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Local liquor inventors strike liquid gold

Entrepreneurs offer the next generation of spirits

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Your bourbon-enthusiast grandfather would never have tolerated the things Terressentia is doing to liquor. But put him to a blind taste test, and he just might have a difficult time distinguishing between the liquor crafted from the time-honored ways and those that are the fruits of Terressentia's revolutionary new process of distilling liquor.

It's easy for imbibers to be skeptical. Terressentia produces gin, vodka, rum, bourbon whiskey, and tequila in a warehouse off Ashley Phosphate Road and makes bold claims that each product can stand up to the best of the best old family recipe brands of any style. The funny thing is, at least according to more than 30 major international spirits competition awards in the last three years, it can not only compete with Knob Creek, Sailor Jerry, and Grey Goose — it can beat them.

And that's all without that pesky, "critical" step of aging some liquors in temperature-controlled wooden barrels for years and years. Terressentia perfects their product in about six hours, followed by a few days of rest.

Their secret is a patented process called Terrepure, a combination of filtration and oxidation that uses ultrasonic energy to purify distillate. The process starts with 180 to 190 proof liquor purchased from distilleries that specialize in each liquor. At Terressentia's warehouse, 250 gallon jugs of 190 proof, 100 percent blue agave tequila sit next to equally giant tubs of imported Russian vodka.

Those high-octane potions are diluted with distilled water and passed through tubes into a dialysis-like machine, where sound energy prompts a reaction in the liquor that removes congeners and free radicals — the bad stuff in booze that make well liquor taste awful and rot your guts. Propyl and methyl alcohol become esters and glycerides. In short, the bad alcohol becomes good alcohol, and it doesn't require the tedious aging and multiple distilling processes historically required for making fine spirits.

"I've always been an inventor, so I asked, 'Why do something that is remarkably inefficient?'" says Terressentia chairman of the board Ty Tyler. "Why do you distill vodka five times and throw away 40 percent of what you started with, or put bourbon in a cellar for five years and let most of it evaporate? We said, 'Let's do it efficiently.'"

Tyler's got a lifetime of scientific breakthroughs under his belt. He's the guy who figured out how to put soft drinks in aluminum cans without getting a metallic taste (a patented coating inside the cans), and he perfected indoor-outdoor carpet, washable wallpaper, and outdoor latex paint.

With CEO Earl Hewlette, Tyler began to turn his liquor filtration discovery into a business. The pair formed Terressentia in 2007, after getting their patent the year before, and they initially produced made-to-order liquors for other brands, mostly in Florida. Last year, they began marketing house-brand spirits to restaurants in Charleston. Maverick Southern Kitchens launches their Maverick Vodka at High Cotton this Wed. Feb. 2,

with an open party at

6 p.m. At the party and during the entire month at each of Maverick's restaurants, all drinks using the new vodka, including their iced tea cocktail, the Charleston, and Slightly North of Broad's house martini, are $4. T-Bonz Restaurant Group has designed a series of liquors for Pearlz, Liberty Ale House, and T-Bonz.

"We're using it as our house well," says Patrick Emerson, wine and beverage director for Maverick. "We blind taste-tested it against all of the top premium brands. I much prefer it to Grey Goose."

Emerson appreciates the "creamy texture" he gets from the vodka, a result of the high glyceride content. Terressentia's "cooks" are literally scientists, methodically determining the right amount and combination of natural flavors to mimic traditional brands. A flavored rum might contain seven different flavors — one smelled just like yellow birthday cake. Pepper infused liquors are normally better suited for proving your manhood instead of offering imbibers a true sense of enjoyment, but Terressentia's jalapeño tequila pleasantly creeps across the roof the mouth and begs for another taste.

"When we do tasting events, people will say, 'I don't drink gin,' or 'I can't drink rum,'" recounts Hewlette. "Then they taste ours and they're like, 'Woah, I can drink this.' That's a universal response."

Terressentia's liquors are remarkably smooth. They've actually had customers request that they "rough it up a bit," increasing the proof to give drinkers the "cowboy sensation" of downing a tough shot. Others might take issue with the caramel coloring added to whiskeys to substitute for the browning that would normally occur over time in barrels.

The bottom line for the company, however, will ultimately be determined by blind taste tests and market demand. And Terressentia appears to have both. Of course, they hear pushback from the whiskey distillers, who have hundreds of millions of dollars stored in liquid in barrels from Scotland to Tennessee, but it's a development they'll likely have to deal with. Hewlette predicts that a large market share of liquors worldwide may be produced using their method in the future.

"Somebody discovered alcohol in the Middle East, and for thousands of years, people liked what it did to them, but didn't like the taste," he explains. "We've put it in barrels to age it, which takes a long time and is expensive, or in the case of neutral spirits, distilled it again and again trying to clean out the byproducts that are caused by the fact that distillation isn't a complete reaction."

Their ultrasound filter process is a natural progression of technology, says Hewlette.

Inventor Tyler takes the point even further. "This is the alcoholic equivalent of the computer processing of information," he says. "I'm a great believer that we are on a road, and we can't possibly be all the way yet."

The company's claims of removing harmful alcohols from liquor are not only backed up by the obvious difference in taste and aroma, but by studies conducted by the College of Charleston chemistry department. The University of South Carolina Moore School of Business also held a blind test of 100 people, and Terressentia's bourbon and vodka each easily beat out two top shelf competitors. Most importantly, the company's creations took home Gold Medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and Silver Medals at the International Beverage Exposition in China and the International Wine and Spirits Competition in the United Kingdom.

In January, Terressentia moved to a warehouse space on Patriot Boulevard in North Charleston, expanding their production capacity to 60 cases an hour. Because growing doesn't require adding huge distillers, just more machines (about the size of a microwave), they have the ability to expand to 500,000 cases a year in the location, a goal they hope to achieve in five years.

Although they've grown quietly, they're actually the first distiller permitted in South Carolina since Prohibition (Firefly is second), despite not actually distilling anything themselves. It's their groundbreaking "final step" that's opening doors.

Even while molecular gastronomy ruffles the feathers of traditional chefs, the most visionary cooks combine the best of the old ways with the most exciting new technologies. Terressentia can take a brand new bourbon that would typically require seven to nine years of costly aging to acquire a taste worthy of celebrating, and reduce that process to less than a day. It's understandable that traditional brands would snub "designer alcohol," perfected in a lab to a client's exact desires and specifications. The flavors are sourced from "flavor houses," which Eric Schlosser called out in Fast Food Nation. It's completely possible that a bourbon could be made to duplicate the aroma of a Whopper sandwich, with "hints of smoke" added from a vial.

At its current stage of development, however, the affirmation of those who try Terressentia speaks volumes. In a state rife with blue laws and regulations on alcohol, the biggest thing to happen to drinking since the margarita may come out of a North Charleston industrial park.

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