Wild spirits – meet the maverick makers

Alice Lascelles toasts three groundbreaking distilleries

The Distillerie de Paris
The Distillerie de Paris

Everyone, it seems, fancies themselves as a “disruptor” these days. But in the world of drinks, there will always be a few companies more maverick than others. One of those is the Danish distiller Empirical Spirits. Founded by the former head of R&D at Noma, Lars Williams, along with Mark Emil Hermansen, this little distillery on the edge of Copenhagen doesn’t “do” whisky, or gin, or rum. It makes a whole spectrum of spirits, and flavour blends, that are completely unclassifiable: spirits distilled from koji and plum kernels and quince with the kind of cutting-edge tech more often found in Michelin-starred kitchens. 

Barney Wilczak of Capreolus Distillery, in the Cotswolds
Barney Wilczak of Capreolus Distillery, in the Cotswolds

Empirical’s products aren’t the kind of thing you can just chuck in a glass with tonic. Its unorthodox flavour profiles require careful handling – a lot of its fans just drink them neat. And they’ve acquired a cult following among bartenders, with their playful names such as Fallen Pony; The Plum, I Suppose; and Fuck Trump and His Stupid Fucking Wall. In January, Empirical launched Can 01 and Can 02, two sparkling drinks more like a spirit and mixer. The jet-black Can 01 blends oolong tea, toasted birch and green gooseberry; the hot-pink Can 02, sour cherry, blackcurrant buds, young pine cones and walnut wood. 

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Another innovator, Capreolus Distillery in the Cotswolds, produces exquisite eaux-de-vie from just a single fruit at a time: damson, greengage, comice pear. 

Empirical Spirits’ distillery on the edge of Copenhagen
Empirical Spirits’ distillery on the edge of Copenhagen | Image: Tim Spreadbury

“I grew up around here picking sloes and bullaces and blackberries in the hedgerows,” says Capreolus’s founder Barney Wilczak, who says that 90 per cent of Capreolus’s fruit comes from within 50 miles of the distillery. “And what I’m always trying to do is recapture those intangible moments. That means trying to express the whole plant, not just the fruit.” He comes closest to doing so, perhaps, with the blackcurrant eau-de-vie. If you’ve ever stood in a fruit cage on a summer’s evening in England, it will make your hair stand on end. 

Bottling at the Distillerie de Paris
Bottling at the Distillerie de Paris | Image: Emilie Albert

Hundreds of miles away, down a sidestreet not far from the Gare du Nord, the Distillerie de Paris is also breaking ground in flavour. Using a copper pot still not much bigger than a man, distiller Nicolas Julhès conjures spirits – and perfumes – that exuberantly bend the rules.

Empirical Spirits makes an unclassifiable spectrum of liquors and flavour blends
Empirical Spirits makes an unclassifiable spectrum of liquors and flavour blends | Image: Maureen Evans

There’s an aromatic and spicy gin; and the pineapple-y Agave Spirit like a tropical sipping tequila. The amber-coloured Maple Spirit is distilled from maple syrup and water and aged in oak, while the Vodka and Lime explodes with vibrant bergamot, green lemon and cédrat. In the boutique, just a couple of doors down, Julhès also sell perfumes that riff on single notes: sugar cane, citrus and juniper.

Capreolus Distillery’s Garden Tiger gin
Capreolus Distillery’s Garden Tiger gin | Image: Barney Wilczak

“For me, spirits are like drinkable perfume,” he says. “The memories they can provoke, the way they can move your feelings – it’s almost magical.”

@alicelascelles

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