As you walk around the Empirical distillery on the edge of Copenhagen's harbor, you'll see a 60-year-old Danish butter churner sitting on top of a fir-paneled fermentation room, which is constantly steaming barley grains ready to be brewed. This isn't your standard distillery.
Empirical was launched in 2017 by Brooklyn-born chef Lars Williams and Danish researcher Mark Emil Hermansen – both of whom worked in the research and development team at renowned Copenhagen restaurant Noma. Positioned somewhat as mavericks or experimentalists within the drinks world, they started creating their own alcohol, which they coined ‘free-form spirits’, because they can't be classified as something recognizable like gin or vodka.
Each blend was designed to give mixologists and chefs new ingredients to create with, so the focus has always been on developing unique flavors. Lars' aim is to capture time and place through flavor: ‘You get a much more direct emotional response through aroma and flavor than you can with almost any other medium,’ he explains. ‘In the kitchen, I started to realize that flavors could give people memories or transmit ideas, which I thought was really fascinating.’
A dish on the Noma menu when Lars worked there was mahogany clams with pickled seaweed – very Danish, with very Danish ingredients, he says. When his mother tasted the dish, however, it instantly reminded her of Rockaway Beach in New York's Queens, from when she was a child. ‘An experience was created that really brought her specifically to a place.’ This is the concept that has given life to blends such as Ayuuk, a spirit similar to tequila that's supposed to feel like a hike through Mexico's Sierra Norte Mountains, and The Plum, I Suppose, which echoes the aroma of Lars' grandmother's kitchen.
This connection between flavor and feeling is core to what Empirical is trying to create, and the pandemic played a huge part in sharing that story with a wider audience. Before 2020, Empirical sold 90% of its products just to trade – to bartenders and chefs who were used to being presented with ingredients to develop their own signature items with. But, as the world shut down, people sought out new and interesting spirits to bring the feeling of bars and restaurants to them. Empirical knew that it needed to find a way to meet them in this space – that's where the brand's ready-to-drink cans came into play. Blending spirits with things like fig leaf and lemon myrtle, these cans bring something completely original to someone wanting to try an alternative spirit. Of Empirical's pivot during the pandemic, Lars says: ‘I was constantly throwing wrenches. Now, if I have an idea that I'm really excited about, I write it down and wait for a time when the team has a moment of peace, and then I interrupt the process.’
During this time, there was a shift in the business' viewpoint on waste and how it could harness the flavor in discarded ingredients. This has led to a new food-focused line of condiments called Provisions. The range leans on the team's culinary backgrounds and is headed up by ex-chef Eric Heilig. The Pasilla Mixe chillies that form the base of the Ayuuk spirit are reimagined as a smoky hot sauce that incorporates lemongrass vinegar, galangal and baobab flour. The Tasty Paste is made from leftover brewer's grain and smoked koji, a yeast used to initiate fermentation. The core elements of these sauces are aging in old Bourbon barrels and might be used as a starting point for something new in Empirical's future, once they develop a whole new flavor with time.
A family of flavors
As Empirical grows, it aims to extend to a base in California, but the team say that the company's identity will always be rooted in Denmark. The number of renowned restaurants in Copenhagen means that people from all over the world come to work there – Empirical has 12 non-Danish staff, all predominantly coming from hospitality. Talking about his team at Empirical, Lars says: ‘It's about having relationships with customers, distributors, farmers, chefs, makers. Everything is a conversation.’ This includes one-offs like last year's Empirical x Kaneshichi, a collaboration with a family-owned company that makes katsuobushi (dried tuna), where Empirical macerated tuna with its vacuum-distilled base of fermented barley koji and malted barley.
‘To be creative, it's about setting up a framework. Infinite possibility is too open,’ Lars says. ‘When we think of a new spirit, we set boundaries – it can be a place or a time – that gives you space to explore within that.’ And, pointing to the new ranges and developments in the distillery, he says: ‘Here's where 99% of ideas fail. If you're not failing, the majority of the time, you're not doing anything interesting.’
A version of this article was first published in Courier issue 47, June/July 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.