Here's how a modern, industrial-level distillery — whether its focus is Scotch, gin, vodka or something else — makes liquor: First, mix water with affordable grain and stock yeast and let it ferment into mash, essentially a high-alcohol beer. Then, boil the hell out of that beer to separate out the ethanol. Boil it again (in some cases, many more times). Pour out the heads and tails — that is, the bad stuff that could make you blind. Blend, infuse an ingredient, maybe age in a barrel. Bottle. Sell.
That's not the way they're doing it at Empirical Spirits, a flavor-obsessed distillery working out of a warehouse in Copenhagen, Denmark. To make one of its spirits, cofounder Mark Emil Hermansen and his team considered more than 20 grains before settling on a mash that included pearled barley fermented and turned into koji, a mold that's used as the base of soy sauce, miso and sake. Their yeasts are equally considered: "The R&D department for the yeast company White Labs is on site, with about four thousand strains of yeast in a vault, so we cherry-pick one based on what we want," Hermansen says. "Champagne or ale yeast, or wild stuff we've isolated from the parking lot outside."
Hermansen is an Oxford-trained anthropologist, so he’s laying on the bare concrete of the distillery’s new, unfurnished office space, sketching a timeline of his booze’s creation story in a notebook. He points his pencil at what truly separates Empirical Spirits from the rest: they skip the boiling entirely, using a vacuum still to separate out the ethanol at 5 to 15 degrees Celsius, twice, to get a liquid that's closer to 50 percent alcohol rather than the traditional 96 percent. The mash "is where all the funk is," Hermansen says. "Boiling it would just destroy our product."
Hermansen and his partner, Lars Williams, founded Empirical Spirits in January 2017 after leaving Noma, the Copenhagen-based restaurant widely considered to be among the best in the world. The two met working out of the houseboat that served as part of the restaurant's R&D-focused Nordic Food Lab. After its founder, René Redzepi, announced he'd be closing the restaurant for refurbishment, Williams and Hermansen decided it was time to branch out. "We figured it was now or never," Hermansen says.
"I knew nothing about booze, neither did Lars. We had never tried making it," Hermansen says. The two had settled on distilling not because they loved drinking liquor, or because the spirits industry felt disrupt-able. The idea was to take the methodology they loved for creating flavors at Noma and "flip the paradigm of expression," Hermansen says. "The work done by chefs is extraordinary, but it's only expressed through a restaurant."
Booze had it all: flavor, quality ingredients, fermentation, microbiology, the possibility to experiment empirically and to explore the world of flavor through experience and data, as opposed to pure theory. "Fermentation provides us with alcohol, and it's the perfect medium for transforming flavors you create in fermentation," Hermansen says. And it can be bottled and shipped, unlike, say, a blue mussel with celery purée.
Empirical Spirits's small batches of bottled offerings have consistently been seasonal and category-defying. They often buck the industry norm of 40 to 50 percent ABV in their final bottlings and make use of the vacuum still to retain flavors that would otherwise be boiled away; Hermansen says they think of building the flavors of each expression "from the ground up."
The Fallen Pony blend uses quince tea and quince tea kombucha as botanicals. They distilled Fuck Trump and His Stupid Fucking Wall down to 27 percent because it was "the perfect point at which to create a balanced spirit," then used distilled habanero vinegar. Helena, their "purest" spirit, uses koji, pilsner malt and saison yeast, and it aims to capture the pure flavor of fermentation as an "abstract, intangible" experience, Hermansen says. Their very first spirit, Easy Tiger Blend, was finished using freshly foraged Douglas fir boughs. "Lars sent it to his sister in the States with the message, 'Sister, this is my experience taking a walk in the woods outside of Copenhagen.' It was an immediate sense memory," Hermansen says.
The koji, specialized yeast and vacuum still are novel, but both distillers insist they're simply means to create interesting flavors, which provoke in drinkers what the food at Noma stirs in its diners: a response. This is the moment their product escapes the empirical and approaches the philosophical. "One important thing was making the product travel; another thing was making your mind travel," Hermansen says. Their liquor, he says, "is more a Burgundy than a Bordeaux" — not comforting and relaxing, but uplifting, a challenge to drinkers. "There is a sense of wondering, what the fuck is going on here?" Hermansen says. "And you never really find the answer. That's the experience itself. Why is a piece of music good? Why is a piece of art inspiring? You can't really boil it down to the science. Or maybe you don't want to."
The spirits have resonated with mixologists at top New York City restaurants like The NoMad and Contra and also among curious at-home drinkers, who, as of this year, can buy them in the States at two stores: Henry's in Brooklyn, New York, and domaineLA in L.A. Via Instagram, Empirical Spirits updates followers on the availability of their bottles — which are devoid of labeling except for a small, austere sticker that looks like something a scientist would paste to their latest creation. The contents, distillation method and location are the only things listed, and the feeling successfully conveyed is of tearing down walls between the distiller and customers. "By being transparent about our products, you allow that curiosity to travel with them," Hermansen says.
Until now, Williams and Hermansen have worked in a way common to craft brewers and distillers swept up in a wave of hype: toiling madly alongside a tiny team in a garage, with equipment far from capable of filling out demand. That's changing. The team is currently moving into a new 8,600-square-foot space with a custom-made brewhouse for fermentation, a small shop that will offer tastings, a new White Labs R&D production department for yeast, and the capability of much higher production output. Their team has grown to sixteen, and Hermansen seems intent on continuing to teach new employees. One gets the sense Hermansen and Williams are building an environment as creatively fertile as Redzepi's at Noma. Their mentees could go on to express new, fantastical flavors in just about any medium: food, drink or otherwise. Perhaps they’re incubating the next maestro of soups, or a genius of molecular gastronomy or maybe even someone who will return to the rich traditional methods of whiskey-making to shift the paradigms of distilling from within.
"What I love about it most," Hermansen says, "is giving yourself and your team that kind of moonshot, and saying, 'fuck — let's do this our way. I don't know the answers. Let's be guided by what we think tastes great and let's hope it sticks.'"
- Instagram: @empiricalcph
- Where to Buy: Henry's (Brooklyn) and domaineLA (L.A.)
- Where to Drink: The NoMad and Contra (NYC)
This story is part of the GP100, Gear Patrol's annual index of the 100 best products of the year. To see the full list of products or read this story in print, check out Gear Patrol Magazine: Issue Eight, available now at the Gear Patrol Store.