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  • JULIE WHITE

The Visitor Centre today is ... Empirical Spirits

We visit the rule breaking, punk, flavour alchemists in their Danish home, to see if they really are the future of booze, as many claim.

My husband and I had time to kill, on a wet and windy November afternoon in Copenhagen, one of my favourite cities in the world. I’ve been to the city so many times, that the tourist traps are all ticked off and I now find myself hunting out something quirky, with a side of urban grit and a dash of randomness. I knew of one place that could deliver such a cocktail.


We headed to Empirical Spirits, a Danish distillery that has gained recognition for pushing the limits of traditional distillation techniques. They are pioneers in the uncategorized spirits sector, and not being one that likes to be pigeonholed myself, I find being classed as uncategorized utterly compelling.

exterior of an old metal industrial building in the Refshaleøen area of Copenhagen, which houses Empirical spirits.

We hopped on the bus with much anticipation and were whisked out to the hip and happening Refshaleøen, the former B&W shipyard district that has become one of Copenhagen’s coolest hubs for creativity, great food and forward-thinking, alternative urban development. It is the favoured area for those with an independent spirit, so it suits Empirical down to the ground, though, it turns out, perhaps not for too much longer.


The brand history

Lars Williams is a bit of a culinary rockstar and a foraging wizard. Hailing from New York's West Village, he turned his back on a career designing sets for commercials and music videos to focus on his passion for food. He has straddled the line between mad scientist and chef at some of the top restaurants in the world. He worked at Heston Blumenthal’s three-Michelin-starred wonderland The Fat Duck in Bray, England before working for 8 years as head of research and development at Denmark’s utterly fabulous Noma, one of the world’s most renowned restaurants, and for its affiliated non-profit Nordic Food Lab.


Noma has plenty of plaudits and a ground-breaking reputation. Behind the scenes, there is a diverse army of chefs, scientists, chemists, and historians, all given the chance to flex their muscles to explore innovative flavours, ingredients, and techniques. Noma is a gastro-destination that has fostered a generation of dedicated and pioneering alumni. It is in this hotbed of creativity that great ideas ferment, and for Lars, his next adventure saw him enter the world of distilled spirits.

Lars Williams (Left) and Mark Emil Hermansen (Right) - Image from Fine Dining Lovers

In 2017, when Noma was temporarily shut down due to relocation, Lars co-founded Empirical, a flavour-focused company in Copenhagen, with fellow Noma alumnus Mark Emil Hermansen. Empirical started production with rudimentary home brew equipment in a space in Copenhagen's Meatpacking district, and produced just a few experimental bottles a week.


But these few bottles were game changers in the spirits business. Utterly unique flavours were being created, from blending foraged and fermented ingredients, from the extremely hard to find to the often overlooked, all distilled using Empirical's distinctive methods. As flavour was the key aim, rather than producing volume at any cost, the grain-to-bottle brand took its culinary experience and applied scientific principles to the art of distillation, using vacuum and low-level heat to retain flavours that may otherwise be lost at the high temperatures in mainstream distilling processes.

Empirical Distillery - Image Inside Hook

The operation grew rapidly, both in size and in reputation, and bigger premises were required, which saw the relocation to an industrial unit in Refshaleøen. The added square footage gave them space for more equipment and room to experiment at a greater scale.


The founders developed a small team of biochemists, chefs and anthropologists, and embarked on a process of continual invention, where no two days were the same, attacking each new project with childlike curiosity, where nothing is off limits. They found that there was little equipment out there that they could use to make their unique products, so they set about designing and reinventing machinery themselves, on a shoestring budget, often repurposing farm, culinary or laboratory machines. Only one staff member has a background in distilling and the team hails from all over the world. They are an eclectic bunch, training their palates and learning the skills of distillation as they go.

At Empirical Spirits, a rotary evaporator (left) is used to concentrate flavours like myrtle and gooseberry for experiments - Image Wall Street Journal

This is a brand that looks for inspiration daily, from the smallest idea to the biggest trend. Each concept is explored and failure is welcomed, as without failure, there would be no learning. Breakthroughs can take many months and continuous improvement is a given.


