Pioneering Spirit

By: Tod Stewart

The warm afternoon sun is making late-September feel like mid-August. I’m here at Dillon’s Distillery with one of its pre-bottled Manhattans in hand. Sure, the busy Queen Elizabeth Way highway – a stone’s throw away – is adding some traffic noise to the serenity of the whole experience, but I can live with it. I mean, I’d rather be near the highway with a drink than on it, given how traffic can turn this whole stretch of the Toronto-Niagara pipeline into vehicular sludge.

  Located in Beamsville, Ontario, about a half hour’s drive (depending on the aforementioned road conditions) from Niagara Falls, Pure Spirits Distilling Corporation – aka Dillon’s Distillery (established in 2012) – is one of Canada’s pioneering small batch distilleries. Founded by Geoff Dillon and his father, Peter (both of whom hold degrees in biochemistry), the distillery appears to follow a philosophy that is both focused and fun…and guided by a real passion for distilling.

  “I grew up with a father who was passionate about single malt scotch whiskies,” confesses Geoff Dillon. “When it was time for me to go to university, I decided to follow in his footsteps by studying biochemistry. During my studies I fell deeply in love with the art and science of distillation. Brewing and winemaking were one thing, but when it came to distilling, I discovered that the possibilities were endless.”

  Like many distillers in Canada, Dillon was intrigued by the concept of creating an authentic Canadian rye whisky (i.e., one actually made from rye). But by Canadian law, whisky needs to be aged a minimum of three years, so, as with many other distillers, Dillon kept the wheels on by diversifying its portfolio…and it would appear there’s nary a spirit he hasn’t taken a run at.

  “We’re big into the experimentation side of things, so there’s always new spirits going into bottles,” Dillon enthuses. And rather than operating in a self-contained bubble when it comes to measuring the success of this experimentation, Dillon relies on external input.

  “We have a program at Dillon’s called the ‘Sipping Society,’” Dillon explains. “Through this program we bring together a group of like-minded spirit connoisseurs who have a chance to trial some of our innovations before they hit the shelves.”

  Of course, being a small pioneering entity in a world inhabited by much bigger players introduced a number of challenges to overcome. These included dealing with not only punitive taxation rates (since they lightened somewhat in Ontario, but still not to the extent as in a few other provinces) but some rather odd rules that were in place at the time Dillon’s was getting underway.

  “You needed to have a larger-than-5,000-liter pot still to be allowed to open an onsite distillery retail store,” Dillon recalls. In Ontario, if we didn’t have that, we would have had only one channel to sell into.” Dillon’s team came up with a pretty clever workaround. Having a 5,000 liter still in addition to separate mash tanks would have been a prohibitively costly and space-hogging affair. So, in cooperation with the German company, Carl GmbH, the world’s first 8,000-liter hybrid mash tank/pot still was developed to save space and money while eliminating the need for separate components.

  However, distilling requires more than just equipment. It takes dedicated and knowledgeable staff.

  “Building a team who believed in the concept and vision was our priority,” Dillon recounts. “We are in this incredible area of Niagara, which is not just surrounded by wineries and breweries, but winemaking and brewing education programs. There is a local distillation program at the Niagara College, where we are able to pull some of the most knowledgeable people from the beer, wine and spirits industry. Once we had a foundation of strong and passionate people, we had to determine what we were going to make and how we would source the ingredients.” To that end, Dillon availed himself of local ingredients largely supplied by local farmers.

  “It has always been a priority for us to work with local farmers,” he reveals. “I feel very lucky we made Niagara our home. We are surrounded by our farming community that grows fresh ingredients for us so we can make the best and most unique spirits.”

  Besides developing a close bond with the farming community to source local ingredients, Dillon’s stays clear of any artificial flavors. “So, if it’s a year when yields are lower or something didn’t grow, it can limit our production,” Dillon admits, adding, “We can’t make peach schnapps unless we can get our hands on the right peaches.”

  When it comes to actual production, Dillon’s “keeps things simple.”

  Dillon reveals that every spirit “…is made from one of two bases: rye grain or grapes. We work with a handful of local grape-growers to grow enough wine grapes annually to make our Unfiltered Gin 22 and our grape-based vodka. This grape base gives a unique viscosity and mouthfeel to the spirits that only grapes can provide. Just about every other spirit we produce comes from rye grain, grown locally by our friends in Brant County, about an hour’s drive west of the distillery.”

  “For flavoured spirits like strawberry gin, we begin with our rye base then finish by macerating fresh, ripe strawberries grown by our neighbors across the street,” he said. “We do something similar for our other fruit spirits, like peach schnapps, cherry gin or even the walnut amaro.”

  The garden in front of the distillery that began life to supply the ingredients for Dillon’s absinthe has grown over the past decade and now supplies botanicals to a number of spirits, ranging from lavender to hot peppers.

  Even the barrels Dillon uses for maturation are unique. While some ex-bourbon barrels are used, other casks are made by a local cooper. “He makes them just for us,” Dillon reveals. “We pick the trees, and then they are made locally just up the road.”

