Alec Lee – Endless West – Ep 25

Alec Lee, CEO & Co-Founder at Endless West

In this episode of “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, we’re joined by Alec Lee from Endless West, who we will be talking to about how their Molecular Whiskey is helping trailblaze a faster and more sustainable form of distilling for the spirits industry.


[00:00:00] Mitchell Denton: Hello, and welcome to “Let’s Talk Farm Fork”, the PostHarvest podcast that interviews people of interest across the food supply chain. 

Today on our show, I’m joined by Alec Lee from Endless West, who I’ll be talking to about how their Molecular Whiskey is helping trailblaze a faster and more sustainable form of distilling for the spirits industry. 

So with no further delays let’s get started. 

Well, hello there, Alec. Thanks for joining me. How are you? 

[00:00:27] Alec Lee: I’m doing great. Thanks for having me.

[00:00:29] Mitchell Denton: Before we get into the episode, I just wanted to give you the opportunity to tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do, and maybe a fun fact about yourself.

[00:00:37] Alec Lee: Sure. So, my name is Alec Lee. I am the CEO, one of the co-founders of Endless West, and we are the makers of molecular wines and spirits. We make our spirits without barrels, without aging, overnight, much more sustainably, much more cost-effectively. Um, obviously a lot faster than the traditional way of making them. And, uh, I guess as for the fun fact, I once ate termites on a trip on a trip in Kenya, which was great.

[00:01:06] Mitchell Denton: Wow. How did they taste?

[00:01:08] Alec Lee: Uh, you know, I’ve described it as like eating butter and eggshells at the same time.

[00:01:14] Mitchell Denton: Wow. That’s, that’s a horrific image, but you know what

[00:01:17] Alec Lee: They’re, they’re a delicacy.

[00:01:18] Mitchell Denton: I was about to say, people get kind of grossed out about eating insects. It doesn’t really gross me out that much. Like I’m, I’m definitely open to it. I’m definitely willing to give it a try.

[00:01:29] Alec Lee: I think it’s worth it. Everything should be tried once.

[00:01:31] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, everyone’s got to give it a go at least once. Before we get down a complete path about eating insects, let’s talk about Endless West and Glyph.

So, I see that you guys started out in wine and have obviously had quite a journey that has led to developing the world’s first molecular whiskey. Would you mind for the listeners giving us a glimpse into what the journey was like to reach this point?

[00:01:54] Alec Lee: Sure. So, I think the story of wine is fundamentally of course, very similar to that of whiskey and spirits, more broadly. There’s all kinds of reasons why we made that switch. But I think with the story of wine starts with my co-founder Martin, visiting a well known Napa Valley winery, seeing this famous bottle of wine on the wall it was a, it was a 73 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay.

And having the story sort of built up for him about how it changed the face of the wine industry. And, you know, there’s, there’s very few bottles left and you can buy them at auction. Now at this point, obviously it’s a 50 year old Chardonnay, so it probably doesn’t taste anything like it did in its prime and, and feeling that sense of, of loss that, this great work of art, this significant, um, creation is now extremely rare, extremely expensive, and that there’s any number of other wines like that.

So, what if we could archive them? What if we could figure out at a molecular level, what makes them themselves and then build them back up from scratch?

So, so that was the original conception, but I think where we really moved was like, with that as a foundation, like, this thesis of “How do we make wine? How do we make spirits without the traditional inputs, and make it faster, and make it more cost-effective?”

Being able to share that quality, um, the diversity with others who might not otherwise be able to get access to it. That is something that’s not uniquely an issue with wine, of course, and in the intervening years, since then. The pivot has been partly regulatory, partly in terms of just sort of like the economic interests.

Um, so there there’s, there’s a number of different reasons, but really a lot of it just comes down to the fact that, we wanted to be able to play inside of a regulatory environment and inside of sort of like an economic environment that, that really made sense to grow a business.

Um, at the same time, we want to build a technology that allows us to archive and, and to be able to share, um, any number of wines or spirits that are out there in the market, but the margin profile and the cost profile, the economic interest in the types of products that we’re making, it just made a lot more sense inside of spirits.

And then the fact that we’re considered a distilled spirits manufacturer just by virtue of the process, by which we make our products, um, that is a really, really critical factor in what types of products we’re going to want to start to make first, obviously it’s going to be spirits.

