“It’s not easy to start something from scratch, but if we find a really difficult thing to do, we tend to do it,” Lars Williams says with a chuckle, almost introspectively. For the past two-and-half years, the former chef, together with co-founder Mark Emil Hermansen — both alumni of Rene Redzepi’s groundbreaking Noma restaurant and non-profit research institution Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen — have been producing a range of category-defying spirits under Empirical Spirits.
When Redzepi temporarily shut down Noma in 2017, Williams and Hermansen decided to take their boundary-pushing experiments with fermentation, foraging and flavour creation at Nordic Food Lab to the next level by founding Empirical Spirits. The distillery, based out of a former shipyard in the Refshalevej district in Copenhagen, is where I find Williams at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon, elbow-deep examining a bucket of ground mandioca, a type of South American cassava. This is to be the base of a new spirit made in collaboration with Brazilian chef Alex Atala.
“For me, it’s about capturing a sense memory, and the way that I interact with sense memory, as a trained chef, is through flavour. The unique and amazing thing about flavour is how it can bring you so quickly back to a point in time.”Lars Williams, Co-Founder of Empirical Spirits
Given their line of radically innovative products — think spirits distilled from the above-mentioned cassava, as well as pine, habanero, roasted chicken skin, even oysters — it’s easy to understand the initial confusion when one comes across Empirical Spirits: Is it a vodka? Gin? Neither, as it turns out.
Describing their creations as free-form spirits, Williams expounds: “Originally, the whole point of what we wanted to do was to explore flavour and see where that took us.”
The duo settled on creating spirits because alcohol was deemed the perfect vessel to preserve flavour: it is stable and travels well. As the company tag line states outrightly, Empirical Spirits is a flavour company.
For Williams, the idea behind Empirical Spirits is to investigate and blend different brewing and distillation techniques and traditions from different parts of the world. “When it comes to making our base spirit, we have the beginnings of a sake and then we combine it with more of a Western technique of beer-making.”
To create its own base, Empirical Spirits uses an heirloom Danish variety of barley sourced from biodynamic farms around Copenhagen. After it has been soaked, drained and steamed, the barley is dropped onto a bed in a temperature-controlled room lined with Douglas fir wood and injected with mould spores to make koji. The koji produces amylase to break down starches into sugars. Williams likes using koji because of its sweet, nutty and floral flavour profiles.
Next, the koji is mixed with a selection of grains and Belgian Saison yeast, then left to ferment for about a week. The fermented liquid goes through a distillation at 5-15 deg C, within a closed vacuum still of Williams’ own design. This bespoke still allows ethanol to evaporate at cooler temperatures (as opposed to 85-90 deg C for other spirits), which preserves the fresh flavours of the botanicals that would otherwise be destroyed by intense heat. The close system ensures that the aromas don’t escape, but are instead condensed back into the alcohol.
While most spirits producers cut their distillation three to four times to split the foreshots, heads, hearts and tails, Empirical Spirits cuts theirs between 50 and 90 times, depending on the botanicals.
“Something as simple as a strawberry has numerous flavour components that make up the strawberry flavour. If you can separate that into 50 cuts, you are getting very distinct cuts from each thing in the strawberry; you can probably get banana, melon or raspberry flavours. Having all these cuts then allows you to blend them together to obtain the perfect strawberry flavour.”
“[For all our spirits,] we bring all the individual cuts to the same alcohol level, then we taste every single one, eliminating those we don’t like. Those we like, we blend them together and taste as we go.”
Not only does this let the team remove harsh parts of the run, it also stretches the flavour of the botanical. “Each blend takes a huge amount of time, but this [meticulousness and dedication] comes from being a chef,” admits Williams.
“For me, it’s about capturing a sense memory, and the way that I interact with sense memory, as a trained chef, is through flavour. The unique and amazing thing about flavour is how it can bring you so quickly back to a point in time.”
Empirical Spirits — distributed in Singapore by Plan B Asia and retailed at Temple Cellars — has in their current core range Helena, a neutral spirit made from barley koji, pilsner malt and Belgian Saison yeast, that is used as the base for all the other spirits in their range; Fallen Pony, an aromatic quince tea spirit blended with quince tea kombucha distillate, and Charlene McGee, a smoked juniper spirit matured in Oloroso sherry casks. On top of these are one-offs and collaboration spirits made with bartenders and chefs, like the above-mentioned mandioca spirit. The team’s limitless inquisitiveness and open-minded interpretation means almost anything can be used as a botanical.
When deciding what flavour to make into a spirit, Williams notes that it boils down to three primary factors: what’s in season, what existing product they’d like to recreate with their ethos (for example, making a vermouth out of kombucha), or what sticks from experimenting on larger concepts, like trying out 50 different yeasts or grains. “But then there’s also complete serendipity,” he muses.
One of Empirical Spirits’ newest release is Ayuuk, made from dried and smoked Mexican Pasilla Mixe chillies, which Williams chanced upon while visiting his wife on an artist residency in Oaxaca. He “immediately fell in love with them”, smuggled two suitcases full of them back to Copenhagen, and made a spirit that was well-received. The expansion to full-scale production of the spirit was hindered by the inability to obtain good chilli samples from exporters, so Williams returned to where the chillies were farmed in Mexico and negotiated directly with the farmers to secure a batch of chillies from the next growth cycle.
On that trip, Williams found out that the chillies were an endangered produce; the number of farmers willing to grow this tediously-cultivated crop had dwindled over the decades. Those that remained sold their harvests for less than a third of what the chillies were actually worth. Doing their bit to preserve this culture, Empirical Spirits helped form a farmers cooperative, and paid a percentage of the crop cost upfront to ease economic pressure on the farmers. “We even brought a scientist from Mexico City to teach the farmers about biodynamic pesticide and fertilisers, and terracing fields to have more efficient yields,” Williams says.
“On one hand, we’re doing a little bit to draw attention and create a better life for the farmers. On the other hand, we also have a direct communication with them. The way they dry the chillies is to smoke it over a unique kind of native hardwood. Now, I can specify if I want the chillies a little less dry or a little more smokey.”
This is not the only international project Empirical Spirits has in the works. “We’re working with a community of women in Zimbabwe who grow marula, a small tart stone fruit. I went down and spent a week with them, making marula wine, and we’ve been able to make a very nice spirit out of it. But I think instead of shipping everything from Zimbabwe and making the spirit here, the best way to give back to the community would be to help them start a distillery of their own and empower them with the [distillation] knowledge.”
In the two-and-half years that they’ve been established, Empirical Spirits has shaken up the industry, causing a sensation among forward-thinking bartenders and chefs who are similarly exploring the reaches of flavour.
Williams shares: “By January 2020, we’re going to hit production capacity here and I think the most interesting way to expand the company is to grow laterally rather than vertically. Maybe we’ll set up something in Tokyo or New York or Sao Paulo. This will give us access to an entirely different region of ingredients, different range of influences and inspiration.”
“On my travels, I’ve come across so many incredible flavours I can’t believe no one in Denmark or New York has tasted. How do you preserve these flavours and preserve that cultural community at the same time, and share it with people across the world? Ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to do with Empirical Spirits.”
This story first appeared in the January/February issue of A Magazine.