  Besides small-batch distillates, Dillon’s crafts an ever-growing range of premixed cocktails with the assistance of, in Dillon’s words, “…some superstar bartenders that work exclusively for us. They help us make unique, delicious and proper cocktails.” There’s also a mind-boggling range of bitters, with flavors ranging from rhubarb to wormwood, fennel and ginger. “At Dillon’s, we are all about cocktails,” Dillon maintains. “Most cocktails have some form of bitters in them. From the very first day we opened our doors, we knew bitters needed to play a big component in what we are doing.”

  Definitely a man with a vision, Dillon has watched  the distilling landscape evolve around him, with his distillery being at the forefront of many positive changes. The evolution has been rapid over the decade that Dillon’s has been in business, to the point where Ontario has 45 such establishments, with that number continuing to grow. If you factor in “contract” or “virtual distillers,” that number swells to over 150. He also has plans to introduce a handful of new products to market, including melon gin, a seven-year-old single-cask rye, a cask strength rye and, as of this November, the return of a brandy made from local grapes. 

  Distillers and spirit aficionados south of the border might consider visiting their northern neighbor and drop into Dillon’s for a professionally made cocktail or a spirit sampling. I was fortunate enough to try the following:

  Dillon’s Niagara Peach Schnapps (Batch 4, 24% ABV):  Lighter, drier and more natural tasting than what you’d typically find, with subtle, fresh peach aromas, a clean, balanced palate and a long finish.

  Dillon’s Cherry (Batch 28, 35% ABV):  A gin base infused with local cherries, then lightly sweetened. A distinctly juniper-scented gin base isn’t overpowered by the additional aromas of sour cherry/black cherry. The slight bitterness of the fruit harmonizes well with the sweetness/spice of the base spirit. Try in a cherry G&T or a French martini.

  Dillon’s Single Grain “Three Oaks” Rye Whisky (Batch 20, 43% ABV):  Geoff Dillon’s dream was to create an authentic Canadian rye whisky, and he’s done so admirably here. Made from a mash bill of 100 percent Ontario rye and aged (as the name suggests) in a combination of new Ontario oak, new American oak and first-fill bourbon barrels, it shows classic, spicy/dusty rye on the nose, with a hint of dried citrus peel. Warm, round and balanced in the mouth, with layers of fruity/spicy rye, vanilla and caramel, it’s quite gentle while remaining elegant and complex.

  Nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake is a quaint little town that’s definitely worth visiting. In fact, stay for a few days for some winery/distillery/brewery visits, great food, interesting shopping options and beautiful scenery. I’d highly recommend making the 124 on Queen Hotel and Spa your base because it has great amenities and is close to everything – like Treadwell, a can’t-fail choice for local “farm-to-table” cuisine and an outstanding local/international wine selection. Although “authentic Italian” has come to mean many things, Ruffino’s Pasta Bar & Grill is definitely your place if you’re looking for the real deal. Formerly the acclaimed Stone Road Grille, it was reimagined (due to COVID, of course) as something a bit less formal, but every bit as enticing. It’s about a 15-minute walk from 124 on Queen (though the walk home might be a bit slower).

  Cheers, and I hope to see you up this way soon!

Back on the (Rye) Ranch

By: Tod Stewart

Just close your eyes…“You can see Faith, Hope and Charity as they bank above the fields….” – Al Stewart, “Flying Sorcery,” from the album “Year of the Cat.”

  Stewart was likely referencing the nickname of the three Gloster Gladiator fighter planes flown during the Siege of Malta in WWII in that line. From 10,000 or so feet, I was looking down at a different, though similarly named, trio as my Bell 407, flown by Alpine Helicopters Inc., banked languidly port-side. Referred to as the “Three Sisters” (Faith, Hope, and Charity – or Big Sister, Little Sister and Middle Sister, respectively), their peaks jut skywards as part of the South Banff Range of the Canadian Rockies.

  The breathtaking flight was just one of the many memorable activities arranged by my host, Alberta Distillers Ltd. (ADL), as part of the “Rye Ranch” experience. Over the course of four days, I was to get an intimate look at all facets of Canadian whisky production. I would also have the honor of being one of the first “civilians” (i.e., not a member of the Bean Suntory, ADL’s parent company team) to taste ADL’s latest rye whisky expression. Both of these would go a long way in helping answer the question: what makes Canadian whisky unique?

  Founded in 1946, ADL has risen to become perhaps the most respected and significant distiller of rye whisky on the planet today. In fact, its Alberta Premium expression is the top-selling rye whisky in the world. Davin De Kergommeaux (DDK), who, as I mentioned in my previous Beverage Master Magazine story, literally wrote the book on Canadian whisky, doesn’t mince words. “I think ADL is my #1 Canadian distillery right now for quality whisky and straight-shooting staff. [It’s] the best rye distillery in the world, and they make so much else besides.”