The brand moved into the ready-to-drink (RTD) canned cocktail market in 2020, in order to make their products more accessible, bringing in mixology star Sasha Wijidessa to head up the development of the drinks. Sasha drew from her background studying pharmaceutical science and a global career in bartending at some of the World's best bars, to design two canned concoctions, catchily named Can 01 and Can 02. Can 03 launched in 2021.

Empirical's RTD can range - Image Essential Journal

The brand now has a core range, covering 5 flavours, 2 single cask spirits and range of merchandise.


In 2022, Empirical moved into the culinary space with the launch of a provisions collection of sauces and cooking ingredients.

Empirical's Provisions range - Image Spirits Business

In 2023 it was announced that Empirical would be moving to a new distillery, based in the North Bushwick area of Brooklyn, slated to open in the summer of 2023. Williams, who originally hails from New York City, will return to the States after 14 years in Copenhagen and assume the role of CEO at the new 5,000-square-foot distillery, which will house production, bottling and canning lines, an additional R&D center, plus a tasting room which will no doubt offer tours in time. Brooklyn has seen many distilleries spring up in the last decade, and the distillery's Bushwick neighbours will be Moto Spirits, Arcane and The Noble Experiment. Brooklyn's distilling scene has been on the up since Kings County Distillery was founded back in 2010 (report on our visit there coming soon). Over the past two decades, the borough has become the epicentre of a food and drink revolution and it is my favourite port of call in NYC. Bushwick was historically a hub of industry and became the beer capital of the Northeast in the late 1890s, with over 50 breweries in the area. But by the 1960s the area was in steep decline and it took until the 2000s to see urban renewal initiatives begin the long transformation of the area into the vibrant, diverse, cultural neighbourhood it has become today.

Image of the new distillery in Bushwick - Image Empirical Instagram

Empirical isn’t entirely new to the U.S. market and have developed product in Northern California and Wisconsin, and the brand wants to create production facilities closer to consumer markets and suppliers, to reduce its carbon footprint and to open up opportunities for new foraging and flavour combinations.


The Copenhagen distillery began wrapping up operations at the end of June 2023 and both the R&D facility and tasting room are moving into a new location in Copenhagen.


The Visitor Centre design

The brand's Copenhagen base was housed in an inconspicuous warehouse. You caught a glimpse through the multipaned factory windows, of the production and tasting facility hidden behind the corrugated metal and concrete façade.

exterior of the Empirical distillery in Copenhagen at night showing the old warehouse with large multipaned windows under which is brick and concrete walls. The double entrance doors are made of rusted corten steel with a small window to the right giving a glimpse inside to the lit up tasting room and guests. There are industrial lights on the walls outside that light up a picnic bench and rough concrete and stone driveways. The sign above the door is white with black letters spelling Empirical and lit from within.
Exterior shot of Empirical Spirits in Copenhagen at night, showing 4 large multipaned industrial windows with the barrels in storage behind them on racks. Also shows rough concrete paths to front and industrial wall lights
night shot of exterior of Empirical Spirits in Copenhagen, showing Empirical name in black letters on a glowing white sign abovesome glass bifold doors behind which are a table and set of chairs for workers and some distilling equipment

Keeping it local, the brand called upon design firms Studio Pneuma and Design Studies, for their tasting room design.

Tasting room interior of Empirical Spirits in Copenhagen. Theroom is flanked by 3 walls, one in glass which offers views onto stainless steel distilling equipment, a back wall in black tile with 4 wooden storage units underneath and a wine fridge, and a third wall on the right which has floor to ceiling shelving in wood with a random collection of items collected from the staff's travels plus products they sell. In the centre is a narrow bar height tasting table in black wood and several black wood seats

Bespoke furniture in Douglas fir, alludes to the koji fermentation room at the heart of the production facility. The wood is either blackened, in a Yakasugi style and used as seating or the tasting table, or left bare as in the shelving. Each cubbyhole holds a plethora of inspirational items, collected over years of travel. It is akin to a cabinet of curiosities.

