Most distilleries will say that flavour is a key priority when developing products, so when Copenhagen-based distillery Empirical describes itself as a ‘flavour company’, you’d be forgiven for thinking: well, what else would it be? But for Empirical, flavour truly does come first; rather than labelling their drinks as rum, gin or vodka, for example, their spirits are known for defying traditional categorisation altogether (take Plum, I Suppose, a spirit made from plum kernel, marigold and their signature fermented koji-and-grain base spirit). And now, a newly released range of condiments, named Empirical Provisions, follows in the same vein and features complex not-quite-soy-sauces, a miso-like paste and a sort-of hot sauce.
Perhaps a move into foodstuffs isn’t quite so surprising for anyone who knows the Empirical story, though. Founders Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen – who have been redefining drinks since 2017 from their base in a converted warehouse in Copenhagen’s Refshaleøen (where they also share space with a bakery, coffee roastery and students living in converted shipping containers) – met while working at world-famous Noma. The pair say their time there has had an obvious influence on their approach to spirits. ‘Most of us are from a restaurant background, where we’re used to serving a few people every night and sharing amazing flavours with them, but Empirical can bring that to more people,’ says Williams.
When head of product development and former chef Eric Heilig came on board in 2019, the interest in condiments really began to blossom. ‘Both Eric and I worked in fine dining before [Empirical], where we were working 80 to 100 hours per week, putting in a lot of blood, sweat and tears to making this perfect meal for only 40 people at a time,’ says Williams. ‘What Empirical is trying to do is democratise that process and take all that hard work and innovation that we do with flavour, and encapsulate that in a bottle.’ According to Heilig, it’s a natural progression within broadening their portfolio of ‘flavour’ – a next step within Empirical’s mission ‘to make something delicious that we can share with people’. The move from ‘Empirical Spirits’ to just ‘Empirical’ in the company branding further encapsulates a renewed focus on flavour that goes beyond product type or categorisation.
We brew our own koji, but once we’ve used it for the initial purpose there’s still a tonne of flavour possibilities left
So how do they move from making spirits to crafting condiments? The processes actually go hand in hand. The distillery’s base spirit, Helena, is made with Danish heirloom grains, which are then inoculated with koji-kin spores (a type of mould used in shoyu and sake), before being fermented and brewed into a beer. Yeast is then added before vacuum distillation. The process is complex, but for Empirical there’s always room to play around. ‘When I started at Empirical,’ Heilig says, ‘we’d be working with all these amazing Danish heirloom grains, we brew our own koji, but once we’ve used it for the initial purpose there’s still a tonne of flavour possibilities left.’ From this, Elixir 01 was born, a Scandinavian interpretation of soy sauce, using Swedish fava beans, Danish Oland wheat and fermented koji. The result? Something you can’t quite put your finger on. A buttery, nutty flavoured sauce that’s also light and slightly vegetal, something akin to a soy sauce but elevated, with a lengthy finish and depth of flavour.
The team then developed Elixir 02, this time made with fermented koji and lapsang tea, giving it more tannic notes and rich umami flavour than found in the previous iteration. Then there’s Tasty Paste, an intensely savoury miso-like paste inspired by their limited-edition spirit Bandit. Both mix smoked koji, brewers’ grain and salt before being fermented for over a year, resulting in a chocolate-like flavour with meaty notes. The tagline of the range is ‘put it on stuff’, but the company has developed more specific recipe ideas, including spooning a little tasty paste into your classic apple crumble.
While flavour is one of the key Empirical principles, the step into condiments is also a consequence of a sustainable ethos. ‘One of the things that we looked at is how to have a more circular production that makes sure every ingredient gets used to its full potential,’ says Heilig. For example, Pasilla Mixe chillies from Oaxaca and are used in both Empirical’s Ayuuk spirit and now a new Pasilla Sauce. Following their maceration into Ayuuk’s base spirit, the same chillies are then strained, fermented, and used as a base for the sauce, which also contains koji and Danish beetroot. ‘It’s a product inspired by all these different places, and you get an expression of different techniques and traditions from different parts of the world, assembled into something that feels pure,’ says Heilig.
Although Williams says that Provisions have always been part of Empirical’s plan, the new launches have influenced the way the team thinks about product development in turn. ‘Now, when we’re working on something new, I’m already thinking about how it’s going to be folded into the Provisions in a way that I probably wouldn’t have been doing a year ago,’ says Williams. As a result, this isn’t the last thing you’ll be seeing from Empirical Provisions this year: there’s talk of wintery cask-aged sauces and a soy sauce developed by Heilig and made from crisp Danish apples. ‘There’s a lot of seasonal things we already have in mind,’ says Heilig. ‘Just like with the spirits, the possibilities are endless.’