On what shelf would a liquor store put a spirit made with the yeast of a Belgian saison beer, but fermented with koji? What section of a restaurant’s drinks menu would be most suitable for a bottle with an ABV of 35 percent and the taste of quince tea kombucha? And into what kind of cocktail, exactly, should a bartender mix booze distilled with deconstructed oyster flavors and freeze-dried gooseberries?
These are a few of the questions that bar managers and sommeliers have been asking over the past year with the rollout of Empirical Spirits, a line of radically innovative products that resist conventional categorization. From Brooklyn to Shanghai, they have created a sensation among forward-thinking people in the drinks business. The distillery, based in a former shipyard in Copenhagen, was co-founded by Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen, two alums of René Redzepi’s groundbreaking New Nordic restaurant, Noma.
“We make freeform spirits,” says Williams, a heavily tattooed former chef who headed R&D at Noma, and was responsible for testing and making realizable the kitchen’s wildest ideas. “That’s the closest term we’ve been able to place.”
Today, the above-mentioned spirits and Empirical’s other releases have been snapped up by Michelin-starred restaurants, like The NoMad and Contra, and some of the world’s most acclaimed bars, such as London’s The Clove Club and Singapore’s Operation Dagger. Online, new releases announced via the company’s Instagram and Facebook accounts can sell out within the day. Williams and Hermansen appear to have tapped into an appetite in the bar world for products that borrow elements from gin, whiskey, eau de vie or shochu, but disregard the regulations governing such spirit classifications.
“I don’t think that, as an industry, we should just go, ‘Oh, if it’s a gin therefore it should go in this kind of space,’” says Ryan Chetiyawardana, a kindred soul in the world of experimental cocktails and spirits and owner of London’s Super Lyan, Cub and Dandelyan. “Empirical Spirits allows us to start exploring new areas, using flavor as a starting point, rather than the category.”
Of all the sectors in which Empirical Spirits has been well-received, it may be natural wine enthusiasts and shop owners who have apprehended the concept the quickest. Natural wine makers, like the team at Empirical, seek to preserve within a bottle the integrity of the raw organic materials of their craft, whether that’s sustainably farmed grapes or foraged fir needles. Through this focus, and by controlling every step of the process along the way, they hope to achieve a purity and authenticity in their product that is often lost in commercial production. Both also speak about the style of their potables in a vocabulary of vitality.
“There’s some thing uplifting in a way that isn’t just intoxicating about these spirits,” says Hermansen. “It’s the experience of opening up your senses to something new. They’re energizing—they’re almost alive.”
For both Hermansen and Williams, Empirical Spirits represents a culmination of ideas and patterns of thought that have been evolving for years. Growing up in New York, Williams picked up the habit of mechanical tinkering from his father, who messed around with cars in his free time. “I was the type of kid who’d have his Christmas toys in pieces within 15 minutes,” he says. His father also had, for the time, unconventional ideas about diet—no sugar, red meat, bread, potatoes or refined white flour—which meant his mother had to find imaginative ways to cook around those limitations, another habit Williams would inherit.
After studying literature in college and doing a stint in design, he starting cooking professionally. His culinary career led him through some of the most original kitchens on both sides of the Atlantic, including wd~50 in New York and The Fat Duck in London. One day he showed up on the doorstep of Noma and hung around until they gave him a job. His role developed into that of the restaurant’s resident mad scientist. As the head of the Nordic Food Lab, he was deeply involved in Noma’s experiments with fermentation and foraging, pushing the limits of edibility.
Hermansen, a Danish native who studied social anthropology at Oxford, found himself at Noma after sending his thesis on food and identity to Redzepi, who then got in touch to ask him to join the team. Hermansen met Williams on his first day and the two hit it off, despite, or perhaps because, according to Hermansen, “the Venn diagram of our talents and capabilities overlap by like a millimeter.” He went on to help organize and develop the annual MAD food symposium.
During their time at Noma, the two developed a theory of gastronomy, which would later prove formative for Empirical: “The delineation of the edible and inedible is deliciousness,” says Hermansen. “Whatever we can find, whatever we can explore as ingredients, if chefs can make that delicious, it becomes edible.”
When Redzepi temporarily shut Noma down, Williams and Hermansen decided to it was a now-or-never moment to start their own venture. They knew they wanted to explore the same ideas they had at Noma, but with wider reach than a dining room that only seats 40 people and is booked a year in advance. Booze occurred to Williams for the same reason that sailors came to prefer it to wine or beer: it’s stable and travels well, making it the perfect vessel for an experiment in flavor that could be shared around the world.
One of the first things Williams realized he didn’t like about traditional distilling was its use of heat. “The process of making gin where you try to make alcohol out of a wash as fast as possible and then rectify it to 96 percent, set up a very hot and quick fermentation and then redistill that—as a chef, it made no sense to me,” says Williams. “I’ve spent decades finding the best ingredients, treating them with great care at every step, and that’s how I incorporated that into our process.”
To preserve the integrity of his organic ingredients, Williams hand-built a vacuum still which allows ethanol to evaporate at cooler temperatures, enabling him to capture flavors and aromas that would otherwise be cooked beyond recognition. This approach, combined with unique fermentation techniques that blend Eastern and Western influences and an extremely open-minded interpretation of what can be used as a botanical, has opened up a veritably limitless field of flavor. Under the category of botanical, Williams has experimented with distilling liquors with oysters, roasted chicken skin, smoked juniper, bergamot and fruit pith. On a whim, he once made a spirit flavored with his sous chef’s Doritos.
Another bartender who served as an early taster for Empirical was Sam Anderson, beverage director at New York’s Mission Chinese Food, which was the first restaurant to carry the spirits in the U.S. “You are really starting to see the wave of the future with this spirit,” he says. “Categories are boring. There’s so much rigidity in these spirits categories. It’s so inert.”
Anderson mixes Empirical’s spirits in simple cocktail formats, allowing the flavors to shine through, unmasked. While he says he has had to give some thought to how to articulate Empirical Spirits’ products to customers, and has created a separate section of the menu for them, he sees some irony in the need for explanation. “This is one of the most transparently produced spirits on the market,” he says. “Meanwhile, a lot of gins are so shrouded. Where’s your base spirit there coming from?”
What liquor advertising executives have long known is that consumers often buy spirits not for a specific bouquet of flavors, but because of the cultural traditions and rituals that have accumulated around those liquors. People buy whiskey to drink around a campfire, gin for afternoon porch sipping, Scotch to celebrate a business deal. By operating outside of those associations and preconceptions, Empirical is trying to reach consumers in a more direct and subjective way, tapping into personal sense memory rather than collective cultural memory.
For Williams and Hermansen, the goal is not just about nailing this or that botanical note, textural effect or aroma—it’s to encourage people, through their palates, to perceptually open themselves up to the world. Clean, vivid, precise flavors, experienced in a new context, can reach us on an emotional level. “It’s like discovering a new piece of music or art,” says Hermansen. “It’s about those ‘wow’ moments that are, at their core, mind-expanding.”