In today’s heavily saturated drinks market, it’s no surprise to see Campari finished in bourbon barrels, cider brewed with hops and whisky aged in sherry casks. Such exercises in category crossover may result in new and interesting flavour profiles, and they certainly provide brands with a marketable point of difference amid a sea of new products.
But some spirits producers are taking their experimentation to a new level, cross-breeding techniques and mingling ingredients to the point where their liquids can’t be neatly tucked into a single category at all. Freeform, botanical, hybrid – call them what you will – a new realm of spirits is eschewing categorisation to explore flavour.
At the forefront of this decidedly rebellious movement is Empirical Spirits, a Copenhagen-based distillery helmed by two alumni of the renowned Noma. Co-founder Lars Williams used to head up research and development at the restaurant, and now applies his inventive culinary approach to booze.
‘I didn't really think about making a spirit in a certain category, because for me, flavour always comes first,’ Williams says.
His emphasis on flavour manifests itself in small-batch spirits made from a host of far-flung ingredients in unlikely combinations. Helena is Empirical’s flagship spirit, marrying barley koji with Belgian saison yeast to create a subtle, floral, smooth liquid that clocks in at 40% abv. For the Fallen Pony Blend, a limited-edition bottling, Williams pairs the koji- and saison-fermented barley spirit with distilled quince kombucha, then uses more kombucha to rectify the spirit to 35% abv.
‘I thought, why do you always correct the abv of a spirit with just water? Surely you can add more flavour and complexity to your spirit by using something else,’ he muses. ‘Coming to the spirits industry through the lens of a chef, I have a different outlook and curiosity to try things that perhaps I wouldn't if I'd been distilling for 20 years already. We're really trying to hold onto that curiosity.’
Coming to spirits through the lens of a chef, I have a different curiosity to try things that perhaps I wouldn't if I'd been distilling for 20 years
For Matt Dunn, co-founder of botanical spirit Cadello 88, the inspiration for creating a non-traditional spirit also had its roots in the culinary world. ‘Amazing restaurants have opened in New York and London in the past 15 years, and and it’s also spurred on a lot of innovation in bars. We want to be a part of the innovation that’s taking spirits in a new direction,’ Dunn says.
His desire to go freeform with Cadello was a direct response to the saturation that the gin, whisky and rum markets are currently experiencing.
‘Every traditional category of spirits and liqueurs has been inundated with new brands and variations,' he says. 'Thousands of new gins have come out. I love gin, but we have those already. We don't need anymore.’
Defying categorisation ended up playing a role in every aspect of Cadello’s production. The finished spirit contains eight botanicals, including tea – Dunn says the tannins provide structure – and is aged in French oak barrels for ‘a completely unique flavour profile’.
‘To our mind, there's no point in creating a variation of an existing category,’ he remarks. ‘There are plenty of other people doing that.’
New make made newer
Of course, not all botanical spirits stem from resistance to categorisation. In the world of whisky, some producers are recognising the potential for creativity and experimentation while they wait for the traditional spirit to age.
Annabel Thomas, founder of the Ncn’ean organic whisky distillery, is one of those. Ncn'ean began distilling in March 2017. And while many whisky makers choose to use their new make to create an accessible gin, she redistils hers with botanicals such as grapefruit, bog myrtle, heather and coriander to produce the botanical spirit Ncn’ean – and she’s careful to ensure that the character of the young whisky spirit still shines through.
‘We knew we didn't want to make a gin [with the unaged spirit]. I haven't got anything to say about gin,’ Thomas says. ‘We're all about making whisky and it's what I set out to do, so we thought, why don't we have a play around with the new make and the botanicals and see what happens.’
Her decision to take the less traditional path with the unaged spirit has led to even more experimentation in her distillery.
‘[Besides making the botanical spirit] we run yeast experiments where we get in loads of different yeasts that, instead of being designed for whisky, are designed for rum, tequila, red wine or white wine, or champagne. We chuck them in, and they surprisingly do have the flavour characteristics of those drinks.
‘We might even look into maturing the botanical spirit, putting it into casks like we would a whisky and seeing what happens.’
We shall overcome
With this new wave of freeform and botanical spirits producers fostering more innovation than a beanbag-laden Silicon Valley office, you wouldn’t be blamed for wondering why we don’t just do away with categories altogether.
There are many reasons, but the one most pertinent to freeform spirits is this: the freedom to experiment comes at a price. Without that super-sellable label of ‘gin’ or ‘vodka’ slapped on the bottle, consumer confusion begins to take hold.
‘It's easy to say “I’m selling a gin”,’ Dunn explains. ‘You know what it is, you have an idea of the botanicals and the flavour profile. It takes one or two sentences to explain. It's very different from Cadello. It’s more work to tell the story.’
Empirical’s Williams echoes this sentiment. ‘A big part of what we’re trying to do now is figure out a way to share the knowledge and methodology of how we’re approaching spirits, and have people be a little more open,’ he says.
One approach Empirical has taken to break down these barriers is to reconsider how its products are distributed.
‘Now we work with a lot of natural wine distributors, as opposed to spirits distributors, because they're not so focused on what a spirit is traditionally accepted as or used as,’ says Williams. ‘They're just thinking about flavour, which is how I would prefer it.’
Unsurprisingly, the on-trade also plays a major role in these producers’ strategies for success.
Both Dunn and Thomas have enlisted bars to develop signature serves with their respective spirits. For the launch of Cadello, Dunn tapped bartenders from around the world to develop no less than 20 cocktails with the liquid ‘to help people conceptualise what it is and how they can enjoy it’.
Meanwhile, Empirical’s expressions have made their way onto the back bars and into the elaborate cocktails of some of the world’s best bars (cough, Dandelyan, cough).
James Goggin, brand advocacy manager at Empirical Spirits’ UK distributor, Maverick Drinks, explains the impact of bartenders on the Empirical brand.
'Always looking to find the most innovative products to add new dynamics to drinks lists, the on-trade is at the forefront of the movement towards craft spirits like Empirical,' he says. 'High-end cocktail bars are looking to push the boundaries of their drinks offering and, in turn, educating consumers on the impressive scope of the spirits category.'
But at the end of the day, Williams is straightforward about how the Empirical products should be used – and it applies to all the spirits in this burgeoning non-category of a category.
‘One of the questions we get a lot is “what do you do with it?”,’ he explains. ‘And I say, “Put it in your mouth”.’