The tasting room at Empirical in Copenhagen showing one wall opposite the tasting table in black wood, that has a wall full of floor to ceiling wooden shelving in pale wood. In each box section there is a random collection of ephemera that inspires the staff
one section of the random contents in the wall shelving area of the tasting room of Empirical Spirits in Copenhagen. Some of the random items are a n agave glass, a glass jar of what looks like green pickled something, a glass jar of amber liquid labelled Wild Vermouth, some coconut shells and a plaster mold of something that looks like a wall carving from a temple
one of the shelf contents in the tasting room of Empirical in Copenhagen, showing a wooden card library box with handle, 4 wooden bowls containing various seeds and foraged items, a Japanese navy blue cloth with white writing on it in Japanese, a book titled The Mix of Oaxaca on religion, ritual and healing

The cups they use for the tastings are handmade ceramic cups, each with a different texture, weight and colour.

another shelf in Empirical in Copenhagen, showing an artwork of Elon Musk as a Chinese dictator, several small drinking vessels in various materials such as bone, stone and clay, 2 silver cocktail glasses and a polaroid camera and several signed cards and photos

And every good distillery needs a distillery dog.

black dog sitting in a blue ikea bag in the shelves of Empirical distillery in Copenhagen

The Tour

We were welcomed by Kate, our guide for the afternoon, plus the friendly distillery dog. The brand limited tours to around 12 people and kept everything reasonably informal.

Denmark's national football team was playing in the World Cup the day we visited, so the city was quiet, with most people huddled in front of their TV screens or in bars showing the match. Just four of us headed to Empirical, us and an American couple. What a treat was in store.

a man and woman drinking pink cocktails with ice in the tasting room at Empirical in Copenhagen. They sit at the black wood tasting table with several drinking vessels in front of them made of various materials such as wood and bone.

The pink cocktail, served prior to the tour, was a great welcome drink. We think it was The Plum Paloma (recipe online) which mixes Mezcal, Grapefruit Soda and Empirical's The Plum, I Suppose, which has notes of marzipan and for me, Bakewell Tart, which I make at home with plum or damson jam from the fruit trees in my garden. I described this to Kate, who told us it was inspired by a dessert Lars once had, so maybe he's partial to a bit of Bakewell too. Either way, it was delicious. The music was playing and the vibe was so relaxing that we forgot to be professional and make copious notes, so I will have to rely on whatever memories were made on the day.

Kate explained the process of how they make their base spirit, which is similar to the Sake production process, using Koji. Sake is made with rice that has been polished or milled down then cooked and inoculated with a fermentation culture, Aspergillus oryzae. The resulting mixture is then placed in a warm and humid place for many hours, often in wooden trays called koji buta in Japanese. It is here that the Aspergillus feeds on the rice, using enzymes that break down carbohydrates and proteins into amino acids, fatty acids and simple sugars. It is a process used to create umami flavours, not just in sake, but also in soya sauce, miso and mirin. The more polished the rice, the cleaner and more refined the end product will be, but getting the ratio right is a craft.

However, Empirical does not use rice, but barley, polished to 60%, the grains of which Kate showed us and got us to taste.


Junk yard finds were used to create the machinery here, such as a 60 year old Danish butter churner that cooks the grains as it spins. After cooking, the grain is put into the koji room, which is extremely warm and humid.

In Japan, the room would be made from cedar, but Empirical have used local Douglas Fir. The koji spores they use are from a 20th-generation Koji master in Japan.

The koji is grown on the perforated stainless steel koji table and in steel boxes. Glutamate is what they are looking for, the umami flavour that made the smell here intoxicating.

There are special machines to separate the koji from the wash, as Koji is very sticky. The sludge is a by-product and they are experimenting with making this into sauces and even packaging, and some of it goes to local chicken farmers.

The yeast they use is usually a Belgian Saison II Ale Yeast, which is genetically similar to wild yeast. We move on to distillation.

