Review: The Doritos X Empirical Collab Is An Eccentric Spirit That Avoids Being Cheesy

The enjoyment of food and drinks employs our senses. We see an artfully designed dish or cocktail, smell its aroma, enjoy the taste, and create memories. Like hearing your favorite song from high school or college, that dish's taste can transport you to a particular place in time, with the flavors bringing joy and reflection. 

Danish liquor company Empirical Spirits captures that sense of wonder and nostalgia by creating a liquor line that does not conform to a particular type of spirit, like your standard vodka, gin, or whiskey. Instead, the spirits company, founded by Noma restaurant alums Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen, focuses on flavor and innovation. 

Hermansen was the concept manager, and Williamson led research and development at the three Michelin-starred Copenhagen destination, considered one of the best restaurants in the world. In 2017, the duo turned their focus to alcohol, employing many of Noma's concepts, including sustainability, flavor transformations, and uncommon ingredients, creating a range of uncategorized spirits. 

The products begin with ingredients like sorghum, malted barley, and purple wheat. These ingredients are then macerated and blended with herbs, spices, and botanicals, like pasilla mixe chili, coffee leaves, lemon, fig, tangerine, and, in the case of its latest offering, Doritos Nacho Cheese Chips. The newly released spirit made its debut in December 2023. We recently had a chance to try the liquor. Here is everything you need to know about Doritox x Empirical.

What is Doritos x Empirical?

With an eye on the unconventional and coloring outside the lines, Empirical Spirits Company is constantly testing and creating unexpected flavor profiles for its portfolio, redefining how you look at alcohol. The story for the nacho cheese-flavored spirit began in the company's early days when co-founder, chef/distiller, and CEO Lars Williams was testing all types of ingredients to see how they interacted with each other and the production process. One of his colleagues was getting ready to enjoy a bag of the Nacho Cheese flavored Doritos with lunch. Instead, it went into Willams's next creation, a colorless vacuum-distilled liquor tasting like the nacho cheese corn chips. 

The drink was initially only available at the distillery, often given as samples to chefs and friends of the company. In 2023, Empirical partnered with the owner of Doritos, PepsiCo/Frito Lay, to produce the limited-release Doritos x Empirical nacho cheese corn chip-flavored spirit.

You may be asking yourself, why Doritos? It could be because Doritos is the leading corn chip company in America. Statista reports that Doritos sold over 1.1 billion snack units in the U.S. in 2023. The sales for Doritos far exceed its competition, selling almost three times that of its leading competitor, Tostitos. The corn chips are a familiar, crunchy, guilty pleasure, delivering just the right amount of tang, spice, salt, and umami.

How is it made?

Everything Empirical does is geared towards forward-looking inventions. Considering Williams and Hermansen's years of culinary experience, natural inquisitive nature, and the strong desire to change how people view alcohol, Empirical is redefining the spirits category. The team's zest for creativity and experimentation, infusing modernity with tradition and blending Eastern and Western techniques, produces artisanal spirits unlike most others. 

We had a chance to speak with Lars Williams regarding the production. The craftsmanship of Doritos x Empirical relies on custom machinery that allows for slow vacuum distillation. Williams told us, "Unlike traditional distillation methods, our process operates at lower temperatures, preserving the full spectrum of flavors derived from the maceration process. This ensures that the essence of the Doritos flavor profile is fully captured in the spirit."

Most liquor is distilled quickly and at high temperatures, which tends to strip flavor. Instead, Empirical takes a chef's approach in creating its spirits, knowing that working slowly and allowing the components time to meld will deliver a well-rounded, full-flavored product.

Williams shares that Empirical crafts the base spirit by slowly fermenting a pilsner malt distillate, similar to how you would ferment beer, which is distilled under a low-pressure vacuum at cool temperatures, ensuring flavor retention. The vacuum distillation separates the flavor compounds after the liquor and chips steep. These compounds are then blended to achieve the authentic Doritos aroma and taste in liquid form.

Ingredients and nutrition

Doritos X Empirical ingredients blend malted barley, Belgian saison yeast 2, and Doritos Nacho Cheese chips. The liquor is 42% alcohol by volume and includes no other flavorings or enhancements. The yeast typically has peppery, earthy, spicy traits with a slight tartness and citrus notes. Empirical prefers these traits as the yeast adds character to its alcohols.

While specific details on the caloric count of Empirical's new liquor are unavailable, a 1.5-ounce shot has around 100 calories for a standard 80-poof liquor, like rum or vodka (via MedLine Plus). The liquor macerates with the high-fat and calorie corn chips for an extended period, extracting the flavor and resulting in an alcohol that achieves the taste of Doritos without actually eating the chips. 

