tastes like young, rather raw moonshine that hasn’t had any ability to mellow out or gain interesting flavors to offset its natural harshness. I can’t help but think that if you handed a bourbon or scotch lover a glass of this and told him it was whiskey, he would be almost invariably disappointed by the result—especially if you said it was from a ”$40 bottle,” although MSRPs are obviously less valid an indicator when dealing with small, independent spirit companies. But still—you can’t deny them entirely.
In the end, I can understand why a company would want to attempt to produce a product like this one. I can understand why alcohol industry innovators, especially ones with chemistry backgrounds, would assume that it would be possible to do so. What I don’t understand is how they could taste their final product and assume that the consumer would agree that it could stand up against its competition. Nor can I understand how one markets this product to a consumer who has developed an appreciation for the whiskey-making craft over the course of decades. How do you approach that person, who understands and romanticizes what the interaction between wood/booze achieves, and sell them on the idea of a spirit that was created in a test tube to mimic the real thing?
Then again, we did get sold on TV dinners, once upon a time. But like your frozen piece of Salisbury steak, Glyph unfortunately leaves rather a lot to be desired. Whether the science of Glyph can catch up with the expectations drinkers have for the genre remains to be seen.
Distillery: Glyph (Endless West)
City: San Francisco, CA
Style: Spirit whiskey with natural flavors
ABV: 43% ABV (86 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $40 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.