In Christianshavn, several little islands linked by tiny bridges, old and new, press up against each other. Dark, sharp-edged, glass-roofed hotels sit next to rows of pastel-painted waterside houses; water slaps the polished wood of ancient barges and the sides of stainless-steel pontoons. I glimpse free-form sculptures in public gardens, bracketed by smart shops selling Scandinavian design. This famously unconventional Copenhagen neighbourhood makes a fitting prelude to the real reason I’m here – a visit to Empirical, a renegade maker of uncategorisable spirits.
Empirical’s vast warehouse looks like something Roald Dahl might have dreamt up if Charlie had won a trip to a distillery instead of a chocolate factory. Indeed, if you were dropped in here blindfold, you probably wouldn’t know you were in a distillery at all. None of Empirical’s sell-out spirits are traditionally recognisable – there’s no gin, rum, whisky or, indeed, aquavit. As I walk, mouth agape, past vacuum distillation equipment made from bits of old bio-reactor, chefs rush by offering tastes of miso paste or crisps made out of the spent grains used in the spirits.
‘It’s one of the great things about having so many chefs working here,’ says co-founder Mark Emil Hermansen. ‘They use a lot of the waste materials.’ Right. But why on earth are there chefs in here at all? Hermansen grins. The building is full of people not necessarily qualified to do what they’re doing: he’s an Oxford-educated anthropologist, for a start. He became involved in this venture after René Redzepi – chef and founder of nearby world-renowned Noma – read one of his papers on food, identity and the creation of meaning through flavour, and invited him to join the Noma team. There he met Lars Williamson, Noma’s head of research and development. The two spent several years at Redzepi’s Nordic food lab, then decided to strike out on their own. They’d never worked with spirits. ‘We’d played around with fermentation and creation of flavours [at Noma]. The by-product of yeast fermentation is alcohol, which is a great way to capture flavour. We started the distillery in a garage just over two years ago, and now we are here.’
‘Here’ is Refshaleøen island, a waterside former industrial district now peppered with start-ups, artists, bars and restaurants. Empirical moved in in February 2019 and shares the building with a brewery-taproom run by American chef Matthew Orlando (also ex-Noma); his hyper-sustainable restaurant Amass is just across the road.
Empirical’s 25 employees make a constantly evolving series of four or five spirits at a time, including their best known, Fuck Trump and His Stupid Fucking Wall (which, predictably, sells out almost immediately on release). There are also limited-edition collaborations with partners such as Ryan Chetiyawardana, aka Mr Lyan, whose Dandelyan in London was named World’s Best Bar and who has subsequently taken his Lyan brand to Amsterdam and (at the time of writing) Washington, DC. The aim is to make around 100,000 bottles a year, using techniques they invented – their barley isn’t malted, for instance, but is treated with koji spores, the kind usually used to ferment soy sauce – in equipment made from butchered 1950s butter churners.
‘The important thing about Empirical,’ says Michael Vachon of the distillery’s UK importer Maverick Drinks, ‘is that they’re people who make flavours that have never been created before. Spirits are just the best way that they have of conveying flavour. Like perfume, alcohol is a good way of providing a sensory experience.’
Think Danish spirits, and you tend to think of aquavit. And no wonder: until very recently, Denmark produced half the world’s supply. But today, that 500-year-old tradition is being subverted by a gang of small-batch distillers scattered across the country, upstarts and mavericks who make whatever they fancy making. The resultant spirits scene is small: while it has more than doubled in the past couple of years, there are still only around 50 producers countrywide. Much of that mini-boom is due to Empirical’s non-conformity, which has helped attract international attention – just as Noma did for Danish food.
The industry may be small, but it is perfectly formed. You could spend a very happy few weeks travelling between the country’s new distilleries, through that lush countryside, riven by the fjords. And while Empirical’s peers may be slightly more conventional (they at least tend to make spirits that can be legally classified), they are far from ordinary.
Copenhagen Distillery was founded in early 2014. Its main product will soon be whisky, made with a rare organic Danish emmer wheat, which will remain in barrel until some very limited releases later this year. For now, you’ll have to stick to the gin – which is ready, and the bay leaf is exceptional – or the very modern aquavits, particularly the pale pink mulberry rose, which mixes deliciously with tonic. (Alternatively, try the whisky bacon, which is made from pigs fed on the spent grain, then whisky-cured.) Or just sink into their distillery’s surprisingly inviting warehouse-bar, and work your way through its collection of house-created cocktails.
When opening a new distillery, it’s easier to set it up in a sustainable way than it is to retrofit a very old one. (Copenhagen Distillery has a tightly managed closed-loop system for water and heat capture.) Multi-award-winning Mosgaard Distillery, on the island of Funen, takes things even further, and is certified both organic and carbon-neutral. Here, too, bottles sell out faster than they can be made. Founder Jes Mosgaard, a former audio engineer, attributes this in part to the mineral-rich hard water on this flat, open south side of the island. ‘As the Scots say, soft water makes hard whisky, and hard water makes soft whisky.’
Braunstein’s USP, meanwhile, comes not through the way it makes its spirits but the way it ages them. Rather than happening at the micro-brewery and distillery in Køge, 45 minutes from Copenhagen, Braunstein’s whisky is aged in castles and warehouses all over Denmark – including Kronborg, in Helsingør (aka Elsinore, Hamlet’s famous castle). Brothers Michael and Klaus Poulson started the brewery in 2004 and the distillery in 2005, and over the years they have experimented with malting Danish barley in Islay, and using Danish corn. One particularly notable iteration, Library Collection 15:1, was aged in Sauternes casks from Château d’Yquem.