[00:04:42] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Great. So what exactly is molecular whiskey and how is it made?

[00:04:48] Alec Lee: So broadly I’d call the category a deconstructionist and, and sort of like reconstruction approach. So there’s a few phases of it. First, we are scanning that is where identifying or mapping the molecular profile of a product, a food product, or a beverage product out on the market. So we wanna understand like, what makes it tick at a molecular level.

Our core thesis is that those molecules you find in one food or beverage. You can find them in other places in nature as well. So there’s a lot of conservation of molecules. You can think of this in a really simplistic form as the sugar molecule that you find in a grape is the exact same sugar molecule that you would find in cane or sugar beets or corn or other fruit.

And there’s literally no difference, some of those plants grow more efficiently than others, right? Grapes are a very fastidious plant, ah require a ton of resources, grow slowly, a ton of pesticides are required, you know, a ton of water in drought-prone areas. You know, the list kind of goes on and, you know, corn doesn’t.

And so, if we can go down this list of hundreds or thousands of different molecules that you might find in a wine or find in, in a whiskey, or really any other food or beverage by and large, you find those same types of conservation. You can find any number of different sources for certain molecules.

Another really good example of this is a compound called benzaldehyde, which is really critical. Uh, the same molecule is really critical for the flavour of almonds and for the flavour of cherries. And those of course, you know, on paper have nothing to do with each other.

[00:06:37] Mitchell Denton: Yeah.

[00:06:38] Alec Lee: But the context changes a little bit and the exact same molecule is found in, in all of these different places in nature.

And just based on the context, it does different things and it gets you a different outcome. And so in the same way, we’re saying, look, uh, any given whiskey is a combination of all of these different molecules. Those are all natural products and you can find them in other more scalable, more sustainable and more cost-effective place in nature, so let’s go do that.

So we do this mapping we then do this sourcing, find out where can we find these molecules? And then we recombine them, we build them back up one molecule at a time.

In some cases with some crude extracts, you know, it’s, a number of molecules all at the same time, but by and large, it is us doing these extractions, getting those critical molecules out and then we recombining them.

[00:07:25] Mitchell Denton: Yeah wow. So, with that in mind, whiskey and whiskey drinkers often bring a conventional image and culture with them. One of tradition and maintaining old practices and methods.

What was the thought process for the Endless West team when stepping into the industry with a spirit that flies in the face of what all the purists would consider to be whiskey?

[00:07:47] Alec Lee: Yeah, it’s a really interesting question that, that I think touches on so many social factors, so many historical factors, also technical factors, of course.

That it’s not an easy answer. I mean, quite frankly, when we started, we were worried about a lot of backlash, you know, cause we were new to the industry, we didn’t have experience.

And so, we have technical backgrounds, my co-founder and I, and we knew we could make a product that objectively would meet the quality parameters that it would have need, but we didn’t know with the sommeliers come with pitchforks and torches to, to our door.

And what we found was that there was a lot more receptiveness to our approach and, and our core thesis in the industry and outside of it from just average consumers.

Then we, then we originally anticipated. And so I think that boils down to any, any number of factors that are really hard to disentangle. Obviously the fact that the food technology movement really took off in the last 10, even just within the last five years, has really been a rising tide that’s lifted all boats.

When we started, Impossible Foods was still a stealth company effectively, they hadn’t officially launched their products. Um, there were only a handful of well-known and even, and even they weren’t truly well-known companies, Beyond Meat wasn’t public.

So, so the, the industry has really exploded and with that consumer acceptance has also just become much more mainstream than it was. So, so I do think that if we were proposing this to the market 30 years ago it would be a very different story.

So that’s one, another is we found is that there’s a framework of tradition and history and terroir and, you know, the um dude with a beard and leather apron, um, ethos that is very widely utilized by industry.

[00:09:55] Mitchell Denton: Absolutely.

[00:09:56] Alec Lee: And frankly, probably overused, you know, there there’s a lot of new stories in spirits, outside of technology that really haven’t been conversations historically, right?

There’s a lot more people of colour launching brands with their story is fundamentally about people of colour.