  Seeing as how I had DDK on the line, I thought this might be as good an opportunity as any to get an expert’s opinion on what, precisely, makes whisky from Canada unique.

  “The key to making great Canadian whisky is blending many components to make a whisky with consistent flavor from batch to batch,” he began. “Each component is made to emphasize specific qualities which blenders then integrate batch by batch. The amount of each component used can be adjusted as needed for each new batch, to even out any differences in the grain from different growing seasons, and any differences among barrels.”

More about barrels in a bit. Carry on DDK….

  “Making individual components also allows distillers to tailor maturation to the specific distillate – charred oak for corn, toasted for rye, for example. Spirits aged in a variety of barrels and for different lengths of time give noticeably different whiskies and blenders are able to use just the right amount of each in the final blend so they get exactly the flavor profile and texture they are looking for.”

  He simplifies the concept this way: “American whisky-makers blend the grains together in mash bills, while Canadian whisky makers blend them as mature spirits. Each has its advantages, and each gives the resulting whisky its own personality, so one approach is not better than the other, just different.”

  While at the Rye Ranch (and before a truly superb dinner prepared by Chef Corinna Murray from Personal Thyme), I managed to corner George Teichroeb, ADL’s general manager, into one of those unprepared for, unscripted and (likely for him), totally annoying one-on-ones to pepper him with similar questions. Dressed in my awesome boots and Stetson from Lammle’s Western Wear (if you wanna look like cow-poke, this is the place), I brashly asked questions like, “Did I hear you say earlier in the day that making bourbon is easy, but making Canadian rye whisky is more challenging?” (Teichroeb has spent time in Kentucky – at distilleries, not in prisons, as far as I know –  so, he’s up on the ins and outs of both whisky styles.)

Beverage Master Magazine: Did I hear you say earlier in the day that making bourbon is easy, but making Canadian rye whisky is more challenging?

George Teichroeb: Well, to be clear, I didn’t say making bourbon was necessarily easy.

BM: Okay, fine. It was a bit loud on the distillery floor. But you said something along those lines, right?

GT: What I said was that with bourbon, there are guidelines set out for its production that remove some of the complexities of the process that we, as Canadian whisky producers, face.

  We can use continuous distillation, batch column distillation or kettle, and we can determine how much of each style make up the final blend with a fair amount of flexibility. If we were making bourbon, we would be much more regulated. With Canadian whisky, the distiller can decide which spirit and at what strength can go into a specific type of barrel. At ADL, we use ex-bourbon, new Canadian and multi-use barrels – and we have the advantage of deciding which option to choose.

BM: It would seem that Canadian whisky is “a thing” again. Why, from your point of view, is this happening?

GT: I read an article about three years ago that said from 2009 to 2019, there was a 230 percent increase in global distillers’ use of rye grain in their whiskies. Consumers and distillers have started to understand that the use of rye creates a flavor profile that is very unique, and this has led to a refocusing on the country that’s been a pioneer in rye distillation—namely, Canada.

BM: So, it really is a ryevolution!

GT: [Deadpan glance].

BM: Um, sorry. What, then, from your perspective, sets Canadian whisky apart from all others?

GT: I think there are certain historical standards that play a large part. Canadian whisky has to be matured for at least three years. It has to be aged in wood and on Canadian soil, but these are requirements that are similar to those of other countries. It’s in the blending process where Canadian whisky makers’ expertise comes to the forefront, and consumers are really starting to understand the value of skillful blending.

BM: Anything about the Canadian whisky industry you’d like to see changed?

GT: You shouldn’t be able to call a whisky “rye” if there isn’t, in fact, any rye in the blend! [In my previous Beverage Master piece, I mentioned the somewhat strange situation that distinguishes “rye whisky” as a category rather than a reflection of what is distilled.]

BM: Where do you see ADL, and the Canadian whisky industry in general, heading into the future?

GT: It’s been great that ADL has always been seen as a pioneer rye distiller, but this doesn’t mean we won’t continue to try new things in the future. We will continue to consistently use prairie rye as a main whisky ingredient, and I think this association with specific, regionally-grown grains will take hold in other Canadian distilleries. You might see different strains of corn being used in the eastern Canadian provinces. The prairies will likely remain heavy on wheat, which is a great base for vodkas.

  While touring ADL’s barrel warehouses a few days back, I noticed another unique feature of many Canadian distilleries: the use of pallets rather than racks for barrel maturation. While this is common in the majority of Canadian whisky distilleries and significantly improves efficiency, the verdict is out on whether it has any negative effects on the aging of whisky. To play it safe, ADL incorporates both rack and pallet warehouses. Racking barrels increases airflow around them and gives the liquid greater exposure to the barrel heads, both of which have a beneficial impact on development.

  Other features that are unique to ADL’s whiskies are the use of predominantly unmalted rye and (because of this) the reliance on in-house reactors that yield one of the two types of enzymes that make up the “enzyme cocktail” used to convert rye starch to glucose.

