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Sunday, January 29, 2023

The Weird, Sustainable Booze of the Future Tastes … Good?

When Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen founded the Denmark-based microdistillery Empirical Spirits four years ago, they weren’t actually sure what they were making. For weeks, the two men—veterans of the haute-weird restaurant Noma, where Williams ran research and development and Hermansen was the “concept manager”—thought they were making a gin. It was clear and full of plant-y, botanical flavors. But it didn’t have any juniper in it. “And someone from the industry said, ‘You can’t call it a gin,’” Williams says. So: not gin.

They also thought they were making a whiskey. It was smoky, like whiskeys from the island of Islay, of Scotland. And it was brown, because they aged it in a barrel that had once held sherry. But this one did have juniper—which they had smoked before adding to the mix. “And so we couldn’t call it a whiskey,” Williams says. “So we were just like, ‘Pssh, fuck it.’” They bottled it anyway.

Today Empirical makes a half-dozen spirits, and only one of them fits the classic dozen or so categories you’d see on signs above the aisles in a BevMo. Their newest, Ehime, is definitely bourbon-like—brown, made from grain, aged in a barrel. (It’s also partially fermented with koji, the fungus that makes sake.) This booze is sui generis, made from substrates as varied as plum pits, pasilla Mixe chiles, and kombucha, distilled not in a steampunk copper pot but in a vacuum still plucked from a chemistry lab. The company has also started selling fizzy, boozy canned drinks that I suppose fit into the modern category of “hard seltzer,” except where White Claw might offer, say, mango, Empirical touts flavor combinations like oolong tea, gooseberry, and walnut wood.

It’s weird, yeah—but maybe the weirdest thing about all this atypical, unclassifiable booze is how normal it actually is. Spirits are going through a kind of a biotechnical revolution, an application of new methods and a rediscovery of old ones, applied to classic and unfamiliar ingredients alike. The result is shelves stocked with products aimed at more diverse, novelty-seeking customers. And those products also (bonus!) support sustainability in the face of climate change, as well. The future of drinking might be here—just unevenly distributed to rarified and high-end bars and liquor stores.

That future may seem dark, but it hasn’t yet quashed Williams and Hermansen’s theatrical side—probably born out of working at Noma during the peak years of the molecular gastronomy movement. “Flavor has such a poor vernacular, and we have few words for talking about it,” Williams says. “So I fall back on literature. You have peaks and moments of crisis and moments of joy to create a captivating narrative. We want people to go on a journey.” Professional booze tasters often talk (sometimes snootily) about a drink’s nose, taste, mouthfeel, and finish. So Williams has a point. Those things happen sequentially and add up to an experience, just like chapters in a book or acts in a movie. And that sensory experience will be different as it sits in the glass … and sometimes after it has spent a long time in a bottle, though that’s a little less favored because it’s harder for the makers to control.

Distilling as a process has a similar kind of temporality. Spirit-makers start with a substrate—fruit or grain, generally. They want to ferment it, which means letting yeast eat the sugars inside to convert them to alcohol. But yeasts don’t eat every kind of sugar; in grains they’re locked up behind a coat of protein and built into polymers called starches, inedible to yeast. “Malting” is one way to turn those starches into sugar, by letting the grain germinate a little bit first. Turn that into sugary liquid and you can run it through a still—usually a big copper pot or tall column that uses heat to separate lighter molecules from heavier ones. Bluntly, the alcohols evaporate first and leave the water behind, carrying all kinds of other alcohol-soluble, flavorful chemicals over the top of the still with them. Sometimes you might also put what comes out of the still into a wood barrel to oxidize and acquire some of the flavors in wood too. (The chemistry of aging is, ironically, a long story.)

So that’s a series of manufacturing moments that turns into a series of experiential ones. In Empirical products, that movement from nose to taste to finish—if you’ll allow me a little of that snootiness—is starker than almost anything I’ve had to drink. They make one with pasilla Mixe chiles (“from 70 different farmers outside Oaxaca,” Williams says) distilled with pilsner malt and purple wheat. It hits with chipotle smoke first, then the flavor of pineapple, and then a phenolic, Islay-whiskey finish. It’s a lot. Another bottle, called “Fuck Trump and His Stupid Fucking Wall”—the last few years were also a lot, right?—is made with habanero peppers and a couple kinds of barley, fermented with a Belgian beer yeast and then distilled to a low 27 percent alcohol. If you’re looking for weird, this, bud, is for you. The nose is like melon, the flavor’s like cheap bubblegum. Did it have a finish? I don’t know. I’m just gonna say, it wasn’t for me.