To the base, macerated botanicals and foraged ingredients are added, anything from chillies, chicken skins, fruits, herbs to oyster shells and more. Everything is distilled for a second and final time. The pressure cookers run at 15 degrees usually to preserve the botanicals. The foraged ingredients are often so precious that the last thing the brand wants is to cook out the flavours at higher temperatures, hence why distilling at such a low temperature is beneficial, as it preserves the delicate flavours.

Rather than adding water, Empirical reduces their ABV using things like kombucha, made with as much care as the spirit itself.

The lab looks chaotic but shows the ideas that are percolating at any one time.

There is product and ingredients everywhere.

The final stop was the canning line, which cans just 3 cans at a time.


The Tasting

We headed back to the Tasting Room, just as a renowned local chef happened to pop in and join us, bringing a massive bone for the dog. This is how informal things are here.

First, we tried the koji base and the koji mould. The mould was dry and tasted malty almost, a bit like a Twiglet (UK wheat based snack with a speckled yeast extract coating).

The next tasting was The Plum I suppose. No one in the brand likes sugar and they don't add sugar to their products. We have plums and damsons in our garden and wish we could turn them into this spirit. It was delicious.

Kate made us a cocktail, a Plumtini, using The Plum I Suppose with added vermouth from foraged pine shoots, and a little bit of orange bitters. Also delicious.

The next spirit we tasted was their Fallen Pony Quince Tea Spirit, not available on the brand website but through other retailers. This is a very easy-drinking, double-fermented spirit made from a base of quince, barley koji, Belgian Saison yeast and pilsner malt wash. The spent material is fermented into a quince tea kombucha, vacuum distilled and then used to rectify the final product to 35% ABV. It brought out a nostalgic conversation about inexpensive candy from our childhoods, both in the States and the UK. I was not allowed candy when I was young, so it brought back memories of my grandparents having Turkish Delight for Christmas, with a whiff of rose water and dark chocolate. My husband, who spent his formative years in every sweet shop in his home town, went straight for Hubba Bubba bubble-gum. It was fabulous.

Symphony 6 was next, named after Beethoven's sixth symphony, made with 6 leaves. Kate brought out some of the ingredients for us to touch and smell, fig leaves, blackcurrant buds, two kinds of coffee leaves, mandarin and lemon leaves. It also contains Vetiver, a grass that produces a calming and cooling scent, Ambrette Seeds that produce a musky flavour, Citric Acid, and Carmine for colour. It was powerful stuff, much more complicated, which gave us a tingle on the tongue on the finish. None of us could pinpoint a flavour memory, though there was a warmth and a bite like a whisky.

Then Kate went rogue and served us a spirit that she had made herself. It was super strong and we initially found a nutty, corn flavour, that we all enjoyed and tried to place. Turns out it was made using 2 bags of non-macerated Doritos. Told you they were experimental.

Another off-menu bottle was opened and we were treated to another spirit, Proust's Madeleine, made with a base spirit that used Danish Purple wheat rather than koji. It is actually Plum I Suppose but aged in Moscato casks (a fortified wine similar to Moscatel sherry), only available in the tasting room and created by head distiller Freddie Talbot-Ponsonby. It was sensational. There were 2 bottles on the shelf and each couple made the amicable decision to buy a bottle each. A quick shake and we got another cocktail made from this exceptional spirit.

The next spirit we sampled was Ayuuk, a spirit made from specific chillies Lars found at one market in Mexico.

The Pasilla Mixe chillies they use are from just two communities in the mountainsides of Oaxaca and Empirical now has a relationship with the farmers themselves to make the spirit as sustainable and ethical as possible. We got a couple of spoons to taste the spirit and then the new sauce that is made from the leftover chillies of the spirit-making process. Their Pasilla Sauce sees these chillies strained and fermented with the koji and Danish beetroot. It would be amazing on grilled cheese.

Then we got to taste the Ayuuk in an Ayuuk Margarita with a salt and black lime rim, garnished with worms from Kate's own collection. That sums up Empirical...people who have their own worm collection!

