Even from the get-go Empirical seemed like a brand designed to be a viral sensation. One of the earliest articles I can find about the company — then known as Empirical Spirits — is a Medium post written by one of its investors. In “Why This Danish Startup Is My First Official ‘Pre-Seed’ Investment,” J.R. Johnson writes generically of the brand’s “innovative approach” and “intellectual property” and, of course, mentions that co-founders Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen “met while working at the famed restaurant Noma, which has been voted #1 restaurant in the world four times and changed the way the world views Nordic cuisine.”
It’s all very tantalizing, esoteric, somewhat mysterious stuff and it’s no wonder so many people (myself included) were eager to read more about this far-flung company that was making neither whiskey nor gin nor vodka but, instead, “freeform spirits.”
That same month, September 2017, Vice Munchies was perhaps the first alcohol industry publication to write about Empirical in an article titled “This Once-Abandoned Warehouse Might Contain the Future of Booze.”
As a fellow journalist reading these articles, I couldn’t help but wish it was me breaking the news on this exciting, upstart company. As an adventurous drinker, I likewise couldn’t help but wish I could actually get my hands on some of these oddball releases to try them myself. Releases with names like Easy Tiger, infused with Douglas fir; Fallen Pony, produced from quince tea kombucha; and Charlene McGee, smoked on juniper wood and rested in sherry casks.
The only issue then, which is not much different than today, is that Empirical products weren’t exactly easy to buy or sample or even taste as a part of any cocktails, even in New York, where I live.
It didn’t seem to matter early on for getting press, however. That’s because Empirical inherently offered countless things for journalists to write about. Like the distillery’s custom-built vacuum still that looked “like half Formula 1 engine, half Breaking Bad lab equipment” (according to Vice Munchies) or its rotary evaporator designed to “gently extract the distillate without destroying the delicate flavours” as Wired U.K. explained.
The brand also had tons of bonafides for journalists to seize on, like the fact that Michelin-starred restaurants like Noma and top cocktails bars like London’s (now shuttered) Dandelyan were already stocking the releases.
This wasn’t anything the spirits world had ever seen before and it seemingly didn’t even matter how the releases tasted, nor the fact that average readers would never be able to easily taste them.
“We started Empirical with a few simple ideas: question everything, and anything was possible. That inception led us down a somewhat different path than a traditional distillery, and I imagine that attitude was what piqued people’s interest,” says co-founder Williams. “We never really strove to be ‘viral,’ but the realization of a hypothetical question, ‘What would we make if we’d never heard of or tasted spirits?’ seems to be something that resonates with people.”
And eventually, Empirical finally got press for an actual release. Well, sorta.
Fuck Trump, Go Viral
In the late summer of 2018, two years into his presidency, and only one year into the company’s founding, Empirical again made viral headlines with a release bluntly dubbed “Fuck Trump and His Stupid Fucking Wall.” The 27 percent ABV spirit was, like all Empirical releases, uncategorizable. It was made from a base of barley, soaked and injected with Aspergillus oryzae fungi to ferment into koji, and Belgian saison yeast, and infused with habanero peppers and habanero vinegar. Like all Empirical releases it was packaged in a simple clear bottle with a small, printed-out, all-text sticker label.
If that sounded intriguing it didn’t really matter, as virtually no journalists actually ever tasted it (myself included) and it mostly wasn’t even available in American retail or bars. (It sold out in 45 minutes online.) Yet I was stunned how many writers and online influencers — again, many in America — positively covered this release.
“[T]he bottling became an instant phenomenon — a lightning rod shared across social media that encapsulated a moment of fury within the spirits industry and the world at large,” wrote Kara Newman. It even crossed over to political writers, with The Daily Wire angrily deriding it.
Was a childish insult and a couple of curse words really enough to go viral in the booze world? And, if so, why didn’t Wild Fucking Turkey just change its name?
Kat Kinsman was the rare journalist who actually tasted it before writing about it; she regarded it favorably in an article for Extra Crispy titled: “The Best New Spirit Is Called F*** Trump and His Stupid F***ing Wall.” Kinsman wrote that the spirit was a “smooth, warm, vegetal liquor that is simultaneously familiar and elusive, and endlessly sippable,” while noting it was not ideal for cocktails.