  One aspect that’s unique to all Canadian whiskies, and the one that stirs up the most consternation, is the “controversial” 9.09 regulation, which, in reality, is much ado about nothing. I won’t go into a long dissertation on how this regulation came about (there has been plenty written about it), but the upshot is that a Canadian whisky distiller is permitted to add up to ten percent of another liquid to every 100 liters of mature whisky. So, for example, ten liters added to 100 liters brings the total volume to 110 liters, and ten percent of that volume works out to one-eleventh or 9.09 percent). This “other liquid” is typically un-aged whisky or wine.

  While purists like to rant about this, think of how much “non-scotch” winds up in Scottish whiskey finished in casks that once held sherry, port or Madeira. Teichroeb sees this regulation as beneficial in that it adds a degree of flexibility to the generally ridged requirements whisky makers are governed by. And it allows blenders to introduce subtle flavoring elements to a final blend, the result of which I was about to taste.

  As the sun dipped low behind the majestic Rockies in the distance, and as the embers of the campfire contributed to the glow of our already-somewhat glowing group, Teichroeb poured us drams of ADL’s latest whisky: Reifel Rye. Named in honor of the distilling family that helped establish ADL, it is a 100 percent Canadian rye whisky showing distinctive, dusty/spicy rye on the nose, with subtle hints of vanilla custard and dried fruit. Smooth, warm, mildly fruity/spicy and beautifully balanced, it was the perfect nightcap to wrap up with what had been a pretty much perfect stay in Canadian whisky country.

Slowly Sipping Premium Sake

By: Hanifa Sekandi

You have most likely sipped on this subtle, smooth spirit at your favorite sushi restaurant. Sake is a drink that warms up your soul and shockingly excites your senses. Some would say it brings the same joy as tequila. But you do not see it coming. Sake is a humble beverage that does not announce its presence immediately on the palette. Its balanced flavor profile satisfies the desire to sip and dine without overpowering the experience. Alas, a few sakes in, there it is, a feeling unlike any other alcoholic beverage you have sipped on before. It does not hit you in the chest or burn the throat. That tipsy feeling comes later, even for those who don’t consider themselves lightweights.

  Sake has enchanted North American imbibing culture. So much so that it has transitioned from the beautiful Japanese restaurants where most people first experienced it to liquor stores across the US. As of late, luxury sake brands are making headway, creating an alcoholic beverage niche just like wine and other high-end spirits and liquors. Like premium tequila, it is becoming a staple on bar carts for those who value a selective drinking experience where just anything will not do. It is about quality and the story that makes the alcohol they drink meaningful.

What is Sake?

  Sake is a Japanese alcoholic beverage. The word sake in Japanese describes all alcoholic beverages. Nihonshu is what sake is called in Japan, most likely something sake enthusiasts in the West are unaware of since this designation is rarely used in western Japanese restaurants. For most people, their first experience with sake is at a Japanese restaurant. While dining on seafood dishes, sake is served and an excellent pairing for this type of cuisine. So, what is sake? Sake is a translucent rice wine. It is often served in a small cup called an Ochoko. It is made with rice and water and brewed by converting starch to sugar. From the sugar, alcohol is produced. The brewing process of sake involves several steps.

  The sake brewing process starts with polishing the rice to remove the outer layer. Once this stage is complete, the rice is soaked to ensure that any leftover bran is removed. Next, the rice is steamed to cultivate koji cultures, an imperative component of making sake. While one batch of rice steams, Koji mold is added to the steamed rice. The steamed rice and rice with added koji mold are mixed in a tank containing yeast to create a starter. Next, the mashed ingredients are transferred to a tank with steamed rice, water and koji, frequently added during the alcohol fermentation period of approximately one month. The fermented mash is then pressed and stored.

  As you begin the at-home sake experience, you need to buy the appropriate cups since the size of the cup, the shape and the material it is made with influence the fragrance of sake. There are several vessels that one can use to serve sake. For example, a masu container is a small wooden box with a shot glass placed in the center. Another vessel is a Sakazuki, a flat wide-mouthed cup used for Shinto ceremonies and rituals. Small shot glasses are another option for serving sake since thin glass supports a rich tasting experience. It is also suitable for high-quality sake. Shuki is a commonly used vessel. Shuki is a term generally used to describe all sake vessels. Wooden shukis are favorable since they enhance the aroma of sake and provide a milder aftertaste.

Sake Beginnings

  To truly appreciate an alcoholic beverage, it is essential to understand its beginnings. These stories over a warm meal with friends bring us together. Further, history demonstrates that bridges and communities have been built simply by sharing spices and drinks with people from different cultures. Sake has its own story. Although the birthdate of sake is hard to determine, its roots are intriguing. The Book of Wei in the Records of the Three Kingdoms contains Japan’s earliest record of alcoholic beverages. It is believed that sake dates back to the Nara period (710–794). Initially, sake was used during religious ceremonies. During the Heian period, sake was consumed as part of games and festivals.