The drinks were coming thick and fast and all were outstanding. We tasted Soka, made from fermented fresh Wisconsin sorghum juice and syrup. Next up was a smoked juniper spirit, Charlene McGee, now sold out at the distillery but available online with other retailers. It reminded us of gin, has a base of Danish Purple wheat and is aged for 5 days in ex-sherry casks. It was another stunner and we started to reminisce about smores around a smoky campfire, while sitting on a tartan picnic blanket in the Highlands, listening to acoustic guitar riffs. These spirits certainly triggered memories.

We tasted the cans too, just as two people arrived in the tasting room for a drink, welcomed as if old friends, and the conversation and drinking continued.

The ambience was super chilled, the company interesting and the conversation flowing. Hours were passing and we never thought to look at the time. We set the world to rights on a multitude of topics, from sharing platters, marmite, marriage and the Danish language and the cocktails kept on coming.

Bottles were opened, tasting vessels filled and counters overflowed with random experiments. Good job we had nothing else planned that day.


In conclusion

Though flavour is the lasting impression the brand wants you to leave with, it is a different memory that we have of our visit. The drinks were experimental and original.

The flavours were exciting and unique. Each blend is a mixologist's dream but now more people outside the hospitality world are seeking new flavours and experiences, with a keen eye on provenance.

The abiding memory we have of our visit, however, is of the experience, the vibe, the craft and most of all, the people.

Kate knows her stuff and her delivery is open and authentic. This is a visitor experience that relies on product and people and does not lean on millions spent on audio-visual effects and fancy furnishings. You are given time, space and as much information as you want. The relaxed vibe was infectious and we left after multiple hours of laughter and conversation.

The immersion here is subtle and warm, more like a hug from a long-lost friend. It is when surrounded by friends that we relax, tell our stories and make those connections. It is this that Empirical did so seamlessly.

It can be summed up by what happened the next day. Our hangovers were real, but on a trip round a deserted Carlsberg Byen district, we ran into the American couple from our tour, and greeted each other as if we were the oldest friends. Empirical want to make flavour memories, but for us, they do much more than that, they make indelible connections that are the backbone of the best practice in brand advocacy.

Empirical create their own path and are forging ahead into new territories. We will miss them from Copenhagen and will have to wait to visit them in their new Brooklyn home.



How long was the visit?

We were there for 5 hours, though the tour portion lasted just over 90 minutes. The drinks were flowing and the tasting room was fun, so we stayed a long time chatting with other guests. You could also select their Cocktail Experience add-on, which we did, which gave us an extra 3 distinct Empirical cocktails after the tour.


How much are the tickets?

We paid for our own tickets and this was not part of any advertising. There are no tour tickets now that the tasting room is closed.


Opening times

Sadly, the tours and tastings have ended at the Copenhagen site of Empirical. We await details of the new Tasting Rooms that are to open in Copenhagen and Brooklyn.


Guided visits used to take place every Thursday-Sunday at set times.

The Tasting Room used to welcome walk-ins and was open Thursday-Friday: 2pm-7pm, Saturday: 12pm-7pm and Sunday: 12pm-5pm


Website: Empirical

 

Where we stayed:

I always stay at the same hotel when in Copenhagen, the Radisson Blu Scandinavia Hotel, Copenhagen.

It's never been the coolest kid on the block, but I've stayed in it so many times that it's like coming home, and the bonus is you can see it from so far away that it's hard to get lost. I always ask for a high floor and a quiet room, and you're gifted with superb views across the city, even on the bleakest of Danish days. Thankfully they have started room refurbishments and we've been lucky enough to stay in one of their new rooms, which is a huge improvement. They will hopefully tackle the bar and reception area next. The hotel has bikes you can hire, which I've used before to explore the city. You need to be prepared to ride like a local, obey the rules, and keep up, but you'll be rewarded with safe travel that puts a smile on your face. It's a 300-metre walk to Islands Brygge metro station, which is so handy, especially as Copenhagen has expanded its fabulous metro network. Or you can just hop on the bus, as the 5C stops outside the hotel and connects you with their terrific bus network.