Unlike many liquors produced today, the spirit is not vegan-friendly. The chips contain cheddar and Romano cheese, buttermilk, and whey protein concentrate, which could result in a non-vegan beverage. Although unconfirmed, it's possible that Empirical could also use animal products, like eggs, as a fining agent to filter the crystal clear alcohol.

Taste test

To begin our tasting experience, we followed Empirical's advice. It recommends drinking the spirit neat and serving it cold by refrigerating it first. There are many theories on refrigerating alcohol. Sure, many of us keep our bottle of vodka in the freezer, as vodka intentionally is a neutral-flavored alcohol. However, the Empirical tasting experience includes enjoying the aroma, which cold temperatures can mask. 

Still, we followed the recommendation by trying a few ounces of the alcohol served neat, chilled, in a tulip-shaped wine glass with a wide bowl and narrow top to help concentrate the aromas. A quick swirl allowed the heat of the alcohol to dissipate, revealing a subtle Doritos aroma. We revisited the shot a few times over a short period as the chill wore off, finding more of the authentic nacho cheese and fried corn chip aromas and flavors coming through. Aside from the taste, the spirit has a smooth texture, coating the palate with a creamy richness. 

We next tried the product in a Bloody Mary cocktail, mixing it with tequila, as the brand recommends. Using expensive, high-quality liquors in the tomato-based drink may seem silly, as the mixer's potent flavors and spicescan dominate the overall taste. Yet, the savory snack chip's qualities were still detectable, coming through and amping up the complexity of the cocktail. Similarly, adding a splash of the spirit into a margarita cocktail lends earthy, peppery notes that give the tangy drink an unexpected dimension.

Price and availability

Doritos x Empirical is available for $65 for a 750-milliliter bottle. It is pricey for a bottle of alcohol; however, the artisanal qualities and craftsmanship of the small-batch product give merit to a high price point. When considering it in terms of a cocktail, a typical shot measures 1.5 ounces, so each bottle has 17 servings, making each drink cost just over $3.80 — likely less than your morning Starbucks iced coffee.

The first bottles were put on sale in December 2023, available in liquor stores in New York and California and through the company website. The product is sold out online at the time of publication. Select retailers may still have a bottle or two available, though they may charge a slightly higher price. Empirical's website notes that the product should be available again later this month, though the opportunity to preorder is currently not available. Still, it does give the option to receive a notification when it is. It also notes that price-match or promotions do not apply to Doritos x Empirical.

How does Doritos x Empirical compare to other flavored spirits?

Empirical is unique. Instead of conforming to a specific spirit category, Empirical's continual pursuit to create something original, stepping outside the boundaries, makes it stand out. Specifically regarding Doritos x Empirical, the company's goal was to capture each of the flavor characteristics of Doritos in a liquid form. And no other spirit company steeps nacho cheese-flavored corn chips into its liquor. 

There are producers creating liquors that touch on similar flavor profiles, like Duckworth Vodka's Black Truffle Vodka, infusing a seven-times distilled vodka with the tuber melanosporum to deliver an earthy umami note akin to Empirical. Ancho Reyes Ancho Chili liqueur brings the heat and spiciness of fresh Mexican peppers, as does Absolut Peppar, infusing black pepper notes into the spirit. Velveeta even partnered with BLT Steakhouse in 2022 to create a specialty martini that matched vodka with the company's processed yellow cheese. However, none bring in the flavor of tangy nacho cheese with spicy pepper, salt, earthy fried corn tortillas, and subtle acidity like Empirical.

Is Doritos x Empirical worth buying?

Dorito lovers should rejoice in the collaboration between the chip company and Empirical, and the corn chips' high annual sales indicate they have a lot of fans. Whether it be a fluke research experiment or a joyful accident, Empirical has successfully produced a barley-based liquor with the authentic taste of Doritos Nacho Cheese Chips. 

While we appreciate this genuine taste and the soft and smooth texture, we prefer the taste when combined with a mixer. It needs an additional component to round out the flavors, creating a complete drink. The umami it brought to a Bloody Mary was favorable, enhancing the piquant qualities of the brunch cocktail. We recommend it if the drink is your weekend morning must-have go-to. Still, it is an expensive flavor booster. 

The nice thing about the product is that a little goes a long way, as the taste is bold and pronounced. This means if you can get your hand on a bottle, it will last a long time if you decide to purchase it, especially if you keep it in the fridge, ensuring it will remain fresh.