The Making of Empirical
We do things our own way. Taking a flavor-first approach means that we don’t pay attention to the conventional categories that traditionalists often want to cast us into. Instead, we focus on finding great ingredients and turning them into experiences.
We built our distillery in a Copenhagen warehouse, next to a paintball arena, and not far from the harbor. Here we have a ton of equipment, a lot of which we designed and assembled ourselves. We’re always tweaking our methods, so our outcomes and our ideas are constantly evolving together.
There are nine key elements that set our process apart: grains, barley kōji, brewing, fermentation, ingredients, distilling, cuts, and blending.
If you want to make something delicious, you need to build flavor from the very beginning. Which is why we make our own base spirit, tailored to our preferences and ideals. We call it Helena, after Lars’ favorite Misfits song.
Helena begins with pearled barley, which we steam in a converted 60-year old butter churner that we call the Dairy Queen. We then inoculate it with kōji-kin spores—a type of mold you find in miso, shoyu, and sake. The kōji gives Helena its complex umami notes, which form the backbone of all our spirits.
To properly ferment the barley kōji, we built a sauna-like “kōji room” lined with naturally anti-microbial Douglas fir wood. It’s kept at 37 degrees celsius and 70 percent humidity at all times. In it, the koji ferments until it turns into a dense white cake-like substance.
We then use the barley kōji to brew a beer, milling it with water and then adding in pilsner malt and naked barley. The kōji’s enzymes break down the grains into sugars that can later be digested by yeast.
Once the starches break down into smaller sugars, we transfer the beer into fermentation tanks and add Belgian Saison yeast. We work with a lab to access thousands of strains of yeast and optimize our selection for the flavor that we want the yeast to help create.
We ferment our spirits slowly in order to produce layered, nuanced flavors. Fermenting each spirit multiple times—first in the kōji stage, then when adding yeast, and occasionally when we add things like Kombucha at later stages—means we can achieve complexity and depth in each bottle.
We’re on a constant search for flavor, and that search often takes us all over the world.
We’ve sought out the perfect kōji in Japan, hunted down marula to ferment in Zimbabwe, and foraged for açaí in the Brazilian jungle. On a recent R&D trip, Lars went after pasilla chilis in the mountains outside of Oaxaca, Mexico, 5,000 feet above sea level.
We’ve also found what we’re looking for closer by. We harvested fig leaves on Bornholm, an island near Copenhagen, took coffee chaff from a neighboring roastery and reused our own spent kōji as a botanical. Regardless of where they come from, we look for ingredients that are both delicious and evocative.
Traditional distillation techniques rely on heat, which can kill off flavor. We vacuum distill our spirits in order to preserve the fresh flavor and aroma compounds of the botanicals we use.
Vacuum distillation relies on a pump that pulls air and vapors out of the distillation container, lowering the pressure so that less heat is required to reach boiling temperatures.
After a first distillation where we remove any remaining yeast and sediment, we have what we call a “low wine”, which is around 30% ABV. We transfer that into stainless steel barrels and macerate it with botanicals—if we’re using them—for anywhere from 3 hours to 10 days.
Throughout the distillation, we take on average 50 cuts that we can taste individually. Each cut captures a different aspect of whatever we’re distilling, allowing us to deconstruct the ingredient, explore nuances as they develop, and splice them back together in the final step to construct our ideal profile.
The cuts are blended using different ingredients, including vinegar and kombucha that we make in-house with spent botanicals from the first distillation. This allows us to play around with various ABVs—instead of diluting with water like traditional distillers tend to—so that we can create the most flavorful result.
Friends: A Drink With Tata
Leading up to our Gedulgt x Tata bar swap, we caught up with bar manager Jonas Andersen, and head bartender Harry Bell to get the lowdown on their award-winning approach.
Research: What is kōji?
Kōji is a fungus. In fact, a few fungi. The word is Japanese. The Japanese character for kōji means ‘rice flower’, which is exactly what it looks like when it’s growing—a landscape of white, fluffy, tiny flowers blooming from the surface of the grains.