There’s a lot more female consumers of whiskey. It’s, it’s no longer seen as a man’s drink, right? The way that it was for, for decades. And there, there’s any number of changes in the consumer base that I think makes spirits far more, spirits and particularly whiskey, far more inclusive than it once was. And I think the benefit of that is that we’re a lot more confident coming to the market, telling a new story that isn’t, that hyper-traditional framework.

And we found just a lot more acceptance for something new and different, you know, the way that I sort of highlight that in terms of an analogy is like, the industry for decades has been only making Western films and we’re coming to the table saying, you know what, there’s nothing wrong with the Western film, but if you ever want to watch a Sci-fi movie you know, give us a try, right?

It’s just different. There, there’s no better than or worse than, we’re not saying anything is wrong with the traditional way of, of thinking about the world, thinking about whiskey. And we think that there’s very much a place for something different, something new, something exciting, a different genre.

[00:11:35] Mitchell Denton: Totally. Totally. No, I love that analogy of Westerns and Sci-fi’s it’s perfect. And I totally agree, I consider myself to be a whiskey drinker, but I would say that my wife is more of a whiskey drinker than I am.

I see that you currently have Glyph Original, Spice, and Royal. Would you mind talking through the different qualities of these spirits?

[00:11:57] Alec Lee: Yeah. So, those three that you mentioned really are kind of our flagships. Glyph of course, was our very first product that we launched and then the Spice and Royal launched, maybe about two years later, really just sort of showed the next phase or the next iteration of, of the flavour profiles.

So I’d say Glyph Original, which we called 85 H. It’s the first one that we came out with. I describe it best as a blend between a Japanese ah whiskey and a weeded bourbon.

So, it’s pretty light, it’s smooth, it’s easy to drink, but it’s got some sweetness and just a tiny little bit of spice that you might find out of a weeded bourbon.

So, so it’s, it’s a nice cross between those two. It was a lot of, it was originally inspired by the Sherry cascade scotches, but it also diverges pretty strongly from them as well.

And so it kind of ends up in this multifaceted style if you will. Spice, is a much more traditional American bourbon style. Um, you know, got much, much heavier, obviously, but as the name suggests spice characteristics to it a little bit more bite, um, it’s a little bit more raw and unwieldy, but it’s also got these mellow characteristics of vanilla and, and, and I think it, it goes really nicely as, as sort of like a holiday drinker for, for that reason.

And then Royal, Royal is a really interesting flavour profile. It’s it’s more along the lines of. I’d say like a blended scotch, but it’s got a lot of unique sort of funk attached to it. That is, that is very different than, than a lot of those scotches.

And what we really wanted to show with Royal is like, I’d say drinking Royal is as different and unique and exciting to the pallet as if you’re going from a generic unpeated whiskey to all of a sudden you try peated, right?

It’s like, it kind of like blows you away with like how it’s it’s still a whiskey and how very different its fundamental characteristic is, and really like, I can’t describe it in more concrete terms than that, I’m choosing peat very deliberately because it’s not peat, but in the same way, it can also be polarising.

Right? There’s a lot of people who have want to have nothing to do with peat and. So, what we find is that Royal is actually much more attractive not to the entry level or the novice whiskey drinker, but to someone who like really likes peated whiskey, really likes really intense flavour profiles.

This is its own different, intense flavour profile, but it’s not like the easy drinking, the really smooth kind of thing that you would have gotten with 85 H.

[00:14:55] Mitchell Denton: Okay. Okay. They all sound really enticing. So, being able to develop a product with a process that is not as time and resource-heavy must yield great results for sustainable development.

Would you mind highlighting some of the benefits that developing molecular whiskey would have over more traditional methods?

[00:15:14] Alec Lee: Sure. So. I suppose it’s first really important to sort of break down the categories of benefit. So when we’re talking about the sustainability advantages, we’re going to talk about water, we’re going to talk about land usage, CO2, and pesticides. Those are the primary ones and pesticides, just the broad application of them.

And those are, those are the critical categories. Obviously, when brands do and accompanies do life cycle analyses. There’s other metrics that they might look at, you know, things like acid, rain and whatnot, and we’ve had those studied, but I think those things are a little bit more esoteric to the average consumer.

So I think the ones that I’ve outlined are really the ones that like, sort of the most obvious ones or easiest to really understand. And so, you know, just broad, broad strokes when we’re looking at our whiskey versus a traditional whiskey, comparing the liquid itself, you know, it’s about 25% less water, 25% less land required and about 60% reduction in the amount of CO2 emitted.

