Lars Williams is on the hunt, foraging for new flavors, searching for something unexpected, and finding plenty of contenders at an organic farm in Denmark.
As a chef, Williams has some experience pushing culinary boundaries. But he's not simply searching for a new garnish; rather, he's trying to totally re-imagine, not food, but alcohol.
Sampling a wild fennel plant, correspondent Seth Doane asked, "You don't think of going into a bar and wanting to order something like this?"
"Not yet," Williams replied.
At Søren Wiuff's farm, Williams wondered if a horseradish-like beach cress might provide a peppery finish infused in an alcoholic beverage.
Doane asked, "How different is it to think about food and alcohol?"
"The difference is being able to kind of create a flavor and then preserve it in the alcohol," he replied, "and then compose the dish in the same way that we would compose a dish of food, but composing it in a bottle."
Williams, from New York City, came to Denmark 10 years ago, where he climbed to the pinnacle of the food world as the head of research and development at the famed Noma restaurant in Copenhagen. That's where he met his now-business partner Mark Hermansen.
Doane asked them, "What do you take from the best restaurant in the world?"
Hermansen said, "That nothing is impossible."
That sentiment – "nothing is impossible" – pushed them to leave Noma two-and-a-half years ago to start Empirical Spirits, a sort of mad-scientist's laboratory of distillation, where they asked the question, if agave can become tequila and juniper berries can flavor gin, what other spirits are yet to be discovered?
Williams admitted that he is trying to take some of the lessons he learned from Noma and stick them in a bottle: "Essentially, yeah, taking that approach of very focused, very rigorous craft, and apply it into something that you can spread to a lot more people than 40 people in a dining room."
Their quest to preserve not just individual ingredients but to bottle the essence of a place has taken them to Zimbabwe, Brazil, Mexico, and a beach on the Danish coast. There, Williams remarked on the smell of seaweed: "That's something that, like, you can evoke, and I think is always very stirring to people somehow."
"You want to capture the flavors of the sea in a way?' Doane asked.
Here they met up with Xenia Samlersen, a full-time forager for clients including Noma. She showed Williams the delicate beach pansy, just in bloom, and collected pine cones that might be distilled into a one-of-a-kind-spirit.
Samlersen broke one of the pine cones for Williams and Doane to smell: "Wow – you think this is alcohol?"
"Yeah, we should booze it!" she replied.
That happens in the giant stills at Empirical Spirits. They operate at unusually low temperatures, instead of the typical high heat, which can destroy the delicate flavors along the way.
Doane said, "This is kind of like a giant science experiment."
"In a lot of ways," Williams laughed. "I mean, in a lot of ways this is what the inside of my head looks like."
He built some of the machines himself, incorporating a range of brewing and distillation techniques from around the world. It's where he tested blending those pine cones and the beach pansies.
How many new flavors do they try, given not all will work? "Well, as high as possible, really," said Hermansen.
Williams added, "If you're not putting yourself out on a limb, then you're never gonna do something new.
"We're also trying to show that alcohol can be more than a gin and tonic at the end of a hard work-day, because it's such an amazing vehicle for capturing and preserving flavor, that it has a lot of potential that we're just sort of scraping the surface on."
All of that testing – and the unique ingredients – means the finished product comes at a price: upwards of $70 a bottle, mostly sold to high-end bars and restaurants, or to direct to consumers who are drawn to something unusual.
Doane decided to sample a few bottles. "Cheers!"
"Skål!' said Williams. "You're in Denmark."
He tried one flavored with quince ("Wow!"), another with juniper wood ("This would be closest to a gin – this doesn't taste like gin at all!"). Then, he moved on to the plastic containers that are works-in-progress, including one made of distilled Jerusalem artichoke. "Ooh, that's nice, I like that one – I might advance it from the plastic to the glass," said Doane.
"Yeah, I think this one has legs," said William, spurred on by the challenge of trying to create something you never knew you were missing.
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Story produced by Mikaela Bufano.