As a child, Lars Williams – Noma alumnus and founder of Empirical Spirits – was a nerd. Growing up in New York, he was the kid dressed in black, devouring books and science magazines at the back of class. He was a tinkerer, spending summers dismantling and rebuilding Volkswagen Beetles with his father. By the time he was 10, he had the skills to put a Beetle together. He would take apart Christmas presents, in the name of sheer curiosity.
That nerd evolved into a mad scientist at Noma. There, Williams spent nearly seven years out of eight as head of R&D. He was René Redzepi’s right-hand man, translating the chef’s ideas into something extraordinary and delicious. “Food is inherently visceral,” he says. “That’s the side of food that I was always fascinated by — pushing boundaries and seeing what the possibilities of flavours are.”
He bid goodbye to Noma at the end of 2016, to start his own venture. His partner in crime is another Noma veteran, Mark Emil Hermansen, who helped run MAD, Noma’s annual food symposium. An idea had formed: To start a ‘boozery’, which they named Empirical Spirits. Hermansen would handle the business side of things, while Williams would take care of what matters most — the spirits.
Based in Copenhagen, the liquor created here isn’t confined to a particular category. The spirits here are a blank canvas for any farm-to-table flavour imaginable. Douglas fir, habanero, quince and uh, oysters, are a few things that Williams has experimented with, to much success. He is still very much the nerdy kid, the tinkerer, the mad scientist. And it seems he has found the perfect means to enhance and preserve flavours – even if it means upsetting the forefathers of traditional distillation.
Is this the future of booze? Keyyes deep-dives into the mind of the man behind the magic.
What made you leave Noma to start Empirical Spirits?
I felt it was time to branch off and do something of my own and take my own risks. But also, I knew continuing the investigation of flavour was something that I was really passionate about.
Tell me about the first spirit that you made.
The very first spirit we did was with Douglas fir. When we started the company at the beginning of 2017, there weren’t many botanicals to choose from, except Douglas fir, an evergreen. I tried to encapsulate the experience of a walk in a forest into a flavour and put it into a bottle.
I find it a success when our spirits evoke a deep memory in people, especially when it’s a completely new flavour. We had this other spirit made from quince tea, and it reminded everyone of a candy they had as a child. It didn’t matter whether they were from Tokyo or Nepal. And it was a flavour I don’t think anyone has had before.
In terms of flavour, what has been the most unusual?
We just released one made with habaneros. When we distilled this, the capsaicin was too heavy to make it through, so you get the full flavour of the habanero, and none of the actual spice. I could taste habanero in a way I’d never tasted before, such as the sweet and fruity flavours, and that was a revelation.
But what’s this I hear about oysters?
Ah, yes. This was a fun one. When we distill, we take a deeper investigation into flavour than most distillers would do. A normal distillation would take about five cuts (meaning, taking away the bad stuff in batches before you get to the good)… At Empirical, we take 50 cuts.
When you think about something like an oyster, you think about the flavour as a sphere, which you stretch it long and cut into many little pieces. At the beginning, you get this bright, almost green fruit sort of flavour. It slowly goes into the sweet oyster flavour before getting into the briny part of it. It took lots of trial and error before I had 150 little pieces deconstructed from three different types of oysters — Danish, Scottish and French — and reconstructed into what I felt was the perfect oyster in my head.
What’s the basis of your distillation?
It’s a mix of eastern and western techniques. You take the best parts of sake and fuse them with the best parts of beer. The Douglas fir spirit, for instance, is made from an heirloom Danish variety of barley. This is soaked in water, placed in a shipping container that’s lined with the fir wood, and injected with mould spores to create koji.
The koji, a Belgian Saison yeast and a selection of grains are then put into kegs to ferment for a week, before getting distilled at five to 15 degrees Celsius in a 100-litre closed vacuum still. The vacuum lowers the pressure inside, in order for the ethanol to evaporate at low temperatures. This is done with the aid of an ultrasonic fogger, which mists the liquid and encourages the distillation. This proceeds to three other stainless steel stills of 500, 1,500 and 2,000 litres.
Do you think you have improved the idea of traditional distillation?
Not at all… Look at how food and wine have evolved. There’s been a lot of rethinking about processes and flavours, and for what’s desirable in terms of the end product. For some reason, that hasn’t happened with spirits… We do things a little differently, so that spirits can be appreciated in another way. They can have enough flavour and be well-rounded enough to be enjoyed as their own. Not as a mere ingredient or something to get drunk on.
A common critique of small-batch distilleries is the lack of consistency…
We tell our customers that our batches vary slightly, but because we are constantly trying to improve what we do. The idea of coming up with a recipe and dusting your hands off with “pfft, that’s the best that I can do,” is insane. We can always do something better, so we are constantly tweaking things to make each batch better than the last.
How would you enjoy your spirits?
I believe that once a person buys it, he can do whatever he wants with it. But we often encourage people to try our spirits as they are.
What is your favourite empirical spirit?
Well, the one that I have yet to make, of course.
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