  In the earlier stages of sake, before it became a viable commodity. The Imperial Court during the 8th and 10th centuries governed and controlled its production. The types of sake that people could drink were also determined by the rank they held in court. For example, clear, robust-flavored sake was reserved for those in high-status positions. People viewed as a lower class could only consume unrefined, cloudy brews. During this time, people drank sake for festivals and offerings to the gods.

  In the 12th and 14th centuries, shrines and temples became sake brewers and the central producers for over five hundred years. It was at the temples where the brewing process was perfected into three stages. Sake’s longevity, stronghold into the future and availability to the general public are due to these efforts that ushered in the production of sake at a scale. It is important to note that the upper-class nobility only had access to sake during this time. A move into commerce created a demand for this once-exclusive drink.

  Once specialized brewers entered the market in the 14th and 16th centuries, temples and shrines no longer held a monopoly on production. Innovations for serving sake made headway during this sake rebirth. New sake vessels offered an easy way to purchase sake to-go, a departure from the wooden pails. Fast-forward to present-day sake production, where technological advancements that commenced years prior and continue to improve brewing methods have allowed sake producers to distribute it globally. New avenues opened the door for the sale of refined luxury sake. It is no surprise that premium sake brands are finding a space among elite alcoholic beverages.

What Is Premium Sake?

  So, what is premium sake? Is it worth the price? Does it stand out among other luxury beverages? Luxury sake brands are just getting started. It will not be long before such brands are found next to top-shelf wines and spirits on bar menus in North America. Premium tequila has reigned supreme in recent years. It is now sake’s turn.

  Sake has an average ABV of 15% to 16%, quite compelling for those looking for an alternative to high alcohol content spirits. Not bad for a rice wine! Sake Hundred, a high-end sake developed by Ryuji Ikoma, a sake connoisseur who also founded Japan’s Saketimes, is gunning to shake up the fine wine and high-end Japanese whiskey terrain. Ikoma aims to “expose drinkers to the most outstanding examples of Japan’s national drink, showcasing its many styles and sophisticated complexities that allow it to pair with a myriad of cuisines well beyond that of simply sushi.” While developing his brand, he visited hundreds of Japanese breweries to learn about the techniques and art of making sake from those who have gained expertise through their lineage. In 2018, he launched Sake Hundred, a new portfolio of sake for a new generation of sake drinkers. He partnered with select breweries to help him produce his new line of high-end sake.

  “Our collection of sakes will take drinkers through a journey of both culture and taste, two elements that are closely intertwined in sake making. You can taste the personality of the sake brewer in our sake, just as you can taste the terroir of a fine wine,” noted Ikoma. He added, “Each part of Japan has its own culture and there is no better way to get to know that culture than through sake.”

  Sake Hundred released the limited edition Gengai with an eye-opening price tag of $3,100. Their flagship sake, Byakko Bespoke, made from the “king of sake rice,” Yamadanishiki retails at $380. Of course, other premium sake brands are eager to enter the U.S. Kikuhime ‘Kukurihime’ Ginjo Sake, produced by Kikuhime Brewery, is a top-shelf sake named as a tribute to the Goddess of Hakusan Mountain. The water near this mountain is used in this renowned, slowly aged sake for approximately ten years. Some retailers sell it for $650. Another notable high-end sake is Shukondeinoshiro Kamutachi. Producers of this sake only make 60 bottles a year. Luckily, the price tag on this sake is not as shocking. Getting a taste of this premium slow-matured rice wine is a possibility for those who do not mind splurging just a little. It retails at $229.

  Those in the know do not mind lower-priced sake while dining at their favorite sushi restaurant. Even if it sits at a lower price point, it is a great accompaniment to your meal. For many, this led them to explore the world of sake. Its rich cultural roots and the unique brewing process bring each bottle to life. Do not be surprised if it also becomes a member of the new-age beverage trend for individuals seeking wheat-free and gluten-free alcoholic drinks. For now, sipping on warmed sake feels just right.

The Sleeping Giant Awakes

By: Tod Stewart

Quiz for distillers: Legally speaking, what percentage of rye grain needs to go into the mash bill of a Canadian “rye” whisky? C’mon, don’t be shy…take a guess? If you are a distiller of rye whisky in the United States, at least 51 percent of your bill better be rye. So, in Canada, where “rye whisky” is the whisky, it’s gotta be at least that, right? Probably way more. Like, even 100 percent. Right? The answer is: None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Bupkis.

  A Canadian whisky can call itself “rye” without having even passed close to the rye fields of western Canada. This likely drives many Canadian whisky aficionados (not to mention craft whisky distillers) bonkers. As it should. It’s akin to discovering your tuna sub sandwich actually contains very little – if any – tuna. (Sorry, have you heard this already?) “So what,” you ask, “is the deal?”

