The San Francisco tech startup uses scientific methods to create wines and spirits. But don’t call its products synthetic. 

Mardonn Chua’s story is a common one in the wine and spirits industry.

Five years ago, while wine tasting in Napa Valley, a chance encounter inspired the 28-year-old to launch his own liquor brand. But with a degree in a biotechnology and a background in the Bay Area tech scene, Chua isn’t your typical hobbyist turned professional.

Far from it.

In 2015, Chua was a fresh graduate of the University of British Columbia working feverishly on his first company, a startup that sought to manufacture artificial stem cells in San Francisco.  One Saturday, when some friends from out of town came to visit, Chua took them to wine country.

“It was right there, and I couldn’t try it!” Chua said years later, still smarting from the rejection.

Eventually, they arrived at Grgich Hills Estate, a winery famous for its 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, which received the top score in a historic, blind tasting by a panel of eminent French judges in Paris. The winery’s surprise victory in the 1976 competition cemented Napa as a premiere source of high-quality wine.

Behind plexiglass, Grgich Hill displayed a bottle of its prize-winning chardonnay. Chua asked to sample it. Delicately, the tour guide told him there were only a few bottles left and the last one the winery had sold fetched a whopping $15,000.

“It was right there, and I couldn’t try it!” Chua said years later, still smarting from the rejection.

On the bus ride home that evening, Chua thought about the contents of that off-limits bottle. Outside of its enchanting story, he realized the wine inside was nothing special – chemically, at least. It was just a concoction of water, alcohol and flavor molecules.

In a flash of insight, it all clicked: he could re-create the exact same flavor by analyzing the wine’s molecular composition and reverse engineering it with technology traditionally used to develop pharmaceuticals.

The winery may have used a traditional – and tedious – fermenting process to create the wine’s unique flavor profile, but Chua knew that wasn’t the only way to achieve such an aroma and texture. In a flash of insight, it all clicked: he could re-create the exact same flavor by analyzing the wine’s molecular composition and reverse engineering it with technology traditionally used to develop pharmaceuticals.

Hence was born Endless West, a San Francisco tech startup that uses scientific methods to create wines and spirits in a whole new way.

Endless West – so named because it’s based in California and the applications of its technology is limitless – makes “molecular spirits,” liquors that taste like expensive, aged whiskeys, wine and sake, but produced, literally, in one day.

It currently makes three styles of whiskey, all produced without any barrel aging, as well as a sake made without rice and a wine made without grapes.  Chua and his unusual team, which pairs scientists with a sommelier, make these spirits by analyzing the chemical compositions of existing liquors, and then filtering for the specific flavor molecules they wish to highlight in their own proprietary blends.

Don’t, however, call Endless West’s products synthetic. Chua and company chafe at that label because they say there’s nothing synthetic or artificial or engineered about its spirits. Endless West’s flavors all come from natural sources.

This process allows Endless West to produce, in just a few months of work, flavors that traditional means would take years to develop naturally through fermentation. As a result, Endless West’s production is more environmentally friendly and cost effective than what’s typical in the spirits industry. It also eliminates the presence of any toxins or pesticides, which sometimes are found in trace amounts in wines.

Don’t, however, call Endless West’s products synthetic. Chua and company chafe at that label because they say there’s nothing synthetic or artificial or engineered about its spirits. Endless West’s flavors all come from natural sources.

Say, for example, Endless West wanted to make a white wine with hints of apple, orange and banana flavoring. The brand doesn’t create these flavor molecules in a lab. Rather, it extracts them from real apples, oranges and bananas, and then combines those molecules with water and flavorless ethanol to produce a spirit indistinguishable from a traditionally made white wine.

“We don’t want to displace the traditional method of doing things,” Chua said, noting that Endless West’s goal isn’t to change the spirits industry, but rather “improve it,” through the introduction of new techniques and technology.

Chua wasn’t sure what the response would be when Endless West launched in 2016, but so far he said it’s been overwhelmingly positive. Traditional spirit makers are intrigued by Endless West’s science and technology, and Chua and crew are willing to partner with any brand, even those that could be considered competitors. Meanwhile, Chua has found consumers first try Endless West’s products out of curiosity, then come back once they realize the quality of the spirits. 

Endless West’s first product, a whiskey called Glyph Original, has racked up 14 awards since its introduction just two years ago, including a 2020 Platinum award at the SIP competition and a 2019 Gold at the San Diego International Wine and Spirits Challenge.

“(T)hey’re attempting to bring the quality of an aged product without the price,” one whiskey reviewer wrote, noting that Glyph occupies as wholly unique position on the proverbial shelf. “It does honestly taste very nice.”

For much more in-depth knowledge, sign-up for Endless West’s free training program.

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