- California-based Voodoo Scientific has emerged from stealth with a patent-pending approach to create smoother liquor with an enzyme that targets compounds responsible for the “harsh bite” in distilled spirits from vodka to tequila.
- Cofounders Joana Montenegro (CSO) and Martin Enriquez (CEO) spoke to AgFunder News (AFN) after announcing a partnership with synthetic biology specialist Ginkgo Bioworks to optimize the production and performance of the enzyme in question.
Defining the problem
Montenegro—a food engineer with stints on her resumé at Califia Farms, Land O’Lakes, and General Mills—started exploring the source of the harshness in spirits during the lockdown in 2020 and was surprised to learn that the chemical compounds responsible had not been identified.
“I have a background in food but not spirits, so I was unencumbered with a whole lot of knowledge of distilled alcoholic beverages and wondered what’s causing that kind of painful harsh sensation you get from these drinks. And I was shocked to discover that there’s really no science around it. There was no real articulation of what that harsh sensation actually is and precisely what chemicals are triggering it.
“I heard things like, ‘It’s just the ethanol.’ Well, it’s not. Or, ‘It’s things called congeners.’ Well, okay, but what’s the definition of a congener? ‘It’s an unwanted thing in the spirit.’ Well, okay, but what’s the chemical? Or ‘It’s fusel oils.’ Okay, but what are the chemicals in fusel oils?”
Enzyme specifically targets irritants produced during the tail end of the fermentation process
According to Montenegro, Voodoo’s Eureka moment wasn’t coming up with the enzyme so much as the “discovery of what actually causes the harsh bite, which then allowed us to create the cure.” And the source of the problem, she claims, is a small group of electrophilic compounds.
“What happens is that when the yeast in the fermentation process gets toward the end of its lifecycle, the cells are under a large degree of oxidative stress and [the reaction with the] fat in the membranes around the yeast generates these highly reactive groups of compounds.
“Now these are not flavor compounds, and [by neutralizing them with an enzyme] we are not altering the flavor of the beverage, although we are improving the experience. They are irritants that cause a pain sensation. So those are very highly reactive groups that form certain reversible covalent bonds with a particular receptor we have [in the oral cavity].”
Using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, Voodoo measured spirits from vodkas to gins to bourbon to mezcals, “from the bottom of the shelf varieties to the extraordinarily expensive,” and identified around nine irritants generated by oxidative stress in the yeast cells.
“Depending on the product, some had more, some less [of the irritants], depending on how much it was aged, how many times it was filtered through charcoal and so on, but they were always there,” noted Montenegro.
Partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks to optimize performance and production
The enzyme Voodoo identified that can neutralize the irritants can be dropped into the fermentation and has no impact on the flavor of the spirit, stressed Montenegro. It is not present in the final product and serves as a processing aid, which does not require labeling.
According to Enriquez: “The trick was finding an enzyme that only impacts the compounds we want to target, that works in the harsh environment of booze-making, but also creates a compound on the other end that is neutral.”
Montenegro added: “We wanted an enzyme that is only going to affect things that have a certain shape, with a certain electrophilic index, and you can design that. But the beauty of the enzyme we’re using is that it is well understood, 19 isomers of it are in your body right now.
“What we have that is new and novel is the use case [to tackle the harsh bite in distilled spirits], which we are patenting, and the fact we’re using synthetic biology to coax it to perform under distillation and fermentation conditions.”
Work is now progressing with Ginkgo Bioworks to optimize both the production and performance of the native enzyme, which is well understood, but is not currently in commercial production for any industrial uses, said Montenegro. “The plan is to go through the self-GRAS (generally recognized as safe) process [convening a panel of experts to affirm the safety of an ingredient].
“The native natural enzyme does an outstanding job, but there are a couple of vectors that we want to really optimize for fermentation. So Gingko is going to do that work and then deliver the host [microorganism] that will then be able to create that enzyme on an industrial scale for when we’re ready to plug it into somebody who makes enzymes globally and have them produce it.”
‘We knew we could only make a business if we could protect it’
So how defensible is Voodoo’s discovery, and what is to stop a major enzyme producer commercializing an enzyme for this purpose?
“When we started this, we felt like we had found the Holy Grail,” said Enriquez. “But we knew we could only make a business if we could protect it.”
According to Montenegro: “The patent we’re filing provisionally is a broad patent that covers the use of this class of enzymes to go after these specific compounds with the objective of making spirits smooth. It’s locking the whole space. It’s a novel application of this enzyme in a food space.”
Enriquez added: “We’re not patenting the enzyme itself; it’s a process patent. And the prior art shows that this space is wide open.”
A smoother taste and potential cost savings for distillers
To date, Voodoo has raised seed funding from some undisclosed angels and family offices and is in conversations with alcoholic beverage companies ranging in size from craft distillers to multibillion dollar corporations, claimed Montenegro.
“It’s all about scaling up now as brands want to take it and test.”
For spirit makers, said Enriquez, the obvious benefit is a smoother taste, which consumers associate with more premium products. But there could also potentially be cost savings from a reduced number of steps used to “smooth, soften and polish” these types of alcoholic beverages.
“We had a distiller make its premium vodka, which was distilled all the way up to 192 proof and they filtered it something like 16 times through charcoal,” said Enriquez. “And then they used our enzyme, distilled it to 184 proof and didn’t filter it at all. They brought in their super taster who couldn’t believe that it wasn’t filtered.”
In another scenario, the enzyme could potentially increase yields, said Montenegro. “Think of a whisky where they are using a pot still, and they start collecting their whisky and then they cut it off toward the end of the process because that’s when they get the unpleasant stuff, the fusel oil, the congeners.
“If you use our enzyme you can cut off later, and getting even a 1% increase in ethanol per run is worth something.”