  Well, the deal is a rather simple one. Canadian whisky was originally largely wheat-based. At some point (possibly a couple of hundred years ago), it was discovered that rye had more to offer in terms of character and flavor, and gradually more and more rye found its way into the mash mix. Although the amount of rye rarely exceeded about 10 percent (if that), even small amounts yielded a tastier spirit. Even as the shift from wheat as the main grain moved to corn, the term “rye whisky” became synonymous with “Canadian whisky.” This is why you can, legally, have a Canadian rye whisky made from 100 percent corn. To an extent, “rye whisky” has come to denote more of a category than an accurate reflection of pedigree.

  The fact that there isn’t more consternation over this situation reflects the “if it ain’t broke, don’t bother fixing it” attitude that may have, at some point, permeated the Canadian whisky industry.

  This is indeed a bizarre situation, but in a way, it’s not surprising. The Canadian whisky industry – for the past who-knows-how-long – had chugged along more or less under the radar of whisky drinkers around the world. This isn’t to say Canadian whisky hasn’t always been popular domestically and internationally. There are legions of stories (some probably accurate) of the flourishing underground (or in some cases, underwater) whisky trade between Canada and the Prohibition-era United States, a trade that hasn’t really ebbed since things became legal. According to the Distillers Council of the US, some 18.69 million nine-liter cases worth around $2.2 billion went south in 2020. Canada also exports its whisky to over 160 countries globally. Yet, like all things Canadian in general, Canadian whisky distillers kept a low profile and seemed content to maintain the status quo. There were, of course, a few exceptions.

  About 20 years ago (give or take), Corby distillery (one of the “big boys” of the Canadian distillery scene) launched a trio of innovative whiskies under the Canadian Whisky Guild banner. These included Gooderham & Worts, Pike Creek and Lot 40. They were beautifully packaged, connoisseur-level ryes. And they turned out to be spectacular flops. This had nothing to do with the quality of the products and everything to do with consumers who just weren’t willing to take a chance on what could only be seen as radical new products. All three disappeared from provincial liquor board shelves shortly after being placed there. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and Lot 40 is now consistently available and consistently held in high esteem by whisky experts. Why did this shift happen?

  In hopes of getting an answer, I tracked down Davin De Kergommeaux (not always an easy task). De Kergommeaux is – among other things – the author of a few books, one being Canadian Whisky: The New Portable Expert (first and second editions) and generally regarded as the authority on Canadian whisky. He sees it as a spinoff of the renewed interest in brown spirits (don’t ask where that interest came from; maybe the blandness of vodka was starting to bore people).

  “As connoisseurs got to know scotch and bourbon, they began to look elsewhere for new experiences,” De Kergommeaux maintains. “Japan was first off the mark with really great whiskies, and now India, Taiwan and others have followed. As connoisseurs began to discover Canadian whisky, the Canadian distillers leaped in with both feet, turning out one new high-end whisky after another. [Canada is now] a new treasure trove for the refined palate.”

  “We also have to acknowledge the Forty Creek factor. John K. Hall and his Forty Creek whiskies have become known around the world for their consistently high quality. In just a decade, Hall [became] the face of Canadian whisky worldwide, and connoisseurs globally now devise the most ingenious means to get bottles of his whisky. They also began to wonder, ‘If Forty Creek is so great, is there more where this came from?’ and I can only respond, ‘Yes, most certainly.’”

  Forty Creek Distillery is but one of the many micro- to mid-sized distilleries that have sprung up across Canada since the early 1990s. Today there are some 300 craft operations scattered among the provinces and territories. And while this has certainly expanded the variety of Canadian whiskies being produced, finding them is a bit of an issue.

  Most micro-distilleries have micro-outputs (relatively speaking). Also, the amount of excise levied on Canadian distillers by the federal government (or, in the words of Spirits Canada – essentially an industry lobby group – the “antiquated and jobs killing alcohol excise duty structure”) makes for a less-than-level playing field when it comes to competing with imported spirits. In terms of Canadian whisky, the “big eight” distillers account for the bulk (95 percent or so) of total production.

  That being said, the consumer and critical accolades bestowed on some of Canada’s smaller distillers have certainly proved to the larger players that resting on their laurels is not a particularly effective growth strategy. In a short period of time, a few of Canada’s biggest whisky names have released some truly exceptional drams.

  A few years back, the venerable Crown Royal brand released the Crown Royal Northern Harvest

Rye. It created something of a sensation when Jim Murray awarded its Jim Murray’s World Whisky of the Year 2016. Upon its release, I saw a sight I’d never seen before (and likely won’t ever again): average Canadian consumers walking out of provincial liquor stores with full cases of Canadian whisky. Trucks with shipments destined for south-of-the-border sales were diverted back home in an attempt to keep up with domestic demand. The same expression took home Murray’s Canadian Whisky of the Year for 2016, 2017 and 2018.

