“When Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring premiered, people were so shocked by its discordant harmonies that they fled the concert hall,” says distiller Lars Williams. “What they heard was groundbreaking, revolutionary. At Empirical we want to do that with flavor.”
Williams, who was head of research and development at the Nordic Food Lab, co-founded Empirical Spirits in 2018 in Copenhagen, Denmark, initially focusing on new kinds of distillates intended to be as mind-blowing as Stravinsky’s work. In the beginning, Williams’ team harnessed the flavors of everything from chicken skin to fir trees. Today the company is simply called Empirical. “We don’t think of ourselves as only a spirits company anymore,” says Williams. “We’re a flavor company.”
This focus on flavor means that Empirical doesn’t offer a generic hot pepper spirit; it offers multiple spirits focused on specific peppers. A habanero distillate called Fuck Trump and His Stupid Fucking Wall intentionally omits heat to emphasize the chile’s fruit notes. Rather than creating a plum spirit, Empirical mines the fruit’s pit in search of bitterness and nuttiness. Its hot sauce, the company’s first nonalcoholic product, balances moderate heat with beet, lemongrass and galangal.
This absolute devotion to flavor, materials and producers is a defining quality of a new wave of spirits makers, who eschew genre for something more elusive. This breed, of which Empirical was arguably the pioneer, makes distillates that do not fall into any of the traditional—and typically rigorously, legally defined—categories like gin, whiskey or vodka. Instead, they distill whatever they want, however they want, peppers to pineapple. And they seem to have converged on a similar set of foundational principles: First, they maintain a deep commitment to flavor above all else. Second, they possess a desire to make transparent the sources of flavor, in contrast to many manufacturers whose ingredients are secret or veiled. And finally, they are interested in supporting and sustaining the farmers, foragers and ecosystems whose products they distill.
“These kinds of spirits we are distilling, which don’t fit into any of the established categories, can seem like something entirely new, but making spirits like this, from whatever is available, has been part of the life of farmers throughout history.”
For Empirical, flavor is evoked not just through ingredients but also time, place and memories. Williams first encountered pasilla Mixe peppers on an extended stay in Oaxaca, Mexico. He was so impressed by their smoky, earthy, lingering taste that he brought two suitcases full of them back to Copenhagen and began experimenting. But the team soon realized that procuring the chiles in volume would be a challenge. In search of a reliable supply, Empirical found a group of farmers who grew them, but discovered that most of the farmers’ profits went to opportunistic middlemen. So they went directly to the farmers, buying their crop at higher prices and eventually sending an agronomist to teach them biodynamic farming methods. Whenever Williams returns to their village, he brings a few bottles of the resulting distillate, called Ayuuk, which tastes of red fruit, smoke and a subtle spice. Though its base is made from wheat and malt rather than agave, the residents refer to it as “pasilla mezcal.”
Peppers—both chile and peppercorns—are a common theme among the genre-less producers, likely because distillation can emphasize the vast range of fruit notes so often hidden by heat. This is the case for Paragon, whose alcohol-free cordials are intended to be mixed with spirits. A division of Monin, Paragon was founded as a partnership with bartender Alex Kratena, formerly of London’s Artesian and co-founder of drinks industry nonprofit P(OUR). Their quest began very broadly, but eventually Kratena narrowed in on peppers, traveling the world over for the flavor he sought.
In Cameroon he encountered Penja, a white peppercorn variety that, seven years ago, was the first product of the African continent to receive Protected Geographical Indication status by the European Union. At first, Kratena’s verdict was extreme: “It tastes like licking a horse’s ass,” he says. Typically that flavor would be moderated in the local cuisine with other peppers and spices, but Kratena was beguiled by its singularity. In the same trip, he tasted oku, a rare, naturally fermented honey harvested from the rainforest, and realized that its acidic bite tempered and complemented the Penja. Some experimentation revealed that the bite came from unusually high concentrations of gluconic acid. Using this pairing as inspiration, Paragon became the first in the drinks business to use gluconic acid as a base for all of the cordials in its first line, which also includes Timur Berry, based on a wild pepper from Nepal, and Rue Berry, from Ruta chalepensis, a plant from Ethiopia also called fringed rue.
To obtain flavor, Paragon carefully combined multiple extraction techniques, including methods forged by perfume technology that had never before been applied to drinks, which rendered a fuller expression from the raw materials. “Our inspiration was really nouvelle cuisine’s return to simplicity,” says Tugdual de Lambilly, Monin’s innovation director for Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He prefers to apply the cordial to pared-down cocktails. “We just don’t need 12 ingredients in every drink,” he says. “Returning to one or two can be much more powerful.” In keeping with this philosophy, Kratena’s recipes are often strikingly simple: Paragon’s Penja paired with a saison beer, or its Timur mixed with Cognac and soda.
Where Paragon focuses on a single flavor, Scotland’s Sweetdram combined a blend of botanicals, spices and fruit for its first product, Escubac, a riff on an old British liqueur. Created by Daniel Fisher and Andrew MacLeod, who met while at graduate school for brewing and distilling in Edinburgh, Escubac defies categorization. Of course, the risk in creating this sort of product is its potential for becoming one of those dreaded back-shelf herbal liqueurs. But Escubac is exceedingly drinkable, with its notes of bitter orange and the lightest hint of anise, and is an excellent substitute for gin in a Gin & Tonic.
“Because of my background I was really familiar with selling and being sold liquor,” says Fisher, who worked as a sales exec in New York at Astor Wines & Spirits, which his grandfather founded. “So the first thing I did when I started to sell Escubac was to tell the salespeople exactly what was in the bottle. That kind of transparency was just astounding to them. They were used to there being all this mystery around the ingredients. We want to do away with all of that.”
Sweetdram continues to push the boundaries of existing categories, with its whiskey-based Amaro and Smoked Spiced Rum. Fisher is experimenting with very small-batch absinthe, produced using botanicals from the company’s garden. “The great thing is that the spent botanicals from absinthe production go right into the ground,” he says, “and help fertilize the next batch.”
That kind of focus on environmental consequence is central to the mission of Leslie Merinoff-Kwasnieski’s Matchbook Distilling Co., on Long Island’s North Fork. Every summer since its founding in 2018, Matchbook has sourced local watermelons and pressed literal tons of them, then fermented the juice with champagne yeast, yielding a spirit they’ve begun cutting with water, carbonating and canning as a watermelon sparkler. Merinoff-Kwasnieski, who grew up working on a biodynamic farm, uses various excess vegetables and sometimes food waste from surrounding farms to create limited-edition spirits that reflect the biodiversity of her corner of the world. Two weeks ago, a haul of local muskmelons, rescued citrus, sauvignon blanc grapes, fresh beach roses, fresh damask roses, hop leaves and juniper branches became a microrelease called Sorted Fortune. She’s made spirits from beets, smoked pineapples, carrots, pumpkins and more.
“These kinds of spirits we are distilling, which don’t fit into any of the established categories, can seem like something entirely new,” says Merinoff-Kwasnieski. “But, in fact, making spirits like this, from whatever is available, has been part of the life of farmers throughout history.” For Matchbook and its peers, this pursuit of mission and connection is exactly what frees them to explore the vast worlds of flavor, waiting to be tasted. The end result, according to Merinoff-Kwasnieski is simple: "More flavors translate into more beautiful food and drink."