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.

A rotary evaporator is used to concentrate liquids so that compounds in whiskey can be easily identified.
A rotary evaporator is used to concentrate liquids so that compounds in whiskey can be easily identified. Photo: Christie Hemm Klok

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.

Endless West pivoted from wine to whiskey this year but is still experimenting with a synthetic moscato.
Endless West pivoted from wine to whiskey this year but is still experimenting with a synthetic moscato. Photo: Christie Hemm Klok

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.

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