Flavour Intelligence, Spirit Irreverence: Meet the Masterminds Behind Rogue Distillers, Empirical
Empirical co-founder, Lars Williams, gives us a crash course in the science of flavour
Interview by Will Halbert
Photography by Dashti Jahfar
Empirical are, at their heart and by their own admission, a flavour company. The passion project of Noma alumni, Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen, the Danish drinks brand is all about forging its own flavour fables as opposed to falling back on tired myths. There are no half-baked, false histories to be found here; no secret family recipes or long-lost concoctions. Just good, old-fashioned science. This, my friends, is flavour intelligence in its purest form; it’s a collaborative, category-bending drinks endeavour at its finest. Using low-temperature distilling, long fermentation times, and a unique base spirit made from koji, the guys at Empirical are more than happy to just let their flavours do the talking – and what a tale they have to tell.
It’s been a crazy year and a half, hasn’t it? How are you guys doing?
It has been crazy – but in these difficult times, I feel evermore blessed to have such a solid team. Everyone has really shown up and given it their all, which is really more than I can ask of people, given how difficult things are for people personally.
A few things that we used to do separately – jujitsu, yoga, or Crossfit – we’ve got the equipment for and brought in-house. So we have this adopted family bubble at work. Of course, 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. As I said, I’m very grateful for the team we have.
How would you define Empirical’s overarching philosophy in a nutshell? How does that feed into what you’ve got going on right now?
The exploration of compelling flavours and the ability of those flavors to link and create a dialogue between people around the world is the main driver for us – and frankly, something that we could all use a bit more of. Maybe that’s because the bulk of us come from the hospitality industry.
As we’ve matured, we’ve moved from calling ourselves Empirical Spirits to Empirical; that was to acknowledge our transition to being more of a flavor company than one that simply created spirits. We launched our ‘Can’ series not too long ago, and are about to introduce our ‘Provisions’: a more culinary-focused segment using the same products we use in alcoholic beverages.
Empirical isn’t just a celebration of flavour, but of nature itself. How important is the notion of seasonality to you?
Seasonality has always been important to me; the flavors I crave are wildly different during different times of the year. In that sense, I’ve always felt that foraging is essential to our process – even if whatever we found only evolved into a limited, one-off product. There’s something about a walk in nature that has always justified the time spent, leading to a creative breakthrough.
Just before Christmas, we made a sloe berry wine and fortified it with a medicinal botanical from Zimbabwe called the Resurrection Plant that we will barrel age into something for next winter. Those dark musky notes just make sense with the brief dim days and long nights. But we are already hoping (in vain) for some sunlight, so now our new Can 03 of Carob, Fig Leaf, and Lemon Myrtle feels just like what we need.
Can you give us a little insight into your creative process? How do you get from concept to can?
In broad strokes, my creative process usually starts off with a brainstorming session with our head of R&D, Chris. We will go through the things we’ve been digging through and collate flavors or techniques that we think will fit well together during the year. Loosely, there are three avenues that we follow during the creative process: one that is product-based, seeing what we can do with pasilla mixe chilli for example; a second that is technique based, asking questions like ‘can we make a “rum” or “Tequila” out of Nordic products?’; and a third that involves deep research sessions like exploring every permutation of, well, whatever: fat wash, grains, fermentation techniques, you name it.
What’s the weirdest flavour you’ve ever come up with, accidentally or otherwise?
Probably an Oyster and Green Gooseberry spirit that we did as a one-off. As in, shelled oysters. It had the slowest sales out of the gate, but it’s the one people still email me about asking if we’re going to make it again. At the time it made perfect sense, to me at least.
Flavour is so intrinsically linked to memory. Do you have any flavours that take you back to a particular time in your life?
The first spirit we ever did was one that used Douglas Fir needles as a botanical. That’s because I was wandering around this pine forest just north of Copenhagen, trying to figure out what we were going to do as a company. I wanted to share that sensation of the beautiful smell of the trees and the soft, squishy moss underfoot with my sister in Brooklyn. She’d recently had two girls and so hadn’t been able to visit in a few years. That became the first moment I wanted to share.
A bit later, we had another spirit – now discontinued – that reminded every single person who tasted it about some childhood candy. No matter whether they were from Zimbabwe, Brazil, London, or Tokyo. Even if it wasn’t something they had ever actually tasted before. That juxtaposition of novel and memory is when I feel we have proper success.
And finally, do you have any more collaborations lined up for 2021?
The next collaboration is one that we actually finished last year. It’s a ‘whiskey’-inspired, koji-based spirit that uses katsuobushi as a botanical and is aged in a Cognac cask. We use katsuobushi from the renowned Kaneshichi, the world’s best producer who also happened to teach me how to make katsuobushi. Unfortunately, the apocalypse broke out. So we’re waiting until we can do a proper Japan launch to release it. Luckily, it’s a liquid that’s only getting better with time.
Check out more from Empirical here.