On a late summer afternoon, the sweet smell of fermented grains drifts through an abandoned shipyard warehouse on Refshaleøen, an old industrial island in Copenhagen. It smells like a boozy botanical garden inside. This warehouse, which is also home to a brewery and a lab developing yeast strains, is where the future of spirits is taking shape.
Empirical Spirits is a new distillery set up by two Noma alumni: Lars Williams, the former head of R&D at the world-beating restaurant, and Mark-Emil Hermansen, an anthropologist who organised its annual MAD food symposium.
"Previously, I'd only made wines and beers in a limited scope, and always with an eye towards converting them into vinegars," says Williams. "The possibilities that a spirit has as a vehicle for flavour brought me to the idea of starting a 'boozery' as a means of expressing flavour and deliciousness in a novel fashion."
Williams is standing by Empirical's custom-built vacuum still, which they have christened Diessel. It looks like half Formula 1 engine, half Breaking Bad lab equipment. As you peek through the porthole into the tank, the liquid races as if it were boiling, but it's actually still at cold-bath temperature.
"This way," says Williams with a smile. "We can turn aromas into taste."
On a table next to the still, where spirit samples are lined up in small plastic bowls, is a leather-bound notebook with a meticulous list of instructions and ingredients: smoked juniper, douglas fir, glass grinder, 30-liter bucket, koji, barley.
Williams and the rest of Empirical brew and distill their own alcohol so they they can preserve the base in its purest form and enhance the flavour profile of the ingredients. This is achieved by keeping the closed distillation system at low temperatures, and by distilling the ferment to a lower alcohol level.
"If you rectify the base fermentation to almost pure ethanol, which is the procedure for many traditional gins, you would strip out all the flavour," says Williams. "We want to retain the flavour we create prior to and during the fermentation of our 'wash.' We grow our own koji on pearled barley, which we use instead of malt. This creates a light, floral note which carries through into our spirits."
The koji is grown in an old container lined with wood panels; they call it their "koji sauna." Koji converts the barley starches to more simple sugars, before water is introduced and the mash is pitched with fresh saison yeast, made by Empirical's warehouse neighbor White Labs. Finally, the wash is distilled, either by itself or with foraged botanicals.
Empirical currently bottles four different types of spirit. There is 'Easy Tiger' made with Douglas fir, which radiates fresh-chopped wood. The fir is foraged nearby, and the name is Williams' idea. After getting a tattoo in Tokyo, he looked with amazement at how quickly the tattooist had inked the tiger on his torso. The tattooist just shrugged and said: "Tigers are easy."
Easy Tiger definitely shares some DNA strains with gin, but Empirical wants to defy conventional labels. Their 'Charlene McGee', with its smoky juniper notes, might evoke the richness of single malt whiskey, but it has a much more floral and delicate finish. Then there is 'Fallen Pony,' a spirit made with quince kombucha, which is deceptively light and refreshing, but packs the kick of a mule. The kombucha is made by Hiro Takeda, Empirical's head of production, who previously worked with Williams at Noma.
The fourth bottle in the Empirical collection is their base distillate, which was never intended for public consumption. "Honestly, we hadn't thought about selling it," says Ian Moore, who is brand director at Empirical and previously worked as an editor at VICE in Denmark. "We were showing bartenders all the different things you can do with the base spirit, and they went wild for it. We love that. We really don't give a shit about categories and rules. It's all about flavour." The base spirit has a mango-like smell, stemming from the koji, but the flavour is not overtly fruity or sweet. They liken it to a Japanese shochu.
When Empirical moves to a new still and increases its production, the team would like to sell their spirits via social media. For now, the limited production is mainly targeted at the restaurant industry and bartenders across Europe. Ryan Chetiyawardana from the much-acclaimed bar Dandelyan in London is one of the early testers. "The world of booze has tonnes of amazing traditions, incredible people and craft, but it's been distinctly lacking in innovation," says Chetiyawardana. "Empirical Spirits is bringing some really interesting new ideas to life, and creating the intensity of flavour that chefs—and bartenders—love."
For Williams and Hermansen, the move from the restaurant world into booze production has given them a bigger reach and an opportunity to share their experience and ideas with a global audience. For now though, as they continue to adjust the still, grow more koji and tweak the recipes, there is humble appreciation for their new trade.
"Honestly, we started this knowing very little about the spirits landscape," says Hermansen. "I love that by diving into a new field with a beginner's mind, we've been able to look at things with a fresh perspective, oblivious to a lot of the unwritten rules."