That’s totally OK; it might be for you. Sui generis can have a certain beauty. Most booze makers tolerate only a certain amount of idiosyncrasy in their products. Empirical tolerates all of it.

I took what the Empirical distillers sent me to St. George Spirits in Alameda, one of my favorite small distilleries, an innovator in flavors but highly traditional in approach. In St. George’s still-shuttered tasting room, I poured us all tastes of everything to see if Lance Winters and Dave Smith, the chief distillers there (and avowed fans of Empirical) could tell me what I was missing. We started with the Fuck Trump one. “I'd want it to have a little more alcohol, but as an oddity, it’s interesting,” Winters said. “It’s cool.” Smith identified the bubblegum flavor right away. I don’t know that any of us loved it, but we all liked the much more user-friendly hard seltzers.

(A typical national-brand spirit will hover around 40 percent alcohol, or 80 proof. When I ask Williams about this later, he tells me that Empirical’s highest-proof spirit comes in at 49 percent, a katsuobushi spirit rested in a cognac cask. This made me frown, because I wondered if I was misremembering what katsuobushi is. I was not. It is smoked fish flakes.)

There’s an artistry to a drink that doesn’t try to be the most popular kid in the room. It takes work. For one, Williams started with the marzipan flavors he remembered from a dish at Noma made with plum kernels—the bit inside the pit, basically. “We did an alcohol distillation, and it was very good but felt incomplete,” he says. “We tried a dozen things and put it aside, said we’d come back in a month. That went on for about two years.”

Then the head of R&D at Empirical read that marigolds had the same kind of tannins—the mouth-stripping astringency in red wine—as stone fruits. So he made a kombucha out of marigolds. (Kombuchas come from a kind of fermentation, or, rather, a few kinds: from yeasts and also bacteria, all eating sugars and excreting various aromatic compounds from a little bit of alcohol to lactic acid to even stranger and more exotic molecules. Some people think they taste good.) So they distilled the kombucha and added that too.

But at Empirical, they’re playing with another variable—pressure. They put their ferments into a vacuum still and use that to extract a different set of molecules than a heat-powered still made of copper would. Those molecules might also be more evanescent in the glass, so whatever you’re drinking changes more drastically while it’s on the bar in front of you. “We can use botanicals without, I don’t want to say ‘adulterating’ them—but I might—with heat,” Williams says.

The marzipan-based drink with the distilled kombucha still wasn’t there yet. They could have used the ultrasonic transducer they bought to extract aromatics from some other botanicals. But this time they kept it simple—or what passes for simple at Empirical. “We wanted a teeny bit more of a peak, so we added a little bit of marigold alcohol distillation.” The final result smells like grape Now & Later candies and tastes like very good Coca-Cola. Is that a win? Sure. Why not? Now they sell it as something called “The Plum, I Suppose.”

Explaining all that to a buyer at a liquor store, though, doesn’t make any of these products a slam-dunk sale. “In general, I’d say we’re terrible businessmen,” Williams says. “It’s a nightmare to explain what we do. Mark and I can sit with someone for 15 minutes, talk about the story and the ethos and why we do a certain thing in a certain way, and the person will go, ‘So, what kind of gin is it?’” Bartenders and restaurateurs, the two men say, get the idea more quickly.

Now, it’s true that Williams and Hermansen are way less concerned with those BevMo labels than most, but they’re not the only distillers trying to expand the definitions of booze.

Another creative juke at Empirical is koji, an Aspergillus fungus used in Asian cuisine to make, among other things, soy sauce and sake. Like the malting process, koji breaks starches into sugars that yeasts can eat. But koji also creates a bunch of other umami, nutty flavors in the process. Like a good sake brewery, Empirical has a special koji room where that magic happens. The Empirical distillers use it in a few of their ferments. These days, a half-dozen makers of shochu—basically distilled sake if it starts with rice, though it can also start from a base of yam or buckwheat—are exporting to the US an oak-barrel-aged version as dark as whiskey. Japanese rules say they can’t sell it as shochu over there (which has to be clear) or whiskey, but in the US, as long as it’s made from grain and aged in oak, it’s whiskey, and rice is a grain.