A second incarnation of Fuck Trump would arrive in 2019, and by Joe Biden’s election day in 2021, one final batch was released, receiving yet more glowing press in the process. (In total, 12 different batches would be created during Trump’s four-year term.)
In 2022, on the heels of the Russian-Ukrainian War, a Fuck Putin and His Stupid Fucking War bottled cocktail would, believe it or not, go viral as well.
Over the next few years, after reading about them endlessly, I finally got my hands on Empirical bottles, and have occasionally seen Empirical spirits appear in cocktails at top bars. When London’s acclaimed Lyaness did a pop-up in Manhattan in 2019, I found myself really enjoying a Daiquiri riff made with Onyx, a spirit produced from koji, maple, birch, kombucha, and hops, custom-made by Empirical specifically to be used in Lyaness cocktails.
“Explaining our story, ethos, the why and how of what we are doing that makes us different, that was easy (in a sense) because it was simple to us and just the story of what we were doing. But getting people to actually understand that on a visceral level has proved extremely difficult.”
In fact, I praised the cocktail so effusively that bar owner Ryan “Mr. Lyan” Chetiyawardana even sent me my own bottle of Onyx. But over the next four years I barely touched it and it gathered dust on my spirits shelf. It didn’t quite work for me as a neat sipper and I was unable to recreate any cocktail magic at home. I’m a decent bartender, but no Mr. Lyan.
I’d try other new Empirical releases seemingly every year when I went to Bar Convent Brooklyn, the country’s top trade show. These spirits, like The Plum, I Suppose, made of distilled marigold kombucha and plum stones, were always interesting, never bad, and sometimes even good, but I never exactly knew what to do with any of them. I never liked any enough to spring for a bottle that might run $75 or more. Nor could I ever visualize how I might use any of them for a cocktail prepared on my kitchen counter.
Perhaps the problems I faced are the same ones that Empirical continues to face when trying to sell its spirits to home consumers.
“Explaining our story, ethos, the why and how of what we are doing that makes us different, that was easy (in a sense) because it was simple to us and just the story of what we were doing,” says Williams. “But getting people to actually understand that on a visceral level has proved extremely difficult, and we are still always trying to be better at the conveying of what we do.”
Williams thinks that part of the problem is that most people outside the industry don’t even know how spirits are made. Perhaps they don’t even know what, for example, technically defines a bourbon or a tequila and why Empirical is different from that.
Fair enough, but in some ways, Empirical likewise doesn’t even seem clear what its products are or how to use them themselves. One of the four links on the top navigation bar of the brand’s website is “Getting Started,” as if the bottles of esoteric spirits are instead pieces of technology the average consumer wouldn’t be able to figure out how to set up and turn on without a manual.
Other top bartenders likewise seem to prefer Empirical spirits in more baroque, complex cocktails where a simple gin or tequila simply won’t do.
“We know — diving into the world of uncategorized spirits can be a bit daunting,” reads the webpage. “Since you made it this far, it must be because you’re a little curious. And curiosity is the first critical step.”
The advice goes on to mostly tell the home user to either try Empirical spirits with tonic or turn them into well-worn classics, recommending a Tom Collins, Old Fashioned, and Mojito to start.
One of the brand’s greatest challenges, Williams says, is getting people to figure out how to “Make it Empirical.” “Luckily when people taste Empirical they get it; the proof is in the pudding,” he says.
But it remains only a small portion of people even capable of purchasing Empirical. If it’s hard to sell these products online, it’s even harder to sell them in smaller markets where the company can’t deploy a door-to-door, boots-on-the-ground salesforce ready and willing to explain the left-field spirits. Outside of spirits-focused communities in New York and Northern California, it seems, few people have even heard of the company.
Yet Empirical continues to get gobs of press.
More and more, I am encountering Empirical spirits at top New York bars these days. They are rarely offered as sipping spirits and, more often, have found their way into signature cocktails. At Superbueno — VinePair’s Next Wave Awards Bar Program of the Year — one such Empirical offering appears in the bar’s Salted Plum & Tamarind Milk Punch.
“What Empirical is doing makes our jobs as bartenders and hospitality professionals even easier, in my opinion, as the best guest experience we can give is one where they are opened to new experiences and possibilities.”
