For Spirits Innovator Empirical, Curiosity and Flavor Act as Their ‘North Star’

Headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark, Empirical is a flavor-focused spirits company that was co-founded in 2017 by Lars Williams, a chef and distiller, and Mark Emil Hermansen, the company’s CEO and an Oxford-trained social anthropologist.

The two deep-thinking visionaries are alums of the world-acclaimed Noma restaurant from Chef René Redzepi, as well as Redzepi’s Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen. Both Williams and Hermansen are inspired by the role flavor plays in their ability to create and transport experiences, and their business is revolutionizing spirits with its unprecedented approach.

In June, Empirical unveiled its latest distillate, SOKA, one of the first spirits distilled in the United States from American sorghum cane juice and syrup, and it’s already being embraced by the vanguard of the craft cocktail world.

According to Hermansen, the possibilities with SOKA are endless, just like sorghum.

Empirical - SOKA
  (Photo: Courtesy of Empirical)

“With SOKA, we are looking back to go forward,” said Hermansen. “We work with a small-scale farmer in Kentucky for sorghum syrup. And then with another one in Wisconsin who improvised a way to harvest and press the cane while still in the sorghum fields. We have the juice in our fermentation tanks in about an hour, so we are able to capture all of the fresh notes.”

Hermansen said that to preserve the esters and silage undertones, SOKA is vacuum distilled from the fermentations of the freshly pressed juice and sorghum cane syrup, each bringing its own unique terroir. “The juice is ebullient with very green, springy flavors of melon, cucumber and green apple, while the syrup contributes darker aromas of fall, notably hay and toasted honey notes," he said. "Thai Rice Chong Yeast used during fermentation accentuates the fruity notes of the spirit. Secondary fermentations contribute notes of fermented grass and a touch of brininess, bridging the two distillates.”

Other than the new SOKA, Empirical’s core spirit expressions are Ayuuk and The Plum, I Suppose.

“The smoky Pasilla Mixe chili is the sole botanical and the source of all the complexity in Ayuuk,” explained Hermansen. “We source it directly from Mixe farmers in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. The chili lends earthy, smokey and yet fruity notes to the spirit. After distillation the best fractions are rested in a sherry Oloroso cask, allowing the flavors to infuse and mature with each other, giving a smooth, distinct and savory finish.”

For Empirical’s "The Plum, I Suppose," the kernel inside plum stones became the foundation of the spirit. “Rather than tasting of stone fruit, the kernel lends a marzipan, bitter almond flavor,” said Hermansen. “Distilled marigold kombucha brings another side of floral and tannic notes reminiscent of plum skins. 'The Plum, I Suppose,' brings forth a perception of sweetness with a refreshing finish.”

Empirical also has three ready-to-drink canned expressions – CAN 01 (with oolong tea, toasted birch and green gooseberry), CAN 02 (with sour cherry, black currant buds, young pine cones and walnut wood), and CAN 03 (with carob, fig leaf and lemon myrtle).

Empirical - Mark Emil Hermansen
Mark Emil Hermansen
  (Photo: Courtesy of Empirical)

Not Paying Attention to Conventional Categories

After dedicating years of their career in kitchens, creating innovative dishes, Hermansen and Williams were looking at sharing that hard work, creative expression and flavor in a more democratic way with a much larger, global audience – thus, Empirical was born.

Today, Empirical is writing its own playbook – one distillation, one spirit and one flavor at a time. They’re doing things their own way – including focusing on flavor first, having custom-built machinery, developing hybrid fermentation techniques, augmenting low-temperature distillation, and traveling the globe to source the highest quality ingredients.

For Hermansen and his business partner, Williams, taking a flavor-first approach means that Empirical never pays attention to conventional spirit categories. The result, they said, is something that is democratic, shareable and driven by the journey of creating unique and unexpected flavors.

“With the idea of connecting people through flavor and sense memories, spirits were a logical starting point to capture and preserve all of these delicate compounds that make up taste, aroma and ultimately experiences,” shared Hermansen.

