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Meet the Upstart Distillers Breaking the Rules of Spirits

From California to Copenhagen the hidebound world of hard alcohol is getting a shake-up.

Shattering Bottle The Voorhes for Robb Report

The Culinary Transplants: Empirical Spirits
When Lars Williams saw the line of ants crossing his path, he couldn’t help himself. In front of his boss, René Redzepi, he dropped down on all fours and started eating them. For a Noma employee—especially Williams, the former head of research and development—this wasn’t so strange. The restaurant’s ethos was one of seeking out flavor anywhere, even if it meant crawling around eating bugs. The best ingredients make the best dishes, so you do whatever you need to do to find them.

But after seven years of eating anything that caught his eye in the name of research, Williams was ready for the next phase of flavor. In 2016 he left Noma for a new challenge: distilled spirits. A newbie peering in from the outside, however, he discovered practices that shocked him. “The alcohol industry as a whole seemed a little bit stagnant,” he says. “You go to a new distillery, and a young guy there starts showing off his copper still that’s a replica of one made 600 years ago, and my immediate thought is, ‘Well, surely in 600 years there’s been room for improvement somewhere.’”

Of course, he couldn’t expect his fellow spirits makers to throw ants in their stills, but they didn’t seem interested in sourcing even the most basic ingredients. “The industry is so weird; there are so few people doing it from scratch,” he says. “All these top-shelf spirits you think of—the vast majority of them are getting factory-made alcohol. It would be like if you went to a three-Michelin-star restaurant and you discovered that they’re getting all their stuff from Blue Apron, and they were just like, ‘I’m assembling the meal.’ That’s probably not even a severe enough condemnation.”

Lars Williams at Empirical Spirits

Lars Williams (left) left Noma to start a distillery.  Andreas Omvik/Courtesy of Empiri

Williams and his partner, Mark Emil Hermansen (who ran Redzepi’s annual MAD Symposium), decided they could make the staid processes of the industry better. And so Empirical Spirits was born, with the intention of bringing a new appreciation of flavor to hard alcohol.

The improvement began with the obvious: Source ingredients and botanicals, as at Noma. “You’d never tell a chef, ‘Let’s get some crap produce’—that the vegetables don’t really matter,” Williams says. He and Hermansen purchase high-quality barley from a trusted purveyor and then inoculate it with mold spores to create koji, which adds further complexity to the flavor. They mix the koji with more heirloom malted barley, warm it to below boiling, cool it, and then start alcoholic fermentation. “Most distillers use what’s called a turbo-yeast, which is really effective and fast, converting a lot of the sugar into alcohol in 24 to 36 hours,” Williams says. Empirical opts instead for saison yeast. This lets them slow the process down, like a baker proofing bread dough longer to develop more flavor.

But here’s where the process feels most like Noma. With many of its bottlings, Empirical wants to capture a time and place. Williams achieves that through foraging for native ingredients. “I had the idea of sending a bottle to my sister that she could open and experience what it’s like to walk around the Copenhagen wilderness,” he says. So for one bottling he foraged for botanicals like Douglas fir and then macerated them into the liquid to be distilled.

When it comes to distilling, Empirical really diverges from tradition. At this step of making a spirit, other distillers heat the liquid to coax the alcohol to evaporate. It rises and then condenses in another chamber back into something that’s much higher proof than the original liquid. Williams didn’t want to apply that much heat though, because that could cook out the flavors of the forest they’d so carefully foraged for.

“Think of the difference between marmalade and a fresh orange,” Williams says. “The heat turns that orange’s flavor into something very different.” So he uses ultrasonic waves, which cause alcohols to break apart into a mist without heating, and then uses a vacuum to extract the fog, preserving more of the flavor he wants.

The results so far are mixed. For the Fallen Pony Blend, they successfully run a quince kombucha through their distilling process to create a distinct, sweet-smelling spirit that’s full-bodied, smooth, and delicious. But the Charlene McGee Blend, which features smoked juniper, smells and tastes a little too much like a campfire, possessing the smoky qualities of a scotch but not the complexity that makes for enjoyable sipping. Even right out of the gate, Empirical is creating spirits that are smooth and unique, showing new possibilities and revolutionizing the process. Soon enough, aficionados—and imitators—are sure to follow.

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Spirits distilled by St. George Spirits

St. George wants to make spirits like a perfumer makes perfume.  Joshua Scott for Robb Report

The Flavor Nerds: St. George Spirits
A nuclear scientist and an English teacher walk into a distillery. The story of Northern California’s St. George Spirits might sound like the beginnings of a bad bar joke, but Lance Winters—the label’s master distiller (and the aforementioned scientist)—says that varied background is what makes his company’s small-batch spirits so innovative.

“It’s important to have different points of view; otherwise the whole thing turns into a giant circle where everyone is making what everyone else made,” Winters says. The California native is prone to mischievous comments about his industry for the very reason that he remains among a small collective of spirits makers who are truly thinking differently. While he and his partner, Dave Smith (the English teacher), were experimenting with various roast levels of grains and adding beech, alderwood, and other base notes to their whiskeys, big spirits labels were focusing on aging their liquid in different kinds of barrels. “That’s not changing the conversation at all,” says Winters. “That’s like saying this painting has changed because there’s a different frame around it.”

To hear Winters tell it, big spirits has for far too long operated on efficiency rather than innovation. But the distiller—who this year was the only spirits producer among a long list of winemakers to be nominated for a James Beard Award—operates only on the latter condition. And his innovation of choice? Flavor. But don’t confuse the well-crafted spirits he’s creating with the bottom-shelf flavored liquids that have dominated the industry for years. “Those are terrible—they don’t taste like a lemon or a lime or a mandarin orange. They taste like a chemical approximation of a fruit,” he says. “We’re making something that smells and tastes just like what it was made from.”