“I’m surprised not to hear more about Canadian Club because they also have some wonderful whiskies,” says De Kergommeaux, referencing another iconic Canadian brand. “The Chronicles range, of course, and also the 100 percent rye, which is the fruitiest all-rye whisky I have tasted anywhere.” (The Chronicles range he refers to are exceptionally mature – 41, 42, 43 and 44-year-old, limited-release expressions that are largely corn-based. I’ve had the pleasure of tasting every release and can attest to their astonishing complexity.)

  Calgary-based Alberta Distillers Limited is another “big gun” that has made some unique inroads over the course of its history. It specializes (and always has) in 100 percent rye whiskies, fermented using proprietary house-cultivated enzymes and distilled in Canada’s largest pot still. Its flagship Alberta Premium brand has always been the flag-bearer for 100 percent Canadian rye. More recently, the brand’s limited age-dated expressions (20, 25, 30, and 40-year-old) and cask strength releases have taken rye whisky to a new level.

  Though I haven’t tried a huge range of Canadian micro-distilled whiskies, I can say that the ones I have – including those from Okanagan Spirits in British Columbia, Kinsip, Dillons and the aforementioned Forty Creek in Ontario – have been first-rate. The Glenora Distillery on the east coast (perhaps the original Canadian micro-distillery) breaks with Canadian tradition, crafting its whiskies from malted barley. The result is a sort of unique Canadian/Scottish hybrid, which may sound a bit odd…until you try, say, its Glen Breton Rare 19-Year-Old.

  Fantastic stuff. (Okanagan Spirits also produces a single malt under its Laird of Fintry label – definitely worth checking out if you can find it.)

  What I’ve talked about here over the past 1,400 or so words barely speaks to the exciting new developments emerging on the Canadian whisky scene. When I asked De Kergommeaux what new projects in the industry particularly caught his attention, he provided me with a list long enough to cause me severe word count overage if I were to print it. Suffice to say, if the Canadian whisky sector has been a bit of a sleeping giant for the past little while, it is now wide awake…and hungrily looking to expand its reach. Stay tuned for more on Canadian whisky – and Canadian distillers in general – in upcoming editions of Beverage Master Magazine.

The Golden Beers of South Africa

By: Hanifa Sekandi

In North America, beer is a much-loved beverage. It is the go-to drink during cottage season. It is a trusted companion for every sports event. It is the bridge between strangers who will find themselves bonding over a pint. Everyone has their favorite brew. Brand loyalty is common and set at a high standard. Just take a stroll through a tailgate party, and you will see what beer drink-ers prefer. Imbibing beer is a culture that spans the globe. Each country has its unique approach to this nuanced fermented beverage. As we travel to South Africa, you will learn about its rich history of beer.

  In South Africa, the sun’s heat will graze your skin as the sound of life in this vibrant country will propel you to live boldly. Truly, those who have been to South Africa will tell you there is nothing like it. It is an experience that will change you in ways you could not imagine. South African people and the culture awaken the soul.

  As you raise your glass in the celebration, you cannot help but feel the rhythm of South African Zulu dancers. They harmonically chant songs about better days ahead, accompanied by the rhythmic-thunderous sound of the djembe drums. When we drink beer, we dance and sing. We gather with friends and family to tell stories; feel connected. Beer is the ultimate connector where alcoholic beverages are concerned. Even for those who do not prefer beer, a light lager is an exception. When you attend a gathering in South Africa, coolers will overflow, and beer runs throughout the party are continuous. Sounds a lot like North American beer culture, doesn’t it? So, what makes South Afri-can beer culture so unique? More importantly, how did beer become a star beverage in this Afri-can country?

Golden Brew Beginnings In South African

  Along with wine in South Africa, European immigrants – Dutch and British settlers – brought their beer-making knowledge to this country. One cannot solely attribute their arrival for the presence of alcohol, since traditionally made alcoholic beverages existed before. However, their presence ushered in the beer industry and set forth a new enterprise that has thrived for more than 300 years.

  The beginnings of the European golden brew in South Africa first began in the mid-1650s with the Dutch. An excerpt from Jan van Riebeeck’s diary noted that the first bottled beer was brewed on October 4, 1658. Similar to wine and other spirits, beer was used for its medicinal properties. Since beer was initially brewed to treat scurvy, the Nieuwe Haarlem shipwreck that landed Dutch sailors on South African soil may have been a saving grace for the scurvy-ridden explor-ers.

  The idea that beer is deemed a beneficial natural beverage in some countries still exists. Of course, with modern beer-making and innovative methods, the composition of beer has changed, particularly when one looks at commercially sold beer brands. Concerning local homebrews, this belief is still firmly held. As with spirits, the purpose evolved as the desire for beer and its use changed. When European settlers first arrived on South African shores, it was essential to elimi-nate the plague impacting trade between the East Indies and the Netherlands. One could say that the recreational consumption of alcoholic beverages is a haphazard event. The original intent was not to intoxicate people or add more fun to the party.

