By: Jack Stanley
“We just had to stick to our guns and say this is what we want to do.”
What is the process of creating a menu?
Hermansen: It was never really our goal in itself, I think it was more an inevitable result of what we wanted to do.
Williams: The culmination of our time together at the Nordic Food Lab was at a symposium where we postulated that the division between edible and inedible was deliciousness. I think that’s been a common thread for us in terms of having flavor and deliciousness as a north star or a compass for wherever we wanted to move. If you commit to that and allow it to pull you in a direction that wherever it leads you, you have to shake off the rest of the less-necessary things.
Hermansen: We didn’t even know that we weren’t allowed to be in a category and once we knew that it answered itself. We just had to stick to our guns and say this is what we want to do. To the trade it’s been an interesting conversation to embark on as well, there’s so many rules of what you can’t do, which I think is very unique to spirits that I think it’s seldom that people break out of that by breaking the category. But it’s very limiting; there’s like four, five, six categories.
Williams: But it’s also so arbitrary in a lot of ways. If you’re going to make something from sugarcane in Jamaica it’s called a rum, but if you make it in Brazil it’s called a cachaça. If you’re going to refine it a little bit more it becomes a vodka, no matter what it’s made of.
The first spirit we did we used pine as a botanical and, to me, it was gin-like because it had that resinous flavor profile. But we didn’t purify the spirit to the right amount, so it turned out that we couldn’t call it a gin. Then we made something that was very whisky-like that was made with smoked juniper, so we couldn’t call it a whisky. At that point, we thought f*ck it.
Williams: An idea can come from anywhere. There’s typically three different ways that we try and attack the innovation process in flavor. One can come from encountering a single ingredient and getting really excited about something, try and see where that flavor leads us. It can also be inspiration from a concept, like rum or mezcal and seeing we make that with root vegetables. Or something like a long term investigation. Is there another type of fermentation that doesn’t produce alcohol, or isn’t alcohol focused, that we can use to create complexity in our flavor profile? We use fermentation and the microbio process to create a lot of flavor complexity. Is there other things besides saccharomyces, yeast that we can use to do that same thing, like a kombucha? We’re doing those in-depth, deep researches, which typically don’t yield anything for a very long period of time until you get a major breakthrough and then we can make a big jump. It’s like a moonshot.
Hermansen: For me, what really differentiates us was to say that usually when you make a spirit, you spend a lot of time producing a neutral alcohol or you buy a neutral alcohol and your job is to add flavor to it to make it palatable, or to make it softer, or to make it more colorful. In our sense, we flavor upside down. The job is to build flavor from the grain. Rather than trying to remove those flavors, we do everything we can to pack them in and express those flavors.
Are you both still doing that now?
Why did you settle on spirits as the medium to democratize the experience of eating in a restaurant?
“We end up with a moment or a memory or an impression of a place or a time or an experience.”
Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen met while working at NOMA, the Copenhagen-based restaurant that has become one of the most influential forces in the food world since it was founded in 2003. At NOMA and its affiliated non-profit Nordic Food Lab, Williams served as head of research and development, while Hermansen worked as a project manager and anthropologist. It was there they formed the basis for their alcohol brand Empirical Spirits.
Williams and Hermansen continue the principles and ethos they honed at NOMA into their endeavours with Empirical Spirits, which was founded in 2017. Although they’re working now with alcohol, the pair have kept a focus on unlikely flavor combinations, disruptive approaches and boundary-pushing techniques. The result is a drinks brand based around unconventional tastes — including pasilla mixe chili or plum kernel with marigold — that defies traditional conventions. As the brand says of itself, “Empirical Spirits is a flavor company.”
“The pursuit of flavor and the investigation of flavor is something I’m very passionate about,” explains Williams. “We were trying to find a way to continue that endeavour but still take the learnings from the restaurant world and figure out a way to transport that into a more egalitarian setting, to make it more democratic. How do you take the hard work that people put into creating this perfect theatrical moment in time in a restaurant and make it shareable in a broader sense?”
“The special thing about a restaurant is that perfectly analogous experience where you have to show up at a time and place,” agrees Hermansen. Eventually the pair settled on spirits as their preferred vehicle, partly due to its chemical makeup (and the way it holds flavor), and partly due to its social role. “It was a way to flip that paradigm and transport that out to the world,” Hermansen continues.
What about installations are you both most fascinated by?
Lars Williams: I built a prototype distiller as proof of concept, to see if what I had in my head would work. It’s a pressure cooker that I welded together with a bunch of bits and pieces, we spent the first six months making 10 liters a week maybe. We started playing around, the way that the process has evolved and the machinery has all been very organic. We’ve been figuring out a lot of things as we go. Maybe I have an idea for a flavor profile or a shape and color of how I want something to taste and then I discover there’s no machinery available in the world to process that so we have to invent things. A lot of what we do is a continual invention of different processes and ways of dealing with things. We’ve been very lucky having such a strong team and having people that can come to work every day with fresh eyes on things and a lot of inspiration.
