Drinks News

Empirical Spirits, co-led by Noma’s former head of R&D, set to launch in Australia

The “flavor company” don’t do vodka, gin or tequila. In fact, their experimental range sidesteps traditional classification of distilled spirits. And they may just revolutionise the way we drink.

By David Matthews
Lars Williams, co-founder of Empirical Spirits.
The Australian release of Empirical Spirits has been delayed to 1 December.
Reindeer moss. Live shrimp. Cricket paste. Denmark's Noma has always pushed the boundaries of cuisine with weird and wonderful flavours. In the process, it's caused ripples in the way we eat. In 2017, two of the people who played a major role in the restaurant's defining years threw their weight behind a new project to revolutionise spirits. From next week, the fruits of their labour will hit our shores, and they may well change how we drink.
Empirical Spirits by Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen will launch in Australian bars, restaurants and bottle shops on 10 November. Their range, which sidesteps traditional classification of distilled spirits, includes a 40 per cent double-fermented clear spirit called Helena, named after the Misfits song, and the Fuck Trump and His Stupid Fucking Wall, a fruity habanero-infused 27 percenter best served with grapefruit soda.
The Fallen Pony, made from a base of quince, barley koji, Belgian saison yeast, and pilsner malt wash. Photo: Maureen Evans
Another day, another obscure spirit? Not quite. Behind the scenes is a pedigree of culinary and research talent, with the team counting a bartender and a perfumer in their midst. Co-founder Williams is a chef by trade who worked at WD-50 in New York and Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck before becoming head of R&D at Noma. Hermansen, meanwhile, is an anthropologist and former head of development at MAD, a Noma-affiliated not-for-profit, who joined the company as a researcher obsessed with unlocking flavour potential in previously unexplored ingredients. From a technical and a conceptual angle, this is something new in the spirits world.
Williams, speaking to GT from Empirical's HQ in Refshalevej, said the decision to call Empirical Spirits a "flavour company" represents their wider goals. "From the very beginning the emphasis was to pursue the exploration – and hopefully the discovery – of new flavours," he says. "On a macro level, it's approaching making spirits from the mindset of a chef."
Empirical Spirits co-founders Mark Emil Hermansen and Lars Williams.
Where traditional distillers might use a single grain with a generic yeast, Empirical Spirits start with a blend. They inoculate it with koji, then run a second fermentation with yeast, perhaps a bespoke Belgian saison. Techniques such as vacuum distillation (the method of distilling liquids under reduced pressure) help with flavour retention, and, depending on the product, they might dilute the alcohol with distilled vinegar or kombucha instead of water, in the same way a chef might add stock to a sauce to build layers of complexity.
What does that mean for something like Helena, their base spirit, which combines Eastern and Western tradition? "A lot of people would say it's reminiscent of a shochu," says Wiliams. "It's very light and soft with a very distinct floral, sake-like note in it, but then you also have a little bit of depth from the malted barley, and a kind of accentuation of both of those by the saison." Williams describes the Charlene McGee, made with smoked juniper, as closer to an Islay whiskey or a mezcal than a gin.
The Ayuuk, with Pasila Mixe chillies, purple wheat, pilsner malt and Belgian saison yeast.
The spirits are a match for the kind of high-minded mixology employed by the world's best bars, but they're also suited to those playing with more basic tools at home. The Ayuuk, for example, is excellent mixed with ginger ale. And the Charlene McGee? "Cream soda. You can't complain about that."
A spirit revolution? That's only the start, says Williams. For now, though, he's happy for drinkers to pour out a glass of Empirical with the sand between our toes. "Not many people want to have even a really good gin on a beach," say Williams. "But I feel that you can do that with our spirits." Summer is calling.
Empirical Spirits is available from 1 December at PnV Merchants, DRNKS, Jacoby's, Earl's Juke Joint, Ester, Poly, 10 William St in Sydney; Bar Liberty, The Lincoln Hotel and Blackhearts and Sparrow in Melbourne; and Leigh St Wine Room and Maybe Mae in Adelaide. shop.empiricalspirits.co