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‘It's a bit like a washing machine,’ says Lasse Vesterby, opening the lid of the long tank. Right enough, inside there’s a slowly rotating drum with holes in it surrounded by a frothy scum. ‘Actually, we got the idea because in the summer me and my brothers used to hunt mink and…’ he gestures ripping the skin off an animal, ‘… this works a bit like a mink-skinning machine as well.’ None of this could be described as the standard opening of a distillery tour. Well, not for me anyway.
The mink-skinning/washing machine hybrid at Stauning on Denmark’s west coast was the solution to the first problem any distiller faces when trying to work with rye, namely its ability to gelatinise into something akin to wallpaper paste in the mashtun. This was a rather elegant way around that problem and given the quality of the whisky which has resulted, a successful one as well.
Engineering change: Distilleries like Denmark’s Stauning are altering our perception of what’s ‘normal’
I should have been used to the improvisatory aspect of Nordic distilling by then. The day before, Lars Williams had wandered into a clutter of tanks vats, pipes and probes and returned, holding the lid of a pressure cooker with various wires dangling from it. ‘I rigged this up and made it into a vacuum still,’ he says, with a surprising insouciance. ‘You did retreat when you used it for the first time?’ said Nick Strangeway, who was with me on the visit. ‘No, if it went wrong it would’ve imploded,’ Lars pointed out. ‘Actually, I suppose I did step back a little.’ Welcome to the world of empirical distilling, or rather Copenhagen’s Empirical Spirits, of which Lars is the co-founder.
Refshaleøen, on the edgelands of Copenhagen’s docks where Empirical is located, looks like the setting of some Nordic Noir series. It is in fact relatively close to the original Noma restaurant where among many other things, Lars ran the test kitchen.
He jumped ship this year to take his fascination for fermentation to the next step – making spirits – or to be more precise asking, ‘what is distillation?’ and ‘what is a spirit?’. He and the team aren’t making shochu, whisky, gin, or fruit spirits, but liquids which occupy a liminal space between all of those.
Outside the box: Lars Williams demonstrates how Empirical’s pressure cooker operates. Right: the site’s koji sauna
The base is made from pearl barley that’s inoculated with koji. Needing more volume Lars has modified a giant butter churn to rotate and steep the barley. ‘We’re just hoping it doesn’t roll off when we get it going,’ he says. I notice that his desk is clear of the potential disaster, sitting on top of the wood-lined former shipping container which is used as the koji ‘sauna’.
If it sounds ramshackle, it’s not. There’s hardcore science behind all of this questioning and adaptation (and creation) of distillation equipment. They’re asking why a spirit has to be strong, why a base spirit has to be neutral, whether you can focus on precise flavours by taking micro cuts from a spirit run and retain the portions you want; whether a distilled kombucha spirit can be used to give an acidic intensity to a fruit spirit. It’s more lab than distillery and as the answers come it’s one which will grow in importance.
The origin story of Stauning is more… earthy. A group of nine friends deciding to make whisky because, well, they liked whisky. Lasse and his brothers came from a family of butchers and so set up Stauning Mark 1 in the old abattoir. As you do. The cold store was used for floor malting, the barley was peated on a barbecue grill in the smokehouse, the grist was minced in a meat grinder, fermentation was in an old pickling vat, distilling took place in two small Portuguese pots fired with wood. And you know what? It worked. They’re engineers, you see. When a challenge arose they found a way around it.
In November 2007 they expanded to an old farm. Therein the barley is malted in two long lanes turned by gently rotating flails which they designed, mashed in the mink-skinning/washing machine combo, fermented in open-top washbacks and distilled in pots of the same shape as the originals, just larger – and still direct fired.
There’s unpeated and peated expressions (using local peat), a remarkable heather-smoked one, and another that’s been aged on an ocean-going schooner. American oak is the normal cask type, but there’s a nod to the local with the use of cherry wine casks for finishing.
Express lane: Stauning’s barley is malted in two long lanes
Now with a thanks to seed money from Diageo's Distil Ventures a new distillery is taking shape, but the approach and equipment will remain the same, just at a larger scale – 900,000lpa larger in fact, coming from 24 pots of the same shape, and still direct fired.
It’s all been a product of improvisation and empirical testing, where flavour was more important than efficiency.
Distillation has always been like this: a constant process of trial and error, and finding solutions. Don’t think for a moment that whisky’s story is a line of gentle improvement. It’s filled with blind alleys and failures, a story of bodging and inspiration, and happy accidents. It’s a fusion of the minds of alchemists, the women who ran the stills in grand houses and farmers making do with what they had. Style emerges from this glorious mess.
What is happening at Stauning and Empirical and numerous other new distilleries is a continuation of this ‘what if?’ impulse which results in new flavours and a progression of spirits’ saga. There is no guidebook, no path that has to be slavishly followed. The element of chance, and inspired improvisation is a thread which has always linked all great spirits.
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