I took a music production class awhile back and when discussing digital vs. analog, the instructor said the issue with digital music is that even if it has a really high bit rate, there will always be a ceiling to the sounds captured. Analog music (read: vinyl) doesn’t have those digital constraints, so you can capture a nigh-endless range of sound.**
This analogy seems apt when talking about Glyph, the spirit that is constructed molecule by molecule to “be” whiskey, and requires no aging. Glyph is essentially the digital creation of a traditionally analog product. Alec Lee, CEO of Endless West, which makes Glyph, unknowingly alluded to this digital vs. analog situation during our phone interview this week. I asked him for the pitch on Glyph and the first thing he said was “We’re making electronic music for whiskey.”
Glyph uses spectrometry and analytical chemistry to create a molecular map of whiskey, including everything from taste to aroma and mouthfeel, all of which develop over traditional whiskey’s aging process. So let’s say a particular whiskey has notes of vanilla and cardamom. Glyph looks to see where that vanilla and cardamom molecules exist in nature and then, according to the Glyph website, the company “gather[s] those molecules from resource-efficient natural sources: for example, esters found in fruit, sugars found in cane and corn, and acids found in citrus and wood.” It then starts with a neutral spirit made from corn and adds in all those new molecular components to recreate whiskey in their lab.
Lee is quick to point out that they aren’t copying a particular whiskey. They wanted to create something that’s unique and approachable. “A lot of that is spending time with all different styles of whiskey.” Lee said, “It wasn’t an expression of what we thought would get the most interest, or sell the most bottles. It was what flavor profiles resonate with us.”
So, what does it taste like?
I’m not much of a whiskey snob. My tastes tend to run on the smoother/sweeter side of things like Colonel Taylor and Bulleit Rye (both on the rocks). Endless West sent me a bottle of Glyph to try and the first thing that struck me was how little bite to it there was. Glyph is indeed approachable, lacking any sort of alcoholic punch in the face, or punch at all. It was sweet, so much so that it almost felt like I was drinking juice. It may have the molecular fingerprint of whiskey, but it didn’t taste like anything I had tasted before. That’s not necessarily bad, just more… surprising.
Knowing that Glyph was made in a lab certainly could have altered my impression of it. I might have been looking for artificiality. But my first impressions were that it was very much a digital product. Like bitrates, it felt like there was a ceiling to what I could experience. It lacked a type of analog infinity.
I asked Lee about this digital comparison and he didn’t dispute it. “Even if there is a ceiling, the human brain has a bit rate. That’s why we suck at multi-tasking.” Lee said “Even if there is something there that exists that we can’t reproduce, it doesn’t matter if a human can’t pull out [the] distinction.” The limitations of human perception are actually the same counterargument made about music compression: after a certain threshold, human ears can’t tell the difference. Lee’s reasoning is the same for whiskey — essentially that you don’t miss what you can’t actually taste.
Endless West may be making whiskey, but what they are actually making is an existential question for our modern age. On the molecular level, Glyph is whiskey, but is whiskey more than a sum of its parts? Should it be? Does it matter?
These questions aren’t relegated to whiskey. Endless West was also behind Ava Winery molecular wine, though they had to shelve that product for a while to sort out regulatory hurdles (Lee said the company still has plans to release it). Elsewhere Atomo is making molecular coffee without the bean.
Like fans in any subculture, whiskey aficionados and audiophiles can get deep in the weeds when discussing their favorite beverages or turntable. But Glyph isn’t for the hardcore. “It’s the approachability,” said Lee. “People have the college year expectation. They won’t drink it ‘because I had bad night with it.’ Then they drink Glyph and it’s not that harsh.”
But at $40 a bottle, Endless West is betting that people will pay up for this more approachable whiskey. Perhaps a new generation of fans will imbibe this digital spirit while they stream LCD Soundsystem.***
**Look. I’m not an audiophile, I’m just repeating what the instructor, who seemed knowledgeable said. Don’t @ me, boomer.
***Look. I’m old and I don’t want to pretend like I know any electronic music newer than the Chemical Brothers to be hip with the kids. Don’t @ me, millennial. If you have a better suggestion, send it to me.