The weird, long-lasting alcohol of the future tastes… good?

When Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen founded the Danish microdistillery Empirical minds four years ago they weren’t really sure what they were up to. For weeks, the two – veterans of the very odd restaurant Noma, where Williams was leading research and development and Hermansen was the “concept manager” – thought they were making a gin. It was clear and full of herbal and botanical flavors. But there was no juniper in it. And somebody in the industry said, ‘You can’t call it a gin,’ Williams says. So: no gin.

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

Today, Empirical makes half a dozen spirits, and only one of them matches the dozen classic categories you would see on signs above the aisles of a BevMo. Their most recent, Ehime, is definitely bourbon-like – brown, made from grain, barrel-aged. (It is also partially fermented with koji, the fungus that makes sake.) This alcohol is sui generis, made from substrates as varied as plum kernels, pasilla Mixe peppers and kombucha, distilled not in a steampunk copper pot but in a vacuum still plucked from a chemical laboratory. The company also started selling canned carbonated and alcoholic drinks which I guess fall under the modern category of “hard seltzer” except where White Claw might offer, for example, mango, empirical flavor combinations like oolong tea, gooseberry and walnut wood.

It’s weird, yeah, but maybe the strangest thing about all this atypical, unclassifiable alcohol is how normal it is. Spirits are experiencing a kind of biotechnical revolution, an application of new methods and a rediscovery of old ones, applied to classic and unknown ingredients. The result is shelves full of products aimed at a more diverse clientele and looking for something new. And these products also (as a bonus!) Support sustainability in the face of climate change. The future of alcohol consumption may be here, just unevenly distributed across rarefied and high-end liquor bars and stores.

That future may seem bleak, but it has yet to undo the theatrical side of Williams and Hermansen, likely born out of their work at Noma during the peak years of the molecular gastronomy movement. “Flavor has such a poor vernacular, and we have few words to talk about it,” Williams says. “So I fall back on literature. You have peaks and moments of crisis and moments of joy to create a compelling narrative. We want people to go on a trip. Professional tasters often (sometimes arrogantly) talk about the nose, taste, mouthfeel and finish of a drink. So Williams is right. These things happen sequentially and add to an experience, much like chapters in a book or acts in a movie. And this sensory experience will be different because it rests in the glass… and sometimes after a long stay in the bottle, even if it is a little less favored because it is more difficult for the manufacturers to control.

Distillation as a process has a similar temporality. Spirits makers start with a substrate – fruit or grain, in general. They want to ferment it, which means letting the yeast eat the sugars inside to convert them into alcohol. But yeasts don’t eat all types of sugar; in the grains, they are enclosed behind a layer of protein and embedded in polymers called starches, which are inedible for the yeast. Malting is a way of turning these starches into sugar, by first letting the grain germinate a bit. Turn it into a sweet liquid and you can run it through a still, usually a large copper pot or tall column that uses heat to separate the lighter molecules from the heavier ones. Frankly, the alcohols evaporate first and leave the water behind, taking all kinds of other tasty, alcohol-soluble chemicals with them on top of the still. Sometimes you can also put what comes out of the still into a wooden barrel to oxidize it and acquire some of the flavors of the wood as well. (Ironically, the chemistry of aging has a long story.)

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