Mark Emil Hermansen: Most of the team come from not an industry background at all. It’s chefs and scientists and people who really want to get their hands dirty. We have a microbiologist who runs the Koji room, but she’s really putting that into practice while improving the process and using her senses to experience the science. To the distillers, who are chefs and actually can taste the final blend.
Williams: Everyone who comes to work here is always trying to tweak and make things better all the time, I think that comes from the way that we fashion this company as R&D at the heart and everything wrapped around that. We’re constantly trying to innovate in terms of flavor but also innovate in terms of how we express ourselves, how we share knowledge, how we share our story, how we set up the stills every day. That’s one of the things that’s been different for us. Every time that we do a batch we’re trying to tweak all the small parameters and make every batch slightly better, we tell our customers it may taste slightly different but it will be an improvement.
What are you both working on right now?
Exploring the otherworldly artworks of the Brooklyn-based painter and sculptor.
By: Jack Stanley
“We want to be the studio that wraps its arms and collaborates with an infinite amount of people to learn — not to take full responsibility.”
The Team Behind Empirical Spirits Is Putting Flavor Front and Center
As Williams and Hermansen continue to expand the Empirical Spirits operation — the latest step is the launch of two pre-mixed can drinks — HYPEBEAST caught up with the pair to discuss the history of the brand and what it means to be a “flavor company” today.
We discourage irresponsible and/or underage drinking.
Drink responsibly and legally.
What is your favorite project you have worked on during your time at PLAYLAB?
Williams: Alcohol has a very unique way of being able to preserve a flavour compound, just because of the way that it can bind to organic compounds. To get a little sciencey, alcohol has a very high amount of hydrogen bonds which are what organic compounds tend to bind to, it’s like velcro for flavor compounds. It can harness a lot, and that’s why they use it as a base for perfumes because it really can capture and preserve scents. So it becomes an ideal medium for preserving and allowing the transportation of a flavor.
The way that we think of flavor is trying to distill a sense memory and capture that. A lot of the spirits we do, even though it’s become an exploration and we let the flavor dictate where it’s going to go, where we end up tends to be a moment or a memory or an impression of a place or a time or an experience. Being able to put that into a bottle and make that shareable is something that we find really compelling. Ultimately, that expression of a sense memory through flavor was the first thing that we were really excited about and, in a lot of ways, producing alcohol is a means to get to that.
Hermansen: I think what works well for us with alcohol is that it brings it down in a way that’s not taking ourselves too seriously; it’s communal, it’s something that’s bound up with a place where you’re very open to an experience. This isn’t a very smashable alcohol and I don’t think that’s something we want to be, that’s not the way we want it to come across. It’s more like a taste or an encounter that alcohol can give you.
Williams: What we’re trying to do is very different than having a gin and tonic on a Friday because you had a tough week. I think a lot of people relate to spirits in that sense as just something to take the edge off. For us, it’s primarily a way to communicate a flavor experience. It’s about conviviality, it’s about sharing something with a group of people you want to be with.
“There are elements of creativity in what I do but it's very process-focused work.”
Sheryo: Not as much as we like to. Now, we’re very busy with studio work and traveling to different locations in Southeast Asia.
Yok: Yeah, we’re busy finding places to do installations. It’s our new thing. We also travel often to learn niche handicrafts. We get stoked about going to places like Indonesia and spend months learning how to do Batik and making other local artisan works.
I was doing reverse painted acrylic polymer peel paintings for a long time, and those were hyper-detailed and all super hard-edged and super meticulous. It got to a point with that where I guess around like 2012, I wanted to start doing something more visceral and more painterly and less sort of slick.
What was the process for designing the Borough location?
Spirits are normally classified by type — gin, vodka, whisky — whereas you focus on flavor. Why is this how you wanted to work?
A project like +Pool coming out of thin air was actually very naïve because there are all of these firsts that have to be accomplished in order for the project to be built. You can build an image or rendering really fast, and it feels like the thing you want to build is possible, but really it’s 10 years of work. We reference Jean-Claude and Christo often because he would do self-initiated projects that would take 10 to 20 years. But the real magic of the project wasn't the two weeks that it existed and was beautiful — it was the drudgery of the work to get there.
Good advice is work a lot, experiment a lot, and see a lot of art. Find out who the artist is who you really admire and what do you like about their work, what can you bring into the work, but also how can you experiment with materials and make paint do something that's your own language. At least for me, that's always been really important to my practice.
