“Our company is a cross between 23andMe, Nespresso and Impossible Foods.”
Why wait years to sample aged liquor when it’s possible in a matter of days? Bespoken Spirits, launched by Martin Janousek and Stu Aaron, aims to upend the slow, wasteful and antiquated spirits industry with a new sustainable maturation process. Leveraging modern technology, material science and data analytics, the Californian company are able to meticulously tailor the aroma, color and taste of craft spirits in under a week.
Bespoken Spirits launched in 2018 to help distillers, rectifiers and retailers create or correct spirits. Since then, they have launched their own branded products, and in October 2020, a group of investors including former New York Yankees player Derek Jeter invested $2.6 million to help scale the business.
We caught up with Martin Janousek and Stu Aaron to discuss how they are disrupting the multi-billion-dollar spirits industry, how they are appealing to modern tastemakers and why variety is important today.
How did Bespoken Spirits come about?
Stu Aaron: Martin and I have known each other for about 15 years now. Martin is a material scientist by training and happens to be a foodie by passion. I’m the business guy and have the everyman palette.
The business came about back in 2017. Martin was frustrated that in his wine and whiskey club, to get a bottle of something awesome to drink you either had to spend a lot of money or you had to buy the bottle years in advance and just sit on it, and he didn’t understand why it had to be that way. So, like any good scientist, he started tinkering, reading and inventing. And then he came up with the technology behind Bespoken.
Using modern science and technology we realized that we could reimagine and master the maturation process for spirits—take something that is trial and error, imprecise, slow and expensive and turn it into something that is extremely precise. It allows us to take a source spirit, create a vision for a particular aroma and taste profile that we want that spirit to become and make that spirit quickly.
How would you describe the business of Bespoken Spirits?
Stu: I always tell people that our company is a cross between 23andMe, Nespresso and Impossible Foods. We’re like 23andMe because there’s a major data element to what we do. We map the spirit genome, if you will. Then there’s the Nespresso component, because we’ve essentially created a machine which is an industrial scale rather than kitchen scale, but it’s a machine where you can put in the spirit and a “pod” of our wood that’s been treated, then you press a button and, in a few days, out pops this custom spirit. And we’re like Impossible Foods because we’re taking an industry that is steeped in a lot of tradition and we’re bringing science and sustainability to it in a positive way that may not appeal to everyone—but it’s evolving. That’s the same type of thing we’re expecting to see here.
The next generation of tastemakers is attracted to novel and more complex flavors. Is this the audience you’re catering to?
Stu: For our branded products, our consumer is a modern, tech-savvy, environmentally conscious consumer. Our sweet spot is with people who want variety, value, authenticity, purpose and sustainability in their spirit.
Martin Janousek: Unlike my father’s generation—he would drink one type of whiskey and always drink that one—today’s generation is different. They would try one whiskey and then they ask, “what is next, what else is out there?”. They want to explore. This is where we come in.
Can you explain how Bespoken Spirits’ aging process manipulates flavors?
Martin: By controlling every input variable, we are able to use the same base spirit and create very different types of whiskey in three to five days. We have close to 20 billion different recipes that we can explore, by changing how we treat the wood, how we toast it, how we char it, how much of it we use. We create these recipes on 3-4 ounces of liquid and then the customer can select whatever recipe they like.
We can use combinations that no one else can use. For example, we can mix and match different types of wood and control how we char and how we toast. You cannot mix different types of wood using the traditional barrel method because different wood expands differently, and it could leak.
Taking modern technologies to change a process in an industry that is very traditional, some would call you disruptive…
Stu: From day one it was about disrupting the industry, but it was about disrupting it for the better. A lot of technology and companies coming out of Silicon Valley are about tearing down an industry, but we actually found an industry that has lots of challenges—lots of economic, time and sustainability challenges and lots of challenges that stunt creativity.
[In the spirits] industry, before a product gets to market, 20% of the product is typically lost in “angel share” (the spirit that has evaporated as it ages). In any other industry, that would be preposterous, but this industry has accepted that. That’s why I think we’re so timely. We’re helping economically, we’re helping with sustainability, we’re helping with customer intimacy. They’re all big values for the industry.
The forecast for the global whiskey market shows strong growth, expecting to reach over $95 billion by 2026 (estimated at $61.7 bn in 2019). Why is there such a strong affinity for whiskey? Or spirits in general?
Stu: It’s a lot of things. We’ve certainly seen that younger generation has gravitated towards spirits over beer and wine. A lot of that comes down to cocktails, and that boils down to personalization. With beers and wine and even bottled spirits, you get exactly what comes out of the bottle, whereas mixology creates an opportunity to make what you want today, depending on how you’re feeling. It plays well with what we’re about, which is about providing variety and value and being able to customize.
Martin: We’re strongly convinced that this is an international business for us. We see a ton of excitement in Asia, where people embrace technology more. The international expansion is big on our radar.
Stu: Our plan is to grow our business both behind the scenes, as well as get the brand out there. We’re not limited to just whiskeys, we’ve done work with rum, gin, tequila, brandy. Really the technology itself can be applicable to other products. We’ve thought about soy sauce, kimchi, or other barrel aged products. But right now, we’re focused on the spirit space, because it’s a massive market and one of the few bright spots that have come out of the pandemic with growth potential. It’s an industry we can disrupt in a meaningful and economic way.