When Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen founded a Danish micro distillery Empirical spirits four years ago they weren’t sure what they were doing. For weeks, the two veteran men of the extremely strange Noma restaurant, where Williams led research and development and Hermansen was the “concept manager”, thought they were making gin. It was clear and full of herbal, botanical aromas. But there was no spruce in it. “And someone in the industry said, ‘You can’t call it a giant,'” Williams says. So: it’s not a giant.
They also thought they were making whiskey. It was smoky, like whiskey from Islay Island, from Scotland. It was brown because it was aged in a barrel where sherry used to be. But this one did they have juniper – which they smoked before adding to the mixture. “So we can’t call it whiskey,” Williams says. “So we were like,‘ Pssh, fuck it. ’” They bottled it anyway.
Today, Empirical produces half a dozen spirits, and only one of them corresponds to the classic dozens of categories you would see on the signs above the aisle in BevMou. Their latest, Ehime, is definitely similar to bourbon-brown, made from grains, aged in a barrel. (It is also partially fermented with which, a fungus that makes sake.) This drink is sui generis, made from substrates different like plum pits, pasilla mixe chilies and kombucha, distilled not in a copper pot on the wall, but in a vacuum from a chemical laboratory. The company has also started selling carbonated, carbonated canned drinks that I assume fit into the modern “hard seltzer” category, except where White Claw can offer, say, mango, empirical flavor combinations like oolong tea, gooseberries and walnut wood.
It’s weird, yes – but perhaps the strangest thing about all this atypical, unclassified drink is how normal it actually is. Ghosts are going through a kind of biotech revolution, applying new methods and rediscovering old ones, applied to classic and unknown ingredients. The result is shelves equipped with products designed for a variety of customers looking for newspapers. And these products (bonus!) Also support sustainability in the face of climate change. The future of beverages could be here — just unevenly distributed across rarified and top-notch bars and liquor stores.
That future may seem bleak, but it has yet to undo Williams and Hermansen’s theatrical side – probably created by working at Noma during the peak years of the molecular gastronomy movement. “The taste has such a poor vernacular, and we have little to say about it,” Williams says. “Well, I’m going back to literature. You have climaxes and moments of crisis and moments of joy to create an amazing story. We want people to go on a journey. “Professional alcoholic tasters often talk (sometimes insidiously) about the drink’s nose, taste, mouthfeel and finish. So Williams is right. These things happen in succession and complement the experience, just like chapters in a book or acting in a movie. And that sensory experience will be different while sitting in a glass … and sometimes after spending a long time in a bottle, although that’s a little less favored because it’s harder for manufacturers to control.
Distillation as a process has a similar kind of temporality. Producers of alcoholic beverages start with a substrate-fruit or grain, in general. They want to ferment it, which means allowing the yeast to eat the internal sugars to turn them into alcohol. But yeasts do not eat every type of sugar; in grains they are enclosed behind a layer of protein and incorporated into polymers called starch, inedible to yeast. “Malt” is one way to turn these starches into sugar, allowing the grain to germinate a bit first. Turn it into a sugary liquid and you can run it through a plate – usually a large copper pot or a tall column that uses heat to separate lighter molecules from heavier ones. Openly, alcohols first evaporate and leave water behind, carrying with them all other types of alcohol-soluble flavored chemicals. Sometimes you can also put what comes out of the pot into a wooden barrel to oxidize and acquire some aroma in the wood. (The chemistry of aging is, ironically, a long story.)