Yok & Sheryo
Sheryo: My style is really wonky and really imperfect because I like imperfection. My lines were super wavy when I drew and his was kind of straighter. He would draw a straight line. Try to get really straight on the wall and spray can and I'll be like, "Yo. I'm just going to do it wonky." Because it's easier. It's done by hand.
Yok: I had a cleaner style. A bit more, I don't know, it was a bit more work and trouble to make the cleaner style and then I met Sheryo and she had this loose, wobbly, wonky style and I was envious of it and kind of adapted into that. It’s kind of like that new airbrush work that we've been doing. I kind of just embrace the looseness and the wonkiness of it in the conception.
How does an idea become a drink that you produce?
When you work on projects with large corporate organizations, how do you manage to strike a balance between what the client wants and PLAYLAB’s creative identity?
Jeff: Back in the beginning when it was just Archie and I, we would get fired from projects because we would throw back ideas that they didn't ask for. But we just kept persisting throughout every year, we just kept making sure that people understood what we think. Now we've gotten to the point where people expect these ideas from us — everyone from big corporations to smaller clients.
Archie: We've tried to craft an environment where people come to us for us — not for a specific type of project. But at the same time I think that our job is to be honest about who we are and what we're doing and what we're interested in. We never present something to the client that we don't think is sick. As a result, sometimes the client isn’t the right fit. But most often, the client is like, “Holy sh*t.” And that's what we look for. The feeling in the studio when that hits is like a drug.
What is the most ridiculous request you've ever gotten from a client?
Dillon: We don't get ridiculous requests, we give them. We tell people to do some pretty outrageous sh*t, and a lot of what we hear back is, "This is f*cking amazing. Wait, rewind. How do we make this?" The more nuanced part is then making our ideas real, in tandem with other people, with a budget, in the real world.
Archie: It’s also just about ridiculous situations, which are the byproducts of working on projects with human beings. With the Louis Vuitton show, the moment nobody sees is Virgil texting all of the designers in the group thread saying he wanted to bring a DJ and throw a huge party in the center of the show right when it ended. Situations like that and learning the different ways people you work with think are the evidence of a project. Those little moments are like symbols, and every project has them.
Erchen: It’s very important that each restaurant does different things. We’re inspired by many different eateries in Asia. So Soho is quite minimal, it’s very food focused. It’s in Soho so loads of people are coming in and out and they only want to spend maybe 30 minutes. With Borough we were inspired by the late night grill places and drinking places in Tokyo. We have a highball machine here. Everything revolves around the late night eating style. I think the inspiration comes from a different area but they’re all kinds of Asian eateries and it filters through different restaurants.
Wai Ting: It’s just trying to bring different elements of Asian culture to London. At Borough we did the KTV room downstairs, and we’ve got the hatch there, almost back to our street food days.
Jeff: This year has been great for projects like the Louis Vuitton show and Fantasy Landscapes because we have started to take projects from the idea phase into actual reality. We've worked on a lot of projects that were amazing on paper, but they would just die there. Through hard work, we have been able to start figuring out how to translate our sketches into reality. Fantasy Landscapes was a great example of this because we were able to work with fabricators, find an amazing group of scenic painters, install everything and see people's reactions during its duration.
Ana: In addition to Fantasy Landscapes, the other project that comes to mind was working on the strategy for Nike's Stranger Things collaboration. We got to do a lot of research on the ‘80s, and all the ideas Nike loved were the most humor-focused. It's so surreal when you see projects like this in real life. Nike even made the upside-down receipt.
Dillon: We were part of a group exhibition at Black Cube in Denver where we essentially created a shoe store environment called Size Run. The show had an overarching theme of warehouses and distribution in relation to contemporary art, and the installation was an extension of our experimentation with shoes as a medium for our studio art practice.
We wanted it to be about sneakers as a medium while simultaneously being an art installation and performance. We made six pairs of one shoe model using knock-off Balenciagas as a base. We deconstructed and re-built them with a square foam body and bungee cord system. We made a whole store set-up, with a try-on bench experience (big thanks to Ryan Gendron for fabrication help), backstock, etc.
Did you have similar styles before you met?
Yok: We’re working on an immersive installation at the Paddle 8 auction house at the Lower East Side of New York City. We’re creating this nine-foot wooden sculpture of a middle finger with Donald Trump’s tombstone on top.
Sheryo: It’s this pretty big basement spot. We are making sculptures as well as creating the upholstery and benches. It has a really dingy and dark vibe. It’s kind of a lounge room setting. It’s going to launch this coming fall season.
HYPEBEAST: What was the process of setting up Empirical Spirits?
Yok: We would look at our drawings and imagine how it would be great if they were worlds that you could go inside, touch and move around. That's where the installation inspiration came from, I guess.
Sheryo: It was kind of natural, really, a progression from 2D to 3D. Yeah.
We discourage irresponsible and/or underage drinking. Drink responsibly and legally.