“The whole inspiration is a tamarind and plum candy you get in Mexico called saladitos,” says co-owner Nacho Jimenez.
To create the sweet, tart, and spicy flavor profile, head bartender Kip Moffit cooks red plums, tamarind, coriander, lime peels, and sugar at a really low temperature for two hours before adding it to an Ecuadorian tea blend called Horchata Lojana. That syrup is then mixed with charanda, a Mexican cane spirit, as well as Empirical Ayuuk, a purple wheat and pilsner malt spirit macerated with smoky Pasilla Mixe chile and matured in oloroso casks before the entire concoction is milk-washed.
It’s a very unusual cocktail, very savory and a bit spicy from the Ayuuk, though quite good and balanced. Perhaps something like this could only be made with something as unusual as an Empirical spirit. At the least, it’s not exactly a cocktail a home consumer would typically make.
Other top bartenders likewise seem to prefer Empirical spirits in more baroque, complex cocktails where a simple gin or tequila simply won’t do.
At Double Chicken Please, voted the No. 1 bar in North America, co-owner GN Chan uses a variety of Empirical products in his cocktails. Chan deploys Soka, a sorghum distillate, with curry, pumpkin, and coffee in a cocktail called Brain Fart. For a cocktail called Little Fucking Brain, he combines Symphony 6 (a distillate made with lemon leaf, tangerine, fig, coffee, vetiver, ambrette seeds, black currant buds, citric acid, and carmine) with banana, tana (Japanese blue honeysuckle berry), walnut, and Riesling.
“Symphony 6 is a very unique spirit, … bright and citrusy with a hint of musk, which creates an interesting and inspiring dynamic to play with,” Chan says. “We’ve utilized the product on a drink that falls somewhere between a Cosmopolitan and apple Martini.”
Jonathan Adler of Shinji’s Bar, a Japanese-style cocktail bar in the Flatiron District of Manhattan, likes using The Plum, I Suppose, in place of Luxardo, a maraschino liqueur he finds the Empirical spirit reminiscent of. This allows him to make more interesting riffs on Last Words and Tuxedo No. 2s.
“This is why it is so exciting to use the distillates that Empirical is producing; [they are] yet another tool in our toolbox that opens up more possibilities when creating drinks,” says Adler, who also use Soka in a carbonated tropical drink, Soka Punch, and Ayuuk in a Latte Martini.
“What Empirical is doing makes our jobs as bartenders and hospitality professionals even easier, in my opinion, as the best guest experience we can give is one where they are opened to new experiences and possibilities,” he says. “It’s an amazing synergy between distillery and consumer!”
In mid-December, Empirical yet again got viral press, perhaps more than ever before, with some 13 pages of Google News returns and well over 100 unique articles — many from major outlets. The centerpiece of this virality was Empirical’s latest spirit, a collaboration with Doritos, distilled from real nacho cheese chips.
The Washington Post declared: “Doritos nacho cheese liquor sounds like a stunt, but it’s actually good,” while USA Today more matter-of-factly noted “Doritos releases nacho cheese-flavored liquor that tastes just like the chip.”
At a certain point, even we had to cover it.
Once again, Empirical had managed to bend the press to its will, with not a single journalist so far as I can tell — save, perhaps, Hoda! — offering any sort of critical analysis of the release.
“That collaboration was about two companies who both spend a lot of time thinking about flavor getting together and creating something novel between them,” says Williams. “One of the two companies is a bit more well known, and that ubiquity was certainly the main reason for the buzz.”
So why did this one go so massively viral? And why did no one even question Williams’ supposed origin story for creating the spirit, in which he claims he was looking at a Doritos bag during lunch one day and “curiosity led me to turn this snack into a spirit”?
Maybe, it’s because being critical does no good in the viral news industrial complex. When Mike Vacheresse of Travel Bar, a laid-back whiskey joint in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn, posted on Instagram that he had bottles of the “Nacho Cheese Spirit” now in stock and ready to pour, the post got more engagement than is typical for the neighborhood bar. When I posted the bottle in my Instagram stories, I likewise receives dozens of responses.
Oddly, or perhaps not, literally two days after this insane 24 hours of virality, came the news that Empirical had just filed for bankruptcy in Copenhagen.
Only one publication covered the story.