“When I’m in the lab, I’m working with numbers and don’t like to be bothered.” That’s what Philip Rocke told me over the phone after weeks of trying to track him down.

The lab he’s referring to is an ISO 6 lab, a completely sanitized environment equipped with rotary distillers based in Torrance, CA. In this controlled setting, Rocke develops highly nuanced e-juice. That’s right—the liquid extract that is the lifeblood of the vaping community. Among his adoring fans, Rocke is considered somewhat of a prodigy. Jump into any vaping forum board or review site, and you’ll get a better sense of the cult that surrounds his products.

For two and a half years under the Gemini Vapors and Philip Rocke umbrella, Rocke has been taking a mixologist approach to develop artisanal, small-batch e-juices with complex layers of flavoring. The attention surrounding Rocke’s premium products may not come as a surprise if you consider the rise of places like Vapour House in Sacramento—an e-cigarette bar where patrons can sip on cocktails and sample up to 100 e-juices.

The crown jewel of Rocke’s innovation is his highly-touted, limited-edition Grand Reserve Créme De La Créme: a batch that’s steeped for several months in reclaimed brandy barrels, developing notes of Arabica coffee, hazelnut, and cream.

“Most of the commercial e-juices out there are a complete rip-off,” says Rocke, who previously spent time developing malt extracts for micro-breweries. “It’s just dishonest to the consumer.” In a rare interview, we chatted up the man on the front lines of the artisanal e-juice movement to find out how he engineers flavor profiles and discuss the challenges associated with producing a consistent product.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What’s your background? How did you get started?

I grew up in the South Bay and spent time in Palos Verdes. I’ve been developing extracts for almost seven years for liquor and alcohol companies. I worked on espresso liqueurs geared for European markets, but I was also involved in the brewing industry. Sixty percent of the beer you purchase in the supermarket is a developed form of malt, which has a flavoring extract inside of it. And when I first started out I was working for a micro-brewery making extracts.

How did you make the jump from beer industry to vape industry? Is there a new set of challenges?

Well, it all deals with extracts. We were getting inquiries from e-liquid companies. To vape, you need to achieve a flash point, and then you have to translate the liquid into vapor. It sounds easy but it’s not. A lot of companies attempt to do a coffee flavor, and I say attempt, because they all fall really short. Some might taste good on the tongue, but as soon as you heat it up to a vapor its nature changes, and what you get is a burnt or sour taste. People are trying to achieve my layering techniques where, for instance, you can taste the cream, hazelnut, and coffee components. But there’s so much mathematics needed to produce the liquid that if you had X-Man vision, you’d realize it’s much more than just mixing two flavors.

Photo: Gemini Vapors

What does it mean to take a “mixologist” approach?

With e-juice there are different factors to consider. You’re not only making the liquid, but you have to make sure the coil your vaping on hits a correct flashpoint for the flavor to achieve peak quality. For the Grand Reserve, we used reclaimed brandy barrels from Paso Robles. The wood, I learned, actually absorbs certain impurities and helps remove an off-taste. Instead of adding things to the liquid, you should be able to pull it apart. Same thing in life: It’s better to fix the issue at hand then try to get around it.

What’s the process like for developing the Grand Reserve?

It took about five days to produce. But first you have to produce a liquid without nicotine, and that’s the liquid that sits about in the barrel for two to three months. We use 58 gallon barrels, but not all of it is filled with our liquid. If the barrel is not completely full, the wood will start to dry out and shrink. We compensate for the volume of liquid inside the casket by using a shot, which is a glass marble; it’s the same idea behind putting your fist in a glass of water. My theory is that the more liquid we use, the longer it takes for the impurities to be absorbed. If the entire barrel was filled with liquid, it might take five to six months.

I actually look at flavor profiles as colors. Sometimes people don’t understand when I say this, but artists experience the same thing.

We’re on batch number five at this point, and every new batch seems to come out better. There’s always going to be a difference, which is why we test our liquid before we release it. But the reality is that the wood will eventually stop absorbing. I can bring in more barrels, but I don’t know if it will change the notes. We have to strive on consistency. That’s the most difficult part.

How do you come up with flavor profiles?

I actually look at flavor profiles as colors. When I taste, I see colors. Colors are a good thing to go off of. If someone were to say make piña colada, I see a yellow and white-ish color. Sometimes people don’t understand when I say this, but artists experience the same thing.

The Enter the Dragon flavor is a strawberry with undertones of peach—but a white peach, not a yellow one. The white has a bit more tang to it. Our Koi is honeydew melon with a coconut exhale. When you vape, you’re tasting a flavor on the inhale, and when you exhale you taste a second note. The ANML tastes like strawberry licorice, and we also have another one similar to Fruit Loops with a milky finish. The 100 Grand is like Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I love [nostalgic] flavors. Everyone grew up loving cereal, you know?

You’ll notice that other companies release a flavor profile that has nothing to do with taste of the actual liquid. It’s infuriating. They ruin the experience. It discourages people from wanting to try some of our liquids that we’ve spent so much time on. See, with small batches, ratios can be precise. A lot of flavors start to taste washed-out when you scale the ingredients.

When I’m vaping dessert, custard, or pie flavors, I like to have a lower ohm, like .3—the vapor is a lot warmer, just like a dessert.

Photo: DC Clubbing

What’s your vape set-up?

I change. I have 30 different mods that I go through every year. I do testings on a tank atomizer because those hold the full body of a flavor. You don’t get too much vapor out of it, but you get a lot of flavor. It’s a trade-off. I’m usually vaping on a direct-coil system. For my atomizer set-up, I either do a 24 or 28 gauge, kanthal wire. The reason is that it retains a lot more heat, so the flashpoint of a vapor comes to an atomizer a lot quicker. I vape .3 to .8 ohms, depending on the flavor. If I have a fruit flavor, I’m vaping at a higher ohm, .8 , because I don’t want to have the vapor too warm. When you’re eating an apple, you want a cool, crisp apple. But when I’m vaping dessert, custard, or pie flavors, I like to have a lower ohm, like .3. The vapor is a lot warmer, just like a dessert.

What’s on your horizon?

We’re going to do another Grand Reserve, steeped the same way, but with a different flavor. That’s all I can say at the moment.