Four years into his booze venture, Lars Williams still has a hard time telling people about Empirical.
“Conveying the idea that flavour is our guiding principle, and what we create is a fusion of actual ingredients, hard work, actual fermentation, techniques and traditions from around the world — that remains our biggest challenge,” says the co-founder, who was formerly running The Nordic Food Lab, the research and development facility by Noma chef René Redzepi.
But that’s what happens to a disruptor. The Copenhagen-based distillery makes creative spirits that defy traditional liquor categories. They’re neither gin nor rum, whisky nor vodka. Every bottle is like nothing you’ve ever tasted; the Fallen Pony Blend (available at hopshop.com.sg) is a case in point. Made with quince, barley koji, Belgian Saison yeast and pilsner malt wash, it’s lusciously sweet on the nose — think Japanese melons — tastes somewhat like a ginger-peach kombucha and finishes with a satisfying burn in your throat. Empirical also makes a mean hot sauce.
Techniques and technologies in brewing and distilling are pushed to their limits in the name of innovation. And at a time where our appetite for exotic experiences are begrudgingly curbed, Empirical’s delicious, groundbreaking and thought-provoking spirits are a salve for our collective cabin fever, allowing us to explore uncharted territories while sheltering in place.
Can you describe the process of coming up with a bottle?
In broad strokes, the creative process usually starts off with a brainstorm session with our head of R&D Chris. We will go through the things we’ve been digging through and collate flavours or techniques that we think will fit well together.
Loosely, there are three avenues that we follow during the creative process: one is product-based (i.e. Pasilla Mixe chili), the second is technique-based (i.e. can we make a ‘rum’ or tequila out of Nordic products?), and the third is deep research sessions (ie. trying every permutation of techniques, from fat-washing to fermentation). We then create a new “base” for each product with different grains, yeast, substrates (beets, manioc, sorghum, arena berries etc).
There’s a reason we’re called Empirical: we’re constantly experimenting. We look at everything with an open mind: some things will work, most things won’t (we often joke we have a failure rate of 99%), but with every iteration comes a valuable lesson. We spent almost two years working on “The Plum, I Suppose”, while our first CAN was created in a few weeks.
What is the common denominator in all of your products?
Empirical is a flavour company. The only common denominator is the exploration of flavour — and that it must be delicious. Everything else is and should be fair game.
How did you come up with the creative names?
Unfortunately for the company, and perhaps for everyone else, I sign off all the names. It’s an opportunity to have a little fun, and not take ourselves too seriously after all the incredibly-hard work the team has put into realising an offering. We’re lucky to have an international team coming from various backgrounds and are also very much inspired by popular culture.
Sometimes it’s whimsy and sometimes it’s a visceral reaction to world news. Sometimes it’s a reference to the flavour. We’re going to release a limited offer that’s based on Jerusalem artichokes; the spirit will be called “The Art of Choking Andrew”, after our head distiller Andrew who leads the team’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu training.
What are some of the difficulties you faced when you started the brand?
When we first started we were just trying to make delicious things. It was only later that we found out we didn’t fit into existing categories. We stopped caring and it liberated us. We came up with our very own approach to making booze. We make everything from scratch, from the grain to bottling, and we built or designed most of our equipment ourselves. Our process is unique, and we don’t make things easy for ourselves but it helps us achieve our ideal: to share unique, unshattered flavours with people.
Tell us about some of your frustrations in creating a new flavour profile.
Sometimes, innovation comes quickly in a giddy blur. Other times, as in the case of “The Plum, I Suppose”, it’s a slog — a cascade of not-quite-good-enough and banging one’s head on the wall until it’s where you want it to be. This spirit went through eighteen months of trying to find the perfect something to balance the plum kernels. Turns out it’s distilled marigold kombucha. Every flavour profile has its own personality that must be coaxed, cajoled or ushered in.
Trial and error, and the frustrations coming from it, are entirely part of the process. We’ve learnt to accept that not everything we do will work out. But when it does, it’s like playing lead guitar for Metallica at the Madison Square Garden.
What’s your take on the future of spirits?
There is a great possibility in the future of spirits if we are open to asking questions. The “why”. Are you doing something just because that’s the way someone did it before you? Or is it actually the best way that you can do it?
I don’t believe in perfection. Yet in the same breath I don’t believe that anything is ever good enough — there is always a way to make things better. I can’t come up with a recipe, dust my hands off and think, that’s the best I can do. It’s antithetical to our entire ethos. Every bottle, CAN, or Hot Sauce that gets produced should be better than the one before it.
To that end, every member of the team is constantly tinkering — to make our brewing better, to change the vacuum curve on the stills for a particular botanical, to fabricate a special mill for the Hot Sauce… I respect and love the traditional way of doing things, but the way my brain is wired, it always just goes into overdrive as I try to figure out how to make it our own. Rules are meant to be broken because they’re often inane and set up by a particular group of people who happened to be in a position of power at a particular time. When we realised that our spirits literally could not fit into any existing category, it was incredibly liberating. Anything was possible.
How has the pandemic changed Empirical?
Business-wise, this has been an extremely challenging year. When the pandemic hit, 80% of our business was on trade in bars and restaurants, and that evaporated overnight. But the team pulled together and somehow managed our best sales year ever, albeit with a lot more hustle than we could have imagined.
The past 12 months has been crazy, but in these difficult times I feel evermore blessed to have such a solid team. Everyone has shown up and given it their all, which is really more than I can ask of people, given how difficult things are for them personally.
Previously we used to do our team workouts (jiu jitsu, yoga, crossfit) outside of the company. We’ve since gotten the equipment and brought our sessions in-house, so now we have this adopted family bubble at work.
What’s next for the brand?
There are loads of limited releases coming out in spirits, CANs and now what we’re loosely calling “provisions”, our “more culinary” releases. In every sense we are just beginning to scratch the surface of what Empirical is capable of. Beyond that we are trying to help a larger community of people interested in flavour coalesce — to broaden that collaborative and supportive sense of community that everyone on the team has on a personal level. Oh, and fingers crossed we’ll soon be doing events around the world again.
(All images: Empirical)