Photo by Kat Kinsman

Empirically speaking

Kat Kinsman
October 30, 2018

Empirical Spirits would like you to know that the name of their new spirit, Fuck Trump and His Stupid Fucking Wall, is not a political statement but rather an exclamation of exhaustion. And as consumers, we're free to make up our own minds. (For now.) As a statement of flavor, it stands on its own. The Copenhagen-based company was co-founded by Noma restaurant and Nordic Food Lab alums Mark Emil Hermansen and Lars Williams, neither of whom knew much about the alcohol business, but were confident in their ability to create a beverage that tasted pretty damn good. After attending a series of industry events, the team found that it was standard practice for beverage producers to buy pre-distilled spirits, add flavors or barrel-aging, slap on a label that may or may not imply some nonexistent old-timey brand history, and take them to market, often as gin.

Photo by Kat Kinsman

Anyone with even a drop of knowledge about the barrier-breaking Noma can guess what happened next. Williams and Hermansen devised a whole new process from scratch, starting with building custom machinery that would allow them to distill at a 99-percent vacuum at 5°C, meaning that liquid can boil without heat and maintain all of its flavor. And oh, what flavor Fuck Trump packs into its relatively low-proof (a mere 27 percent alcohol) spirit. The base of that particular liquor is made with barley that's soaked, then injected with Aspergillus Oryzae fungi to ferment into koji (no great surprise, seeing as Williams founded the seminal Noma Fermentation Lab), and Belgian saison yeast sourced from the lab next door, then gets its distinctive tang from habanero peppers—a kilo per bottle—and is rectified with habanero vinegar. That may sound too entirely volcanic for human consumption, but it's shockingly drinkable. According to Empirical's chief operating officer, Ian Moore, Williams himself can't tolerate spice, and the still's innovative high-pressure, low-temperature design keeps the heavier capsaicin out of the distillation—allowing all of the flavor with little to none of the fire.

The result is a smooth, warm, vegetal liquor that is simultaneously familiar and elusive, and endlessly sippable. Fuck Trump is not meant to be mixed into a cocktail, says Moore, but rather enjoyed on its own. "We align ourselves more with restaurants and wine bars and beer bars" than cocktail bars, he says, "and I don't see us doing one spirit for more than six months." And though Empirical Spirits bottles can be found on liquor store shelves (just two outlets in the United States for the moment), Moore knows that some shop owners might be slightly confused as to where to place the bottles. "We call it a 'freeform spirit,' but by law it is categorized as a 'spirit drink specialty' rather than a gin or a vodka."

Empirical embraces that ambiguity for the sake of creativity—not to mention the controversy that might arise from its volatile name—which again Moore insists that it's not to be taken as a political statement. "The guy's just a dick. It was a long day and we were tired. The news was on and they were talking about Trump's plans in Mexico and someone just said, 'fuck Trump and his stupid fucking wall.' It stuck."

The year-and-a-half-old company's other distillations may be less colorfully named, but they surely don't skimp on distinctive expression. Fallen Pony is the next step up the proof ladder at 35 percent alcohol and is based in a quince black tea that's fermented into kombucha. Charlene McGee (named after Drew Barrymore's character in Firestarter) clocks in at 40 percent alcohol, with heady smoked juniper notes and a rest in an oloroso cask. Empirical's flagship barley koji and Belgian saison spirit is named Helena and comes to rest at 50 percent with a taste not unlike a white dog whiskey.

Moore says that the founders vowed to never rectify the spirit above that 100 proof, so as not to compromise the sensory experience. Williams tells him, "We didn't know about alcohol, we know about flavor. And this is how we get flavor to as many people as possible." Walls be damned.

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