Getting here:

We are really lucky to have direct flights from Edinburgh Airport to Copenhagen, but we often fly KLM via Amsterdam, as we are Platinum members and use the airline for many of our travels. Depending on the time of year though, we can't always resist a bargain flight from Easyjet or Ryanair. For this trip, my return direct flight with Ryanair cost me just £33.


Empirical was based at Refshalevej 175B, 1432 København K. Depending where you are staying in Copenhagen you had several ways to get to the distillery. We used a City Pass on the DOT app to get there on public transport. There is a bus, the 2A, that drops you near enough outside the door, or you could get a waterbus (992) that stops at Refshaleøen pier.


What else is there to see close by:


Copenhagen is a terrific city to visit with activities for all. I can recommend a few below, though I am not paid to advertise any of them. If you want more ideas then please check out my previous post on the Magasin Du Nord Museum.


We visited in late November when the Christmas markets were on. Here are just a few things you could try at that time of year to get you in the festive spirit.


Remember that most of Copenhagen is closed on a Monday, which drives me mad sometimes. Many things are also closed on a Sunday too, as the locals are either in church or having family time.


Tivoli Gardens has a wonderful Christmas market, usually open from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. every day, even Mondays. You pay to get in and this can be done online, and rides are extra. You can buy ride tickets in the machines by the rides themselves using your card or tap and go with a bank card with the person manning the ride after you’ve queued.

Tip: Go as soon as it gets dark on a dry night to find it quieter and to get better photos.

You can even queue up to meet Santa, which I have done. Age is no barrier to the Christmas spirit, though he was utterly confused by my accent and I by his. Re-entry is via the exit through the Tivoli Food Hall (open same hours as the park) where it is possible to obtain a re-entry stamp from the Tivoli staff. It is quite a romantic spot, and you don't have to ride anything to enjoy the scenery and stalls.


Hotel d'Angleterre is a 5 star hotel at Kongens Nytorv and one of the oldest hotels in the world with a 250 year history. It was well known for its themed Christmas decorations on its façade, though in recent years they have been a bit more muted. One year the whole frontage looked like an advent calendar. I usually go there for an old-fashioned, though you might have to wait in the lobby to be seated as the bar is tiny. There is a rather nice hotel shop downstairs too. Address: Kongens Nytorv 34, København


Magasin du Nord, one of my favourite places in the city has its own entrance at Kongens Nytorv metro station. It is a beautiful building and lit up for Christmas.

They even wrap your gifts for free from Dec 1 – 23rd though you can use their free wrapping service in the food hall. Their advent calendars are amazing and extremely popular. They have a lovely home décor floor with a small section dedicated to each of the Danish design stores in the City, so it can be like a one-stop shop. They even have Black Friday sales, which were on when I visited, for a little extra saving on those holiday purchases.


Royal Copenhagen is a beautiful store any time of year, but at Christmas, the store is famous for its Christmas Tables event. The event has run for 60 years and Royal Copenhagen invite usually six creative personalities to design a themed Christmas table.

The exhibition is free and on the 2nd floor from the end of November until 31st December. Address: Royal Copenhagen Flagship Store, Amagertorv 6, København

A few steps along from Royal Copenhagen is Illums Bolighus, another department store that has lovely Christmas window displays and a vast collection of festive and Danish gifts. Address: Amagertorv 10, 1160 København


Right near Tivoli is Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, a great way to waste an afternoon, whatever the time of year. It has a great café, a glass roofed winter garden and some lovely sculptures and some amazing floor tile patterns, if you are into that kind of thing like I am. It is an Instagram dream. Address: Dantes Plads 7, 1556 København


There is so much more to do and I encourage everyone to visit the city if they can.


Visited: November 2022

Photographs: ©Julie White unless noted otherwise


Disclaimer - The views and opinions expressed are solely my own. I paid for the tours in full and any comments reflect my personal experiences on that day. Please drink responsibly. Please visit and garner your own thoughts and feel free to research the brand and the visitor centre in question.



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