These koji-fermented, rice-based whiskeys have all the coconutty lactones, burnt sugar, and dried-cherry flavors a solid whiskey does, plus some of the cashew flavor and bracing clean alcohol of a sake. It’s like whiskey from The Expanse, a cultural hybrid with a cool story of improvised ingredients and technology that also tastes great—a little familiar, a little not. “You’re not going to out-bourbon bourbon or out-scotch scotch,” says Chris Uhde, a whiskey expert and vice president of ImpEx Beverages, which imports the koji-rice whiskeys Fukano and Ohishi. With this newish subcategory, “you get a different mouthfeel or spine or foundation, by which the other flavors are compounded. The koji gives this nice umami quality and a texture that’s a little bit outside the realm of what the other two offer. None is better than the other. It’s just a step toward being able to experience what whiskey can become.”

It’ll be part of a flood of futuristic booze. On the microbiological side, in addition to koji and kombucha, a few rum makers are experimenting with classic bacterial fermentation in what’s sometimes called a dunder pit, an open bucket or hole in the ground where local flora and fauna have their way with the fermenting sugar juice or molasses before distillation. (It’s like sour beer, but it’s rum. And it tastes good.)

The booze writer and analyst Camper English tells me that lots of distilleries are trying to work with parts of plants that might otherwise get thrown away—coffee fruit, nutmeg fruit, vodkas made from whey or even leftover baked goods. Authentic cake flavor! “That latter stuff is related to sustainability as well as novelty, I think,” English says. “And the weird fermentations I’d say are more along the lines of the general trend toward bigger flavors in everything—mezcal over tequila, funky rum rather than neutral, Islay rather than Speyside.”

That’s all good news. Any business based on plant products has to be thinking about how climate change is going to affect the quality, resilience, and yield of those plants, or replacements for them. Just as the winemakers of the great grape-growing regions of California and Europe are already hunting for more robust varietals, smart distillers have to be on the lookout for substrate ingredients that are already plentiful (like coffee fruit) or can thrive in the changed world to come.

Empirical even repurposes its ingredients after they’ve been through the still. They turn the pasilla Mixe chiles into hot sauce. They make some of the post-distillation grains into a soy-like sauce and a miso.

Maybe booze making will be one of the lucky businesses in which sustainability—sensitivity to the environment, to carbon footprints, and to the needs of agriculture in a changing climate—might actually overlap with better products. Distillers have often treated the grains that go into whiskeys (and sometimes vodkas and gins too) as commodities, judged more on yield than for their flavor or manufacturing qualities. But that’s starting to change too. Major booze makers are experimenting with different kinds of grain. TX Whisky in Texas, a smaller producer owned by the multinational Pernod-Ricard, is working on breeding from heirloom corn a flavorful variety suited to the hotter, drier climate of Texas. “We haven’t made the harvest yet, but it’ll be here in a few months,” says Rob Arnold, the master distiller at TX Whisky and author of The Terroir of Whiskey. “It still won’t be the bulk of our production, which will rely on a commercial variety, but this year we’re going to be able to do a couple weeks worth of distillation with just this proprietary Texas corn variety.” True to Arnold’s ideas about terroir, he says the early test distillations taste more strongly of corn, with some malty, chocolatey flavors in there too.

English sees the wider booze landscape better than most, so his observation about sustainability and flavor is important. People who drink alcohol are becoming more open to a bigger flavor palate, built from traditional and nontraditional techniques and ingredients. And, sure, a big transnational drinks company could build those flavors in a lab—whipped-cream-flavored vodka literally does not grow on trees. But the more authentic approach, with real substrates and methods, is available even to small producers, who as a bonus can produce something more environmentally sensitive.

Not every kind of booze can be made from climate-killing surplus carbon dioxide, but maybe booze makers can use things that might otherwise get thrown away—and still taste great. Or at least weird, and more true to whatever their maker intended. “You accumulate a lot of knowledge and then approach the subject in the most childlike way,” Williams says. “What would a spirit be like if we had never had spirits before?” It would be uncategorizable. Hard to sell. Weird, even. And that would be awesome.

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