Empirical Spirits is a new line of distillates from Noma restaurant alums. The very plain labels belie the complex spirits inside, including this Charlene McGee Blend, made from juniper berries smoked over juniper wood and aged in sherry casks. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Copenhagen’s Noma alums create spirits with flavors—and names — like no other

“Lars and Mark were looking for a new way of expressing flavor and all the work they’d done in that (Noma) space for so many years.”

It was only a matter of time before molecular gastronomy made its way from the kitchen into the distillery. Lars Williams was the head of research and development at Noma, Rene Redzepi’s highly acclaimed and notably innovative Copenhagen restaurant. Mark Emil Hermansen was concept manager. In 2017, the two launched Empirical Spirits and started distilling, seeking to coax out and capture aromatically precise flavors in spirits from a chef’s perspective.

The resulting products resemble no other spirit on the market. Helena, for example, their basic distillate, bottled at 40 percent alcohol, tastes like a sake-vodka hybrid — clean, floral, with clear notes of koji, the same fungus that’s used in the production of sake, miso and shoyu. In their most notoriously named spirit, F *** Trump and His Stupid F ***ing Wall, distilled with habanero vinegar, the capsaicin (which makes chiles spicy) disperses, leaving a lovely flowery pepper flavor, and comes in at only 27 percent. As my tasting partner noted, “Everyone always tells you how delicious habaneros are, but they’re too darn hot to taste them!” Williams and Hermansen reveal the bare flavors within.

“When you taste (Empirical Spirits) for the first time, it is confusing and disorienting. The flavors come out of nowhere and yet are grounded in nature,” said Nadim Audi, national sales manager for Selection Massale Imports. “You forget it’s a distillate; you are in the presence of an aroma and a flavor, that gets you a little drunk.”

“Lars and Mark were looking for a new way of expressing flavor and all the work they’d done in that (Noma) space for so many years,” explained COO Ian Moore.

“Spirits, on a molecular level … have the capacity to be used as a vehicle to share flavor on a global level, as opposed to in a singular restaurant space,” Williams agreed. “Alcohol is a fantastic vessel for flavor. It not only gives flavor shelf life but also binds flavor in a completely different way than oil.”

To create their unique products, Williams and Hermansen turned traditional distillation on its head, using barley instead of more traditional grains, and koji to ferment. First, the barley is steamed and inoculated with the koji. Pilsner malt and Belgian saison yeasts are added and the slow fermentation begins. Each batch is fermented twice for depth of flavor. Distillation takes place in vacuum stills, designed and built by Empirical, keeping the temperature low (41-86 degrees F) and flavor retention at a maximum.

So, now that these products are available in the U.S., how does one best experience such a novel (and pricy at $70-$90) beverage? Said Audi, “This is booze that does not tell you what to do with it. When you taste it, you are not weighed down by the other hundred billion times you’ve tasted mezcal, for example,” or sipped a gin martini.

“They can be easily enjoyed at home,” said Moore, “you can serve them neat,” or in simple highballs so as not to cover up their subtleties. He recommends Fallen Pony Blend (a distillate of quince tea kombucha) with tonic and lemon, and Charlene McGee Blend (made from juniper berries smoked over juniper wood and aged in sherry casks) with cream soda. Imagine yourself in the flavor lab with Williams and Hermansen and enjoy the virtual journey to Denmark.

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