With our wines though, it’s a very different story. So it’s very product specific, right? Because it matters a lot with the feedstock is so with something like a wine, it’s a 30 fold reduction in the amount of water required a tenfold reduction amount of land.

It’s 40% less CO2. So, so these are some pretty significant reductions in, in raw material and resource requirements for switching to this approach. And almost all of that advantages has gotten by two things.

One, switching the primary feedstock from either grapes or various other specialty grains to corn for the alcohol. And then two, is the removal of, of the need for barrelling or for ageing, which involves sort of necessary loss.

So, you can lose up to half of the raw material over the ageing process. And what that ultimately means is you need twice as much raw material to start to end up with the same amount, twice as much resources, all that stuff.

I mentioned pesticides, but haven’t given you any metrics on it and that’s obviously because there’s so many different pesticides, they’re different levels of toxicity, how they get applied, where do they get applied.

Those things are pretty nebulous, but I do think it’s really important to note that, like, when are we going to compare pesticide use for corn versus pesticide use for grapes. They’re in entirely different categories, probably because of the value of grapes themselves. They’re, they’re much more valuable and therefore they can be much more protected. Uh, but also just because, you know, it’s a thin skin. It’s a very sweet fruit, it is just a lot more sensitive.

So, the amount of pesticide use is vastly disproportionately high for grapes than they are for most other crops and certainly including corn.

[00:18:16] Mitchell Denton: Mmm, what has been the most interesting discovery you’ve found while working in FoodTech?

[00:18:23] Alec Lee: Yeah. I think that’s an interesting, it’s an interesting way to ask the question, right? Because there’s plenty of things that we’ve learned about wine, the spirits industry, the company itself, but the industry overall, there’s so many things that have really surprised me.

I, I would say that the happiest surprise has been just how quickly there’s been widespread acceptance for the approach.

And like I said, if the industry had been doing this 30 years ago, it’d be a very different conversation. But I think, sustainability, quality of food products, cleanliness of those products, food safety, those things are so much more top of mind now than they were 30 years ago that I think that a lot of consumers have just sort of come to the realisation that we just don’t really have a choice as a species to feed the planet, to do it safely, to do it in a way that is equitable as well, right?

Because most of the FoodTech companies are also trying to create products that are ultimately going to be scalable and accessible and affordable for the average consumer, uh, and for the disenfranchised consumer as well. And those are all things that weren’t really a conversation until the last decade.

And so people have been far more accepting and that’s been a surprise, even to me, just how quickly have gotten on board.

[00:20:07] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, totally. That’s great. So now that you’ve accomplished your goal of turning molecular whiskey into a reality, and not only that, but having won some awards while you’re at it, what are the challenges that still lay ahead for the Endless West team?

[00:20:22] Alec Lee: Well, you know, when we have this conversation with investors, most of the time, and not just on us, I think pretty much any startup is going to have conversations in the context of de-risking.

You know, you need to de-risk several things you need to de-risk your technology, your scalability, your, you know, just general company infrastructure, you know, can you grow a team? Can you manage to keep them? Can you motivate them to produce results?

And then you need to de-risk the actual commercial case for, for your product. And so we’re at a really unique time of the business really in the last year to 18 months where we’ve de-risked, Sorry, and regulatory is another critical one, um, depending on how bleeding edge the technology is.

And so we’ve de-risked effectively all of the business, except for can we actually grow a sustainable business model on that foundation of our regulatory successes, our technological successes, our scalability successes., right?

So we relatively recently raised a $60 million Series C and that’s really going to help us take the commercialisation to the level of industrialisation, if you will.

You know, we acquired a much larger production facility, we’re going to move manufacturing out of San Francisco and, and that’ll really allow us to prove to the market that we can make a lot of this product, we can make it in a cost-effective way and that theres plenty of demand to fill the production capacity of a much larger facility, like the one we acquired.

[00:22:03] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, wow. Okay. So, with that in mind, is there a particular group or innovation within the industry that you’re excitedly keeping a watchful eye on?

[00:22:14] Alec Lee: We’re a FoodTech company that is in many ways, a sort of standard FoodTech company. And it is also in many ways, very different. So, obviously everything that we make is plant-based and in some sense, right?