To do that, of course, entails more than just a new picture frame. It requires what amounts to backward thinking in the bottom-line-obsessed spirits world. “We’re not making a package and a label and then figuring out what to put in it,” Winters says. “We start with a raw material or a flavor or an aroma that we love, and then we ask ourselves, ‘Is this a whiskey? A liqueur? A vodka? How does it all fit in there?’”

St. George might even suffer from an overabundance of imagination: It produces 20 different types of spirits, which range from the obscure (absinthe) to the really obscure (a California shochu). But each comes with a flavor profile that captures everything that Absolut Pears and Smirnoff Raspberry don’t. Rather than tasting like ethanol masked with a hint of something almost familiar, these spirits are so drinkable they demand to be sipped slowly (and never with a mixer). Though Winters’s Absinthe Verte at first appears as a classic anise-flavored spirit on the nose, the taste is a bouquet of heady floral notes and refreshing citrus—so much so that it verges on gin. The same trickery can be found in St. George’s California Shochu, which masquerades as a simple shochu in scent but explodes on the tongue with earthy notes and a sweet vanilla finish.

And then there’s the Terroir Gin. Winters tends to get nostalgic when talking about it, reminiscing about a hike through the Bay Area woods that inspired him to create a spirit that would carry the scents of the hills and the dusty trails. He started by distilling bay laurel, Douglas fir, California coastal sage, and wild fennel, and then added juniper, coriander, cinnamon, orris and Angelica root, and lastly citrus for brightness. On paper, that’s quite a recipe for a gin, yet Winters says the result is what innovation is all about. “It’s the act of blurring lines—it’s making a spirit the way a perfumer would make a perfume. When I pick up a glass of it, I think, ‘This smells like the woods.’” And the crazy thing is it really does.

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Leslie Merinoff,Kwasnieski at Matchbook Distilling Company

Leslie Merinoff Kwasnieski is obsessed with botanicals.  David Benthal/Courtesy of Matchb

The Disruptor: Matchbook Distilling Company
When I first entered into the spirits space and I saw how confined it was, it really bothered me,” says Leslie Merinoff Kwasnieski. “Liquor is the second-largest revenue generator in the U.S. after the IRS—there’s a lot of profit to be made off this industry that is controlled by only a handful of companies. And that does not encourage innovation.”

Merinoff Kwasnieski—who founded New York’s boutique Matchbook Distilling Company in 2016—is a radical figure in the world of spirits, where regulations on what makes a gin a gin

or a whiskey a whiskey are so strict that they’re virtually impenetrable. But her defiance of a system that has ruled since Prohibition is even more extraordinary when you consider the fact that she herself was born of big booze. Before founding her boutique distillery, which opened its doors on Long Island earlier this year, she worked in marketing and in development for Sailor Jerry and Noble Experiment, respectively. (And did we mention she hails from the Merinoff family—the one that runs billion-dollar wholesaler Charmer Sunbelt Group?) But the third-generation spirits maven is no rebel without a cause. After years of working on the inside, she was looking for a way outside the box. And that required more than just making a fancy spirit with a few unusual ingredients (though she’s done plenty of that, too). It required legislation.

In August, a new law that allowed New York state distilleries to create bespoke spirits for private, non-licensed individuals was passed—and Merinoff Kwasnieski was the driving force behind it. Such legislation might seem inconsequential—after all, breweries and wineries have been making custom batches for paying customers for ages—but, says the distiller, the spirits industry has had a rare stranglehold on U.S. lawmaking for decades. Laws like these allow small distillers to take a tiny bite out of a big bottom line. And as Merinoff Kwasnieski puts it, “Even one percent of a multibillion-​dollar industry is a hell of a lot of money.”

Matchbook is the first distillery to take advantage of the new law. As of September, it has been creating distilled specialty spirits under its own label as well as tearing into a long waiting list

of chefs, restaurateurs, and passionate booze buffs who have come to Merinoff Kwasnieski’s “botanical wall” to create custom spirits under their own name. It is there that the distiller and her team translate ideas and basic flavors into innovative liquids sourced from a broad spectrum of ingredients, including palo santo, gooseberries, wild cherry bark—anything, she says, that has a “profound and distinct flavor.”

Spirits distilled at Matchbook Distilling Company

Matchbook Distilling’s apothecary-style bottles.  Joshua Scott for Robb Report

“What I’m doing is essentially using alcohol as a canvas to show off whatever ingredients we’re using,” Merinoff Kwasnieski explains. A chamomile botanical gin, for instance, will start with a dried flower that will be macerated in the still for an hour before the liquid is heated quickly (to keep the flower from stewing), then slowly distilled to allow for more calculated separation. “We smell and taste every 10 minutes until we capture the exact flavor we’re looking for.”

Thus far that careful process has yielded some truly distinct liquids: a biodynamic wine distilled with palo santo and bergamot; a watermelon eau-de-vie that processed more than 3,000 pounds of melon from a local farm; and a white-​peppercorn botanical distillate. Not every result is a winner—a recent spirit using organic apricots, for instance, was so heavy on the fruit that it overwhelmed any nuance it may have had. But for all of these creations, the ultimate goal is to produce a diversity that Merinoff Kwasnieski argues has never existed in her industry. “I compare it to art or music,” she says, “If you were just listening to the same music from eight different artists your whole life, you wouldn’t know that there was much more out there. Once you heard something new, your senses might get blown out at first.” Take a few more sips, though, and you might just change your tune.

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