Alumni From the World’s Best Restaurant Just Created a New Type of Booze
The experimental nature of Copenhagen's renowned Noma flourishes with Empirical, a spirits brand that defies categories
What we’re drinking: SOKA, a new sorghum spirit (more on that in a minute)
Where it’s from: Empirical, a “flavor company” in Copenhagen that crafts new, category-less spirits. It was launched in 2017 by two alumni (Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen) of Noma, a five-time winner of the World’s Best Restaurant
Why we’re drinking this: Sometimes, it’s cool to try something that doesn’t fit into any particular category. Which is the entire point of Empirical, which touts itself as a free-form spirits company that utilizes custom-built machinery and disregards geographical boundaries to create new types of alcoholic beverages.
“We originally thought we were making gin, but we weren’t allowed to call it that,” says Hermansen. Turns out, defying categories ended up being a eureka moment.
“It was very freeing; now we just think about flavor,” adds Williams. “It has to be delicious, sure, but we want to do something that evokes a sense memory and really expresses terroir.” Interestingly, for being a boundary-less brand, SOKA reflects America quite deliberately, as sorghum was once the leading sweetener in the United States. (A European version using sorghum grown on that continent is also being released overseas.)
Sorghum is also a fairly eco-friendly plant that’s very drought tolerant and nitrogen efficient. It’s also not uncommon to find in alcoholic drinks, though outside of the country; fermented sorghum is often the base of baijiu, the world’s most popular spirit.
We tried SOKA neat and in a number of cocktails just before the spirit’s national release. Let’s dive in.
How it tastes: SOKA (a contraction of the words “sorghum” and “cane”) comes in at 43% ABV. It’s vacuum distilled from the fermentation of freshly pressed juice of Wisconsin sorghum cane and Kentucky sorghum cane syrup. The brand uses a Thai Rice Chong Yeast during fermentation.
The interesting thing here is that SOKA can remind you of several things at once. There’s a grassy note that made me think of a blanco tequila; the citrus, apple and mint wouldn’t have been out of place in a gin, while the slight funk brought in a rum note and there was even a slight smoke/vegetal note on later sips, evoking mezcal.
The Empirical team suggested SOKA as a more interesting replacement for gin or vodka, but I see many uses and a spirit that can work with sweet, citrus and even savory/vegetal ingredients. But yes, one standout would be something simple like a SOKA Sonic (basically, a G&T with SOKA and a split of soda and tonic; our high-end take during the tasting utilized a curry leaf soda and some cucumber.)
Fun fact: Other releases from Empirical include Ayuuk, which utilizes smoky Pasilla Mixe chilies; The Plum, I Suppose, with plum kernels and marigold kombucha; and three sparkling ready-to-drink canned expressions: CAN 01 (oolong tea, toasted birch and green gooseberry); CAN 02 (sour cherry, black currant buds, young pine cones and walnut wood); and CAN 03 (carob, fig leaf and lemon myrtle).
Where to buy it: SOKA, launched on June 15, is available online here. A 750ml bottle is $50.
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