Because wine already comes from plants, so there’s, there’s no need to put animals into the mix, but we’re not a plant-based company in the sense that we are, you know, Beyond Meat, trying to displace an incumbent animal method manufacturer with a plant-based product, right?

And so we don’t really fit into the quote-unquote plant-based food bucket, but then we also don’t fit into the synthetic biology bucket. You know, the companies that are doing fermentation science to engineer yeast to make a specific protein or set of proteins to create a certain food product.

So, so we’re not a SynBio company. And so we don’t really work with the SynBio groups, and then we’re also not a lab grown, you know, meat company, right? So, so we’re not doing the same type of lobbying that they’re doing. We’re very much in our own category within, within alcohol, which, which is CPG adjacent as, as well.

So really anyone who’s doing any labelling lobbying, really sort of any of the industry groups that are sort of banding together as, as companies trying to get regulatory changes, or trying to get marketing programs that sort of align with each other.

None of those really align with what we do. We’re not even regulated by the same groups, right? So the primary group that regulates us is the TTB, which is the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. And they don’t, they’re not the FDA, they’re not the USDA.

So, we’re very much. Kind of having to chart our own path here. And we’re very much focused on what innovation is happening specifically inside of the spirits industry.

So, we participate in that sense with, Distilled Spirits Industry Council, um, in, in the US and other, other trade groups that, uh, that are long been been around, but we’re not really in the scene if you will, with sort of some of the more, um, some of, some of the other food technology companies.

[00:24:33] Mitchell Denton: Sure. No worries. So, what’s one thing you wish you had known when you first began the journey of developing Glyph?

[00:24:41] Alec Lee: I think we started this with a lot of naivety about how brand has to exist in the framework of a food technology company. I mean, there really hasn’t been a model for what B2B looks like inside of FoodTech.

And that’s very much a path that we’re charting for ourselves now. The vast majority of the commercial business we do is actually effectively licensing now. It’s not true licensing and we still do the manufacturer, but most of the work that we do is actually private label.

[00:25:19] Mitchell Denton: Yeah.

[00:25:20] Alec Lee: Well, over 90% of our current business is brands that we don’t own. And we’re basically building those products for authors. And so, what Glyph was in some sense is a proof for the viability of the technology.

But I think that we didn’t know how to actually create Glyph as a brand for its purpose of proving to the world, the quality of what we could do and how to transition it into. “Hey this is a proof of concept for our technology that we want to build other people’s products for”.

And that transition was, is, is a difficult one because you never really know exactly how to resource any brand, let alone when the purpose of that brand is actually to help you transition into a B2B framework.

[00:26:17] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Okay. So Alec, we are coming to a close, but before we do, I just want to ask, what is the number one thing you really want the listeners to take away from this episode?

[00:26:28] Alec Lee: So, I’d say that. I would say that Endless West lives in a really unique part of the food and beverage industry, where consumers traditionally care so deeply about history, provenance, terroir, right? All those things that we talked about earlier, right?

That’s probably why you asked about that. And so I think that there’s an important role for the future of FoodTech to create products, not just that solve the sustainability, the climate crisis, right? Reducing our reliance on factory farming on animal agricultural, the amenable land and resources that goes into that.

Not just those staple products, but also it’s going to be incumbent on the food technology industry to create these products that people have placed so much social weight on. Lest we run the risk of falling into the trap of food technology funding being put into a bucket of it’s only there to solve sustainability problems.

And isn’t actually capable of creating products with heart, products that have value beyond just nutrition.

[00:27:42] Mitchell Denton: Yeah.

[00:27:43] Alec Lee: And so I really want other players in the space who are creating food and beverage, not just because it matters from a sustainability perspective, but also because that food or beverage matters a lot from a social perspective, from a cultural historical perspective and where getting it really right is critical rather than getting it adjacent and good enough.

[00:28:08] Mitchell Denton: Totally. Yeah. No, that’s good. That’s a, that’s a good place to leave it. Well, that’s all for today’s episode “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”. Thanks for listening, and thank you Alec for joining me today.

If you’d like to know more about Alec and Endless West, check out the link in the description of the episode, make sure to subscribe to the podcast so that you never miss an episode, and don’t forget to leave a review and share with your friends.

Until next time you’ve been listening to “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, a PostHarvest podcast.

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