High-tech "Frankenstein booze" aged without the barrels

Fans of aged alcohol may want to celebrate a big disruption in the spirits industry. Bottles of older scotch, bourbon or rum can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, but one man is changing all that with an invention he claims can produce the equivalent of a 20-year-old spirit in less than a week.

Charleston, South Carolina, is a town that likes its carriages horse-drawn, its streets cobble-stoned and its rum barrel-aged.

So when Alex Burns recently opened the Rational Spirits distillery in Charleston, his business plan seemed a little -- well, irrational: make rum that tastes old, but without any barrels, reports CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy.

"The reason [there are] no barrels is because you have this," Tracy pointed out.

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CBS News

"This machine, this is our science fair project," Burns said.

He's talking about a reactor, which looks like something you might find in a bio-tech lab, not a rum factory.

"I came across this article that says, 'Guy claims he can create 20-year-old rum in six days,' and I thought to myself 'Wow, that would solve a lot of problems! Lemme check it out!'" Burns said.

The guy making that claim is Silicon Valley entrepreneur Bryan Davis. He said he can make rum that tastes 20 years old in six days.

"That sounds too good to be true," Tracy said.

"Yeah! Yeah," Davis said, smiling. "Cool, huh?"

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Rational Spirits' Alex Burns (left) and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Bryan Davis

CBS News

When alcohol is put into a barrel, molecules in the barrel's wood called polymers break down over time. This causes a series of chemical reactions that help give spirits such as rum, whiskey and bourbon complex flavors like smoke, leather and honey.

"The challenge was figuring out how to make those polymers degrade more rapidly. ... If we can put a man on the moon, right? We can figure out how to hack a piece of wood. I mean, it can't be that hard, right?" Davis said, laughing.

The answer was enlightening. Davis built this reactor where wood chips soaking in rum are blasted with high intensity light, doing in six days what would take years in a barrel -- and without any artificial ingredients. The end product matches the chemical composition of a decades-old spirit.

"Is this kind of Frankenstein booze?" Tracy asked.

"Absolutely! Yeah," Davis said.

"You don't mind the phrase?" Tracy asked.

"No! I embrace that one," Davis responded, laughing.

And it's not just rum. Davis is also using his invention to improve rye whiskey, a spirit so popular with modern mixologists that there's now a serious shortage. Bottles of aged rye routinely cost well over $1,000.

"So the idea is that everybody can get a better bottle of a booze at a better price tag," Davis said. "For the booze aging business, this technology's a tectonic shift. Everything just changed under their feet. They may not realize it yet, but it just did."

Traditionally, only large corporations could afford the millions of dollars it costs to age booze in barrels. Now, three smaller distilleries are using Davis' reactors to get similar results, and he said 75 more want to do the same.

When Rational Spirits became his first client it named its rum Santeria. It attracted leaders of the Santeria religion, which uses rum in its rituals. This trio of high priests recently blessed the operation.

But it's also become popular with rum aficionados like chef Paul Yellin, who plans to offer Santeria at his about-to-open rum bar in Charleston. It's the only rum less than three years old he will allow on his shelves.

"Rums are very much like human beings. Age and maturity are two different things," Yellin said.

He said even if Santeria doesn't quite taste 20 years old, it is certainly wise beyond its years.

"Immediately very good," Yellin said after a taste test. "I find this very similar to about an eight-year-old rum."

In a business where waiting is the hardest part, that's a shortcut worth drinking to.