Food & Drinks

One More Round of “Fuck Trump,” With Feeling | PUNCH

It all started in a stockpot. A thick slurry of vibrant orange habanero chile peppers studded with pulp and seeds, so fiery that those processing the mixture wear hazmat suits, goggles and masks to protect themselves from the swirling spirit. As incendiary as its habanero base is its name: Fuck Trump and His Stupid Fucking Wall. And it’s in its last run.

The brainchild of Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen, who opened Empirical, an experimental flavor-driven distillery in 2017, the 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.

The spirit itself, however, was developed a full year before it was given its memorable moniker, says Williams. The liquid started as a thick mass of habaneros—about a pound for each bottle—macerated in a base made from barley koji and pilsner malt, which emerges from distillation pristine and clear, the capsicum sting stripped away. What’s left is the habanero’s fruity core, with a flavor profile that suggests juicy red fruit, cantaloupe and bell pepper.

At first, “It was an exercise in flavor for us,” says Williams. “We were trying to share what we thought was a fresh look at a flavor that people are quite familiar with.” Empirical, after all, bills itself as a “flavor company,” not a spirits company. (Although they were formerly known as Empirical Spirits, they quietly dropped the latter part six months ago when they started producing hot sauce and other non-alcoholic provisions.)

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The provocative name came second. Hermansen insists it wasn’t a calculated gimmick. “It was not a political move, it was a moment of rage,” he says. “It was on a whim, but very much an emotional reaction.”

In fact, other names were in consideration. Williams recalls trying to spotlight the ties between habanero peppers and Mexico; “Santa Maria” was an early contender. Of course, all that changed after Williams read about then-President Trump’s plans to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico. His outrage simmered.

“I was in the shower, and I just said, we’ll call this fucking thing ‘Fuck Trump and His Stupid Fucking Wall,’” he remembers. “Everyone got so excited about it. The spirit just caught on fire… It sold out in 45 minutes online.”

After that first run, Empirical tried to distance itself from what had been intended as a one-time-only impulse bottling. They still loved the unexpected fruity spirit, but wanted to sell it under a different name. They were wary of being pigeonholed as an activist brand. “We got people in Britain asking, when is ‘Fuck Brexit’ or ‘Fuck Boris’ coming?” Hermansen recalls. “That was never a topic of discussion.”

Yet, demand for the divisive bottle remained strong, so repeat batches followed.

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“It comes in, it sells out, and it stays sold out until they release a new batch,” says Adi Pal, co-founder of Mash&Grape, an online marketplace for craft spirits that sells Empirical’s products in the U.S. “It’s just a testament to the little niche they’ve created.”

Over the course of 20 months, FTAHSFW spanned 12 batches in total, raising over $10,000 for RAICES, which provides legal services to immigrants and refugees in Texas. (For each bottle sold through Empirical, the brand donated a portion of proceeds to the organization.)

Empirical credits the spirit’s ongoing success to the same gut-punch feeling Williams had when he conceived the product’s name.

“It was a very honest, visceral thing.” Williams says. “People had a similar visceral reaction to the spirit, to the events—they could see the importance. We’re a small distillery, but it was what we could do as a company, and our customers embraced that.”

On January 20, 2021, the day Trump left office and Joe Biden was inaugurated, Empirical released its final batch of FTAHSFW.

“It feels like a relief to do the last batch,” said Williams, speaking on January 20, during the space between Trump’s departure and Biden’s swearing-in. “We’re so sick of talking about this guy. We’ll be glad to not have this be part of the discussion and celebrate the spirit for the pure flavor that it is.”

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In other words, the habanero spirit itself isn’t going away. That said, “It will have different cultural relevance,” and will be given a new name, Williams says. Though it’s still under wraps, he hints that the new name will retain a political bent. “It will still … be standing up against leaders that are not representing people. But we want it to be more playful and forward-looking.”

This new batch with its new name is anticipated to drop in June when habaneros are at their peak. “This will be a seasonal product,” says Hermansen. “Like asparagus season, it will be ‘Fuck Trump’ season.”

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