I guess of one the best traits of being a bartender is how versatile our jobs can be and where they can take us. One of the most recent ventures for me personally, after winning Funkin Innovation Championship 2017, was travelling to Copenhagen and spending 2 weeks there training at the Empirical Spirits distillery established by the former head of research and development of NOMA.
They are well known for creating a new spirit category called “freeform” which in its own sense adds no restrictions or regulations towards what they produce - they distill kombucha and use it to rectify spirits for instance; and overall the emphasis is on the flavour of the drink only.
At Empirical Spirits, in their own words, they investigate flavour, traditions, technologies, and techniques from across the globe. There is no “neutral grain spirits” at Empirical — from milling, to brewing, fermenting and distilling, they take full control of their product in order to extract and enhance flavour at every step of the process. The distillery uses a custom built vacuum still for distilling their spirits which allows them to do so under a lover temperature — around 15C (as opposed to 80C under atmospheric pressure) which allows them to capture the more floral notes and volatiles that the yeast produce durifermentation and ‘fresh’ or earthy flavours of seasonal botanicals and barley.
Empirical Spirits uses barley koji, replacing the traditional germination process with the inoculation of the Aspergillus Oryzae fungi onto the pearl barley which, as a result, produces the enzymes required for the breakdown of the starches into sugars. Koji is a traditional Far Eastern fermentation method used for, amongst other things, sake, shoyu, miso and amazake production. For the healthy koji to form, the right environment needs to be created. With 60% humidity and the temperature of around 33C, the koji room looks and feels much like a sauna. Barley koji forms into large dry lumps, covered in light and “healthy looking” white, fluffy fungus and it tastes, pleasantly sweet, floral and all-round unusual.
On the second week of me being at Empirical Spirits Funkin team organised an Innovation Lab to the local bar community in Manchester, where Ally Kelsey of Crucible presented his research about balancing sugars and acids in mixed drinks and a Michelin-starred chef, Nurdin Topham, cooked some tasty Funkin toastie (you read it well — Funkin PRO Apricot Puree dehydrated leather and cheese toastie!). Luckily, I managed to get a day off at the distillery and on Monday night I flew to Manchester for 1 night to attend the event and present my drinks for it. I thought it would be great to introduce part of the Empirical Spirits portfolio to the attendees, so I created an additional low ABV drink using Charlene McGee smoked juniper expression which holds strong notes of peat on the nose, but gently releases sweet-savoury, smooth and nutty notes on the palate. I mixed it with Funkin Pro Beetroot Shrub, reduced quince kombucha glaze and soda. The quince glaze which is a bi product of Empirical is sweet and abundantly astringent, which is why I did not find it necessary to use any citrus in the drink. The natural sweetness of the beetroot balanced well with acid in the Shrub really complimented the strong smoked juniper in the spirit with light and non-intrusive vegetal note.
Funkin creates purees and syrups based on fresh produce, trying to capture the flavour of the fruit at its peak and bottle it up for us to use, this is why I thought that mixing Funkin with Empirical Spirits was a great idea — both focus on extracting and preserving “real” flavour and maximising the sensory experience of the drinker. I look forward to using Funkin PRO together with other Empirical Spirits expressions for unusual, complex and satisfying cocktails.