Soak it up!
If you are reading this, you’ve very likely tasted an Empirical spirit or CAN at least once in your life. And maybe you’ve wondered how we’ve captured all the delicate layers from our botanicals, turning them into universal sense memories and experiences to share.
Well, you’re about to be steeped into the world of maceration, my friend! Buckle up!
Capturing the essence of a memory
Have you ever walked in a field in spring, when everything is blooming, and thought ‘Damn, that’s what happiness smells like”?
Do you remember the warm aromas of a summer market with its ripe fruits and flowers, and how it made your day just that bit better?
Or is it the nostalgia of your granny’s perfume mixed with all the buttery and jammy flavors of her freshly baked tart that gets you every time?
Regardless of what it is, we bet you dreamed at one point to capture this precious moment and bottle it, and fight the beauty but also the cruelty of ephemerality.
Needless to say, you’re not the first and won't be the last. Alchemists of old have been scratching their heads long before us, trying to elicit all these aromas from nature, constantly experimenting with different methods of extraction, and ultimately creating the world of perfumes.
What we do at Empirical is no different.
There are an incredible number of techniques to extract scents and flavors. And for us, it all comes down to maceration.
First things first, here is a bit of semantics for you. The word ‘macerate’ comes from the Latin verb macerare, meaning ‘to soften’ or ‘to steep’. As our friend the dictionary mentions, it also meant “to mortify the flesh”. Promise, we won’t go all The Perfume on you there but, a little bit of trivia knowledge never hurt anyone.
So, you got it, to extract all the beautiful flavors and aromas you find in our spirits and cans, steeping our ingredients in different kinds of solvents is the key.
Once we get our hands on a new botanical we want to further explore, the first step is for us to find the best way to treat it to reach our desired flavor profile. Since each ingredient has its own very distinct organic make-up, it is not a one-size-fits-all ordeal.
Essentially, the various solvents used for our macerations will interact with the given ingredients by going through the very small gaps in the elements’ outside membrane to take with it all its flavors. You can only imagine that a delicate flower and a sturdy plum kernel outside membranes are distinct. And that is why we treat them differently.
The Empirical Way
While some of our spirits rely on a sole botanical, some others will bring in an array of flavors, all participating with distinct nuances creating the balance of the final blend.
Each ingredient will be separately macerated in our base spirit (called low-wine) when this is the case. This is not only because they all require different lengths of time to get friendly with the spirit, but also because we will use different techniques of maceration, chosen for the specific make-up and flavor profiles of each ingredient.
The Plum, I Suppose is a great example of it. We first grind our plum stones to release the marzipan-forward kernels, then macerate them under a vacuum to force the low wine into them and as a result extract as much as possible this beautiful bitter almond flavor we love. To finish, we distill the whole without straining in our vacuum still.
On the other hand, the marigold petals that bring all the balance to the final spirit are much more delicate. Therefore, we use a different technique by simply soaking them into our spirit, before straining them for distillation.
What about the smoky and fruity Pasilla Mixe of Ayuuk? Well, we go all-in with it and directly blend in the low wine and distill the whole mixture.
It is not just the state of the ingredients which dictates how the flavor will show. It has also a lot to do with the liquid they are macerated in.
It's all about that base
At Empirical, we do everything from scratch, we hand-select our grains and other sources of sugar to commence the process, and we trial many different strains of yeast to create the perfect flavor canvases for each spirit. While the floral barley koji elevates the soft flavors of plum kernels and marigold petals, our purple wheat brings the robust and toasty body needed to support the fragrant smokiness of the Pasilla Mixe. In that sense, creating this flavorsome coarse material as our starting point for our spirits feels like choosing the perfect fabric for your new garment. When it fits, you just know it.
Now, let’s talk about cans, shall we? As you may already know, our CANs are each a combination of different macerations that are then blended and carbonated for everybody’s pleasure.
We use three different bases for our macerations - water, spirit, and kombucha - and for a good reason. As it happens, some compounds of a botanical can only be soluble in alcohol and not water, or acidic solutions. Different liquids mean different flavors.
That is why the green gooseberries of CAN 01 and the sour cherries of CAN 02 are both macerated in water and spirit to extract different flavor compounds of the respective fruits.
When it comes to kombucha, we’ve got to admit that we are slightly obsessed with acidity and the balance it gives to our blends. As it turns out, the young pine cones of CAN 02 as well as the fig leaves of CAN 03 are kombucha macerations. But it does not end there.
Remember the marigold petals we mentioned earlier that make our Plum, I Suppose shine? These also see a second life! After being macerated in our spirit and strained, they still impart a lot of flavors we are not ready to let go of and throw in the bin. So we take them again for a spin in the form of a kombucha, which will then be distilled to bring the ABV down of our final blend.
Maceration vs infusion?
Alright, at first, it very much sounds like it’s the same thing, but it isn’t really.
When we talk about maceration at Empirical, we describe the steeping of botanicals in our spirit base, to then be distilled. Vacuum distillation will act as a magnifying glass for the ingredients' flavors, concentrating them even further.
Infusion on the other hand is a softer process, where the ingredients are soaked in a cold finished product and strained. By doing so, we control the concentration of flavor extracted and use them as balancing touches.
And sometimes, we do both in the same spirit like in Symphony 6. Let’s have a look at how it all works in our ‘summer dream’ spirit.
In Symphony 6, we start the process with four different macerations. Lemon and mandarin leaves are macerated together in our low wine. We then macerate fig leaves and coffee leaves separately. The coffee leaves come in treated like tea through a bruising, oxidizing, and drying process. Each maceration takes between 2 and 4 days, to allow full botanical expression. They are then distilled and blended to create our flavor canvas.
In addition to the three distillates, we separately infuse black currant buds, coffee leaves, ambrette seeds, and vetiver roots in our low wine and strain them. These are bringing the final touch and balance to the full blend.
Yep, we did go all out on this one!
Make it quick
Ok, so we’ve covered the ‘how’ and ‘why’, but how about the how long?
As you can imagine, each botanical is on its own schedule. While some take a quick dip of barely 20 minutes in their bath, some get cozy in there for several days. But can we make it faster? Well, that’s why we got ourselves a new toy to play around with; an ultrasonic transducer from Hielscher.
Yes, it sounds cool too.
This cavitation tool is mainly used to speed up the aging process of spirits, but we found a different use for it. In our CAN 01, we make a tea with toasted birch shavings which normally requires three days of maceration but, with the transducer, we magically reduce it to two hours. Fun toy.
It doesn’t mean it works with everything though. We have been experimenting with cavitation to assess whether we could unlock and extract new layers of flavors along the way. We found out that it is completely dependent on the botanical. For Instance, in Ayuuk we use the very fragrant, fruity, and smoky Pasilla Mixe chili as the sole botanical ingredient. Cavitation did not work there for us; we could notice very little increase in flavor intensity or novel flavors coming out of the process.