Empirical - Lars Williams
Lars Williams
  (Photo: Courtesy of Empirical)

Shaking Things Up, Respecting Traditional Makers

At Empirical, Hermansen said they’ve always had a clear vision of what we wanted to do. The question was, did the equipment they needed exist? Were people ready for what they wanted to create? 

Working together at the Nordic Food Lab together, where they first met, Hermansen and Williams were constantly having conversations about food and culture, the endless overlap, and permutations of the two and their consequences. Later on, the two innovators gave a joint lecture at a culinary conference about “The Delineation Between Edible and Inedible Is Deliciousness,” a mindset they brought to their spirits company.

“We have great respect and love for the traditional way of doing things, but the way our brains are wired, it always led us to figure out ways to make it our own,” revealed Hermansen. “Rules are meant to be broken because they’re often inane. When we realized our spirits literally could not fit into any existing category it was very liberating. Virtually anything can be used as a ‘botanical’ or ingredient, and the only way to find out is to try it.”

Hermansen said they like to joke that 99 percent of what they do at Empirical is failure. “We learn from each trial and find ways to make it work,” he said.

And they "make it work" with an internationally diverse pool of talent at the company. Among the 37 employees at Empirical, 15 nations are represented, including Denmark, U.K., United States, Brazil, Ireland, Japan, Hungary, France, Germany, Argentina, Mexico, Turkey, Ukraine, Australia and Singapore.

“We’re also lucky to have an international team coming from various backgrounds constantly questioning the status quo,” said Hermansen, whose company is a magnet for global innovators and creators.

Hermansen noted that one of the most exciting things they’ve done is a limited edition of a katsuobushi spirit, in which they collaborated with longtime friend Yusuke of Kaneshichi. “The spirit showcased the subtle umami and savory nuances of katsuobushi with a dry full-bodied finish,” he said.

Empirical - Mark Emil Hermansen - Lars Williams
Mark Emil Hermansen and Lars Williams
  (Photo: Courtesy of Empirical)

Overall, Empirical knows where it's headed. “We have a very clear idea about what we want to do and how we want to do it,” concluded Hermansen. “And a strong intention to shake things up a bit.”

Yet, while Empirical has a strong intent to break the mold or barriers, they also have a huge respect for the traditional makers, including whisky, mezcal, natural producers and brewers; however, Hermansen said he believes there are so many avenues to explore beyond the pre-established categories.

“We all need to be open to asking questions,” Hermansen explained. “Especially the why. Are you doing something just because that’s the way someone did it before you? Or is it actually the best way that you can do it? When you start exploring flavor, the guiding principle is that it must be delicious; everything else is and should be fair game.”

‘There Is No Wrong Way to Enjoy It’

What do on-premise beverage directors need to know about Empirical’s new SOKA? Why should they be inspired by the new spirit?

Hermansen said SOKA showcases the incredible versatility of the often underutilized and eco-positive sorghum cane, which is worth noting. “Just as with this crop, the possibilities are endless when it comes to enjoying it,” he shared. “There are countless ways to unlock and highlight its delicate green layers. Whether you choose to sip it neat or simply with a tonic, in a riff on a martini or a mojito, there is no wrong way of enjoying it.”

Empirical - The Plum I Suppose
The Plum, I Suppose
  (Photo: Courtesy of Empirical)

For on-premise buyers in New York, California, Florida and New Jersey that want to offer SOKA (750 ml a bottle and 43 percent ABV), or Empirical’s other spirits, they can order through Park Street. In Colorado, they can go through Yes Wines, and in Massachusetts, they can purchase through Horizon Beverage. For all other states, buyers can go through Empirical’s online shop.

In the Fall, Empirical will launch several limited editions. Beyond that? “…curiosity and flavor is our North Star,” said Hermansen.

To learn more about Empirical, visit

Aaron Kiel, based in Raleigh, N.C., has worked in the beverage, tea and coffee industries for nearly two decades. He’s a journalist and writer at heart, but he also wears a PR hat through his consultancy, ak PR Group. He works as an editor with Questex’s Bar & Restaurant Group, including editor of World Tea News, and he’s served the tea community through Questex’s World Tea Conference + Expo (co-located with Bar & Restaurant Expo) since 2010. Contact him here.

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