Flirting with the line of what’s considered traditionally edible, the Empirical brand strives to extract rich flavors from the most unexpected sources. Lars’ thought process is as exciting as it is dizzying when he talks about the brand’s movement.
“Being uncategorized means that the possibilities are endless. We have virtually tried to distill everything we got our hands on. We made a spirit with oysters and green gooseberry, another with roasted chicken skin, and more recently Kaneshichi with katsuobushi. We’ve also extensively been looking at wood as an ingredient like toasted birch or walnut wood, specifically in our CANs. Or the black currant buds, ambrette seeds, and vetiver, which are not typically considered ‘edible’ in the Western world but are medicinal in the Southeast. All of them are not expected to be found in spirits, but once you see alcohol as a vessel for flavor, everything is game.
The restaurant and spirits industry have always been intertwined. They both need to straddle the line of innovation and tradition to survive. To fully realize the Empirical brand, Lars teamed up with another ex- Noma employee, Mark Emil Hermansen. Together, they opened their first distillery in Copenhagen and freed themselves from the boundaries that come with claiming a liquor type. Using their inventive culinary techniques, they created a completely custom distillation method that best preserves natural flavors.
“I had access to a rotovap when I began working at the Fat Duck, and we used ‘vacuum distillation’ with that lab equipment for a dish I developed. …Vacuum distillation is like a magnifying glass for flavor, you cannot hide or mask unwanted flavors. Since we distill at very low temperatures (as low as 48F), we capture all the volatile compounds of fragile botanicals prone to denaturation in contact with heat as we initially experienced them. To optimize the extraction of heat-sensitive aromatic compounds with precision, we have designed and fabricated our own contraptions that preserve aromatics.”
When Lars and Mark conceive of their flavors, they have a neurological focus in mind. They know that smells are linked to the hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain believed to be responsible for processing memories. They create flavors and especially aromas around the idea of sense memory, to transport the consumer back to rose-colored times. Since they are the architects, you could say it’s a journey into their sense memories specifically.
Their first expression, “Symphony 6” represents “a moment in an eternal summer; a point where light and dark, day and night meet, when ephemeral and timeless come together.” Symphony 6 is composed of Pilsner Malt Belgian Saison 2 Yeast, Lemon Leaf, Tangerine, Fig, Coffee, Vetiver, Ambrette Seeds, Black Currant Buds, Citric acid, and Carmine. For Lars,
“Easy Tiger” “showcases the petrichor aromas of Douglas Fir and mature juniper capturing the scents of the Scandinavian forests I often walked through foraging. The intent was to be able to encapsulate this sense memory to be able to share it with my sister back in Brooklyn.”
When I tried Empirical’s “The Plum, I Suppose,” my first reaction was clean with a warm buttery-ness that hits you at the end of the finish. The plum kernels used have a flavor reminiscent of Marzipan or “the best dessert” Lars has ever had. It’s not sweet but it’s full flavored with minimal to no bite.
Empirical has recently closed their distillery in Copenhagen to move it to New York where Lars was raised. They have not only released a line of bottled spirits, but they have canned expressions with the same boundaryless flavor designs. I look forward to making my way through them, one memory at a time. So, what’s next for Lars Williams and the Empirical brand? “As to how far we are planning to push boundaries, only time will tell, but we can promise that we will keep on experimenting with a child-like curiosity.”
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