When Noma alumni Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen teamed up to create Empirical Spirits in 2017 - and develop disruptive hard liquors in a small factory in Copenhagen's Refshaleøen region - they seemed to go against the grain of what many chefs dreamed at that time. Swapping a creative kitchen in a world-class restaurant for creating spirits that didn't even fit market categories seemed bold at first. But it proved to be a trend that has been gaining traction in the gastronomy world, with other chefs following the same path.
Using ingredients they had tasted on their travels, the duo created a kind of laboratory of "liquid ideas”. Here, with custom-built machinery, they created unique spirits using hybrid fermentation techniques and low-temperature distillation processes. Among other concoctions, they came up with a Habanero spirit made from a barley koji and malted barley base, and another one made with the kernel inside plum stones mixed with marigold kombucha.
According to their website, Empirical is a "newfound approach in bringing together our past and our experiences into something new.” In one of their first experiments, Williams recalls that they used unconventional botanicals to make a kind of gin. "When I introduced it to some people, many said: 'you can't call it a gin, you haven't purified it and, you know, there's no juniper in it.’ I realised we didn't need to be in a category. And that was actually like a huge release for us. It changed our approach,” he says. Since then, he has allowed himself to think more creatively, without following the precepts of the beverage industry. Or, as he says, "with a chef's mind.”
"I always think from a chef's perspective when I am working creatively. For example, when I tap into the Amazon and chase different ingredients, I want to bring back that place's feeling. It's not about rescuing the memory itself but trying to express it, to use it as an inspiration. And this idea is something usually more related to a chef's world than to the drinks category,” he explains. More than a creative skill, for him, it isn't easy to let go of the chef-auteur framework.
Perhaps this has led a number of brands — from breweries to wineries — to call on chefs to form partnerships in some beverage developments. Since acclaimed cooks like Ferran Adrià helped create the first signature drinks in the market (in his case, a beer made with Estrella Damm using malted barley and wheat), the world of drinks has started to yearn for cooks as creative partners. From Massimo Bottura to Ángel León, chefs have historically flirted with the beverage industry.
But now there is a new generation of cooks who, like Williams, have decided to go further. They are leaving the kitchens where they pushed boundaries in food, to devote themselves to liquids that will be paired with the dishes they helped create. “I'm very excited for more chefs to try to innovate in the drinks scenario. That's fun, because I think coming from the kitchen's knowhow to drinks gives you a very different perspective of things,” says Williams.
After 20 years at Mugaritz, mainly dedicated to the research and development of chef Andoni Luis Aduriz’ groundbreaking cuisine, Dani Lasa decided to take a new path away from high-end kitchens. The apple of his eye has been Ama, the brewery he founded in the Basque Country with two partners (Mugaritz creative chef Ramon Perisé and winemaker Sancho Rodriguez). Together they develop lightly-sparkling, low-alcohol “pét-nat teas”, as they call their drinks. They mix the winemaking méthode ancestral (an ancient and artisanal process in which the beverage is bottled prior to fully completing its first fermentation) with kombucha (using starters to ferment).
Using local spring water and high-quality tea, flowers and herbs (like lemongrass and rose petals) from countries such as China and Japan, their products appeal to “modern consumers who want to be dazzled by new beverages”. They believe the future of drink pairings in restaurants will challenge the status quo, with a growing demand for low or non-alcoholic alternatives.
“A lot has changed in the world of beverages, and people want to move forward from wines in their meals,” Lasa explains. The increased interest in cocktails, beers and, more recently, natural wines has also created a new generation of more adventurous drinkers, who are willing to try new products. “This field allows us to innovate a lot. I feel like working on another plan, and using a more popular platform to claim my beliefs in gastronomy,” says Lasa about the possibility of making his work reach a broader audience more democratically.
Since they started experimenting with fermentation in Mugaritz's kitchen in 2011, Lasa and Perisé have been thrilled by the possibilities of creating distinctive and innovative fermented drinks and kombuchas. “There is still a lot to discover with regards to the fermentation processes, and beverages are a great way to challenge ourselves,” he says.
So far, they have created just over a dozen ‘recipes’ (among them, a kombucha using organic lemongrass from a nature reserve in Sri Lanka, and another with sencha tea from Shizuoka), all made in small batches (around 200 bottles), which they produce following strict quality controls. "It is a live beverage, and each one is different from the other. Smaller batches allow us to control all processes and ensure the results we want to produce,” he adds.
Ama bottles, already sold in cities like Milan, Copenhagen, Paris and Malmo, are designed to resemble wine, alluding to its qualities as a table beverage. "It's a new product category and we've had a lot of acceptance," Lasa says.
He also believes there's a lot of innovation to come in the beverage industry, and that chefs can help bring a new approach to it, using their kitchen backgrounds. Or, as Lars Williams says: "I feel like we're just beginning to scratch the surface of what's possible. More chefs in this market can indicate a new burst of fresh air for exciting changes yet to come. I'm looking forward to it.”