By Kate Dranginis, The Sustainable Restaurant Association
I recently had the chance to (finally!) visit the wonderful city of Copenhagen. What a place, beautiful, painfully cool and pleasingly organised. I could wax lyrical for hours about fantastic places I did get to eat and drink at (top spots: Dan Vandrette, Lille Bakery, Lidkoeb) and probably for equally as long at places I didn’t make it to (this time).
Through ever friendly and useful hospitality connections, my partner and I were invited to a tour at Empirical Spirits, a fledgling business set up by two Noma alumni, Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen.
With such impressive provenance and a true passion for flavour, Lars and Mark, set out to do drinks differently. Really, really differently.
They questioned the status quo and dismantled usual practice.
- Why add water to spirits after distilling them, when it carries almost absolutely no flavour? Why not use kombucha, teas, etc, and add to your spirit?
- Why buy in neutral spirit from elsewhere, when you could create your own, and add flavours from the get-go?
- Sure, you can use barley, as your spirit base. But, why not instead sweet-talk a Japanese koji master, into being allowed to export the magical fungus, and build a sauna-like koji room to grow a flavour base for your spirit? A room where your (very clean) staff work in next to no clothing to tend and cool the koji by hand in up to 40oC heat.
It’s still all canned by handed, three cans at a time. Much of the equipment is from a reclamation yard on the outskirts of Copenhagen, the koji is turned in an 80-year-old piece of farm equipment. Much of the other equipment is of a similar age, altered to suit a streak of imaginative genius and fulfil a purpose no one had yet thought of.
Our tour was on a Saturday afternoon, so the plant wasn’t in operation, but the two staff that showed our group around were unbelievably passionate about the company and their extrovert and eccentric characters fit the business perfectly.
After a tour of the guts of the operation, it was then on tasting. There were five drink receptacles (I use that word purposefully, we drank from bowls, cups and jugs) set out, but our great hosts just kept pulling concoctions from the shelves and archives “Oh! You must try…!”. Tastes that stick in my mind, are the ‘Ayuuk’ – a chilli spirit, not dissimilar to a mezcal or tequila. The Pasilla Mixe Chillies are sourced directly from the Mixe farmers, for a fair price, and social investments made. It’s fab and would make the meanest of margaritas. ‘The Plum, I Suppose’ created from the inner kernel of plum stones is like liquid marzipan and should be on every Christmas drink list.
Their canned ‘beers’, were crowd splitters, named simply ‘Can No.1’ ‘Can No.2’, etc. Can No.2 will define if you’re American or European, pine and currant in flavour. American’s can only taste pine, Europeans, currants – or more specifically: Ribena. My favourite, Can No.3, born out of the smell of a Greek island – unbelievably accurate and nostalgic to family holidays.
The by-products, or as we were taught, just a second product are equally as great. Soy sauce, better than I’ve ever tasted, I could drink with a straw. The hot sauce, made from left over Mixe chillies – and packaged like a blood bag, was fantastic.
There are issues with creating ideas against regular methods, some of the shelf life for these spirits are short, so commercially may not be viable – but that hasn’t stopped any creativity and Empirical is the place if for imagination and invention.
This is a place of why the hell not, unapologetically bold, weird and ‘’yeah let’s do that and let’s do it right’. It’s unbelievably cool, but there’s a conscience here too.