Drive two and a half hours northwest into Jutland, past dozens of Denmark’s postcard-pretty, brick, stepped-gable churches, and you find the seaside town of Stauning and its eponymous distillery. Stauning is one of Denmark’s bigger spirits brands. A recipient of £10m ($12.7m) from Distill Ventures (the small-business investment arm of the huge spirits producer Diageo), it started life in 2005 in an old abattoir and is now housed in a series of starkly elegant, ultra-modern black sheds that are open every weekday for tastings. The brand was founded by a group of nine friends who wanted to be the first to make a Danish single-malt whisky.
Like many others in the story of Denmark’s modern distilling industry, none of them had a clue how to do so. Yet when they were just a year old, whisky expert Jim Murray told them their smoked whisky had the potential to be one of the best in the world. Sure enough, Stauning Curious won Best New Make in the World at the 2019 World Whisky Awards.
Danish items have long had a reputation for being exceptional, but Danes value their own output highly, too
Outside Denmark, Danish items have long had a reputation for being exceptional, but Danes value their own output highly, too, despite its often higher prices. ‘As a Danish citizen, you strive to choose Danish products, because you believe them to be of higher quality,’ says Christopher Rasmussen, of Spirit of Njord, a gin distillery housed in a 100-year-old pumping station in Aarhus. If you come to Denmark, it is worth devoting a couple of days to Aarhus, which sits on the east coast on the other side of Jutland. Not just so you can try all the gins, but because Denmark’s second city is stuffed with excellent craft-beer bars and restaurants, and everything, including its recently revamped harbourside, is within walking distance.
In any journey through the distilleries – and the wider gastronomic highlights – of Denmark, there’s one constant refrain. It might be difficult to understand how one small restaurant could have such far-reaching effects on a country’s food and drink scene, but ask anyone involved in those industries what has had the greatest influence, and one name comes up.
‘Noma is part of our history, too,’ Rasmussen says. ‘It served our gin back in 2014, which was a huge pat on the back. [Denmark] didn’t have a long-standing culinary reputation. Noma gave a fresh perspective on our food and drink, and now there’s a view of us as a gastronomic hotspot.’ Because Noma placed such emphasis on local products – showcasing Danish wine, beer and spirits, as well as food – it has focused international attention on just what the Danes can create.
Vachon agrees. ‘Copenhagen is at the intersection of the Nordics and the rest of western Europe,’ he says. ‘It’s reasonable for a place like Noma to come into existence in a city like Copenhagen, which has access to great ingredients from within the country and close to it. And then tons of places have come into existence beyond Copenhagen, through Noma alumni.’
In the black-tiled, wood-clad tasting room at Empirical, we are discussing Arctic juniper – ‘Too smackful of flavour,’ says Hermansen – versus Nepalese juniper, while sipping Onyx, which morphs from a peaty whisky to a smoky mezcal in the mouth. It’s true that most hedonists come to Denmark for the food. But they really should stay for the drink.
Copenhagen Bay Leaf Gin
Made with bay, angelica and fresh cranberries, this bay leaf gin is earthy but fresh, and just as good mixed as neat.
€39.90 ($44), 45%
Empirical Onyx Blend
Onyx has an extraordinary nose – soil, gin, musk and smoke – and once sipped, its smoky notes never stop evolving in the mouth.
€65 ($72), 33%
Stauning 7th Edition Single Malt
You’ll have to move fast to get hold of Stauning’s limited bottling of this single malt. Bourbon cask-aged for six years, it is rich and darkly chocolatey.
£115 ($145), 48.4%
Nordisk North Star
Anders Bilgram is inspired by the moonshines he encountered on his Arctic travels. This gin – which includes botanicals like sea buckthorn, cloudberries and qajaasat, from across the Nordic region – is a fine example.
DKK360 (£42/$53), 44.8%
Spirit of Njord Sun and Citrus gin
The carefully layered botanicals in this summery gin – lemon verbena, lemon balm, citrus peels, blueberry, blackberry, rose, heather, thyme, rosemary, linden flower and birch sap – create a gin that is zippy but never sour or tart.
DKK529 (£62/$78), 47.5%
At 10-year-old Fary Lochan, they make rich and oily whiskies with malts smoked over fresh local nettles, as well as a wonderfully fresh nettle aquavit.
Small batch production, €80–202 ($88–222) for 50cl, 47–54%, depending on batch
Mosgaard Organic Whisky Batch 1, Pedro Ximénez cask
Made on the island of Funen, this gets a final six months of ageing in Sherry casks, marrying sweet French oakiness with raisined Sherry richness.
DKK1,000 (£116/$147), 46.3%
Sven Moesgaard makes rum because he can and because he likes it. This has oodles of molasses and caramel, which fits well with the very sweet Danish tooth.
DKK250 (£29/$37), 46%
Dyrehøj Rös Gin
The family-run Dyrehøj vineyard and distillery makes an extremely pure, bright gin, using apples.
DKK295 (£34/$44), 40%
And one to visit: Nyborg
This distillery makes whisky in a beautifully modernised former train factory. It took five years to transform the buildings, which now house a shop and a renowned organic restaurant and bar, as well as stills making whisky, rum, gin and schnapps. Visit the distillery for a tour on a Friday or Saturday.