  Malan Liquor Commission in 1960 noted its concern about the intoxicating effects of beer and liquor. This assessment concluded that alcoholic beverages should be consumed with care and with food. As a result, an initiative was created to stabilize drinking habits. It also demonstrated how what was once an essential remedial beverage had transitioned into a leisure one. At the time, beer still held a high standard where natural beverages were concerned. Unlike spirits, it was dubbed a drink consumed by moderate drinkers.

  A seed must be planted to see growth, quite evident today in the rapidly expanding beer industry in South Africa. The burgeoning beer industry was not foreseen at its inception or use in the mid-17th century. One would not know its initial purpose unless they did a deep dive into its begin-ning.

  South Africa now takes up significant space on the world stage with approximately 34% beer consumption, a number expected to grow roughly 10% annually. South African Breweries (SAB), established in 1895, holds a monopoly on beer production and distribution in South Africa. It is the largest brewer and is a subsidiary of AB InBev, with seven breweries operated under its helm. It maintains an impressive annual brewing capacity of 3.1 billion liters. Familiar premium beer brands Hansa Pilsener and Carling Black Labels are among their diverse portfolio of beers.

Competing with Local Brews

  As the beer industry expands globally, it may appear that local or homebrews are popping up out of nowhere. The truth is, local brews and brews endemic to the land have always been there. For example, Bantu Beer, an essential part of the Bantu tribe’s life, is a traditionally brewed beer. The Bantu create this beer with water and kaffircorn. The consistency of this brew is quite thick – almost smoothie-like – since it is partially strained. It is considered a food and drink for this tribe. What differs from European beer is the fermentation process. Bantu beer is fermented until it begins to sour. European beer is pasteurized after bottling. The longer fermentation process that Bantu beer undergoes creates a higher alcohol content.

  The legalization of Bantu beer for sale in 1962 could be attributed to its mainstream prevalence. People are looking for something that cuts through the norm. Bantu beer, along with other homebrews, satisfies this desire. It also encourages new brands to enter the market and perhaps borrow from traditionally made brews to expand the South African beer market with something somewhat familiar. When looking at the South African beer market, Bantu Beer is a nouveau niche beverage for those unfamiliar with South African culture or traditional drinks. Its con-sistency also sets it apart from the silkier texture of most beers.

  Industrially-made Bantu Beer changed in composition. Now, the mash consists of maize grits combined with kaffircorn malt. These changes are spurring more innovations to expand Bantu’s profit potential. Breweries are looking to entice niche beer consumers who want to drink premi-um, naturally brewed beers or beers that support their lifestyle. Microbreweries trying to break through the market may take the lead and tap into local blends.

Sharing Traditions

  The changing political and economic landscape in South Africa is a nation of people who en-dured the cruelties of apartheid. For this country, it is time to rebuild and restore. Imagine being born in a country where you have no rights? A land where your ancestors lived freely for thou-sands of years and have no right to live off the land? Or make profits from your labor? South Africans are claiming not just their land but their birthright to live freely, feed their families and create a life for themselves.

  This shift also extends to the beer industry. Local brews are owned and made by South Africans. Breweries owned by the Xhosa, Sotho and Zulu tribes are making beers used for cultural practic-es. For example, The Xhosa beer is shared as a beverage of reciprocity during the harvesting of crops, a time that requires neighboring farmers to come together for additional labor. Beer is of-fered as a way to show appreciation.

  Sorghum, gluten-free beers made by modern breweries are most likely borrowed from these tribes. The traditional beer, Umqombothi, is made using sorghum malt, maize malt, corn maize, water and yeast. Another noteworthy find highlights that gluten-free, digestive-friendly beers are not an innovation. As the South African beer industry continues to soar, Umqombothi will be-come the brew watch since it meets the desires not just of the local consumer but tourists who prefer locally made beers low in alcohol and gut-friendly. A beer with a smooth texture and slightly sour aftertaste refreshes the tastebuds. A great sipping beer enjoyed without the over-whelming intoxicating effects experienced with other beers. The art of making this traditional beer passes through generations. It is also brewed in South African homes with unique spices, herbs or citrus additions to create new flavors.

  If you ever find yourself in this beautiful country, tasting local beers is a worthwhile experience. Travel back in time with each sip and feel the warmth of the South African people.

Sake To Me!

By: Tod Stewart

It’s “rice wine.” You serve it hot. It comes from Japan. And it only really pairs well with Japanese dishes like sushi and sashimi. Well, no, no, not necessarily, and no. If there’s a misunderstood libation in the world of alcohol, sake is surely it. However, once you dispense with the myths and misconceptions – and once you treat yourself to some higher-end examples served properly – you’ll likely find sake to be one of the most enjoyable and versatile tipples out there.

  So, first things first: if sake isn’t “rice wine,” what exactly is it? Yes, it’s made from rice, but technically speaking, sake is closer to beer because it’s not fruit-based, and its production process sees starch con-verted to sugar prior to fermentation. (In comparison, wine fermentation involves the production of al-cohol via the fermentation of naturally occurring sugar found in grapes).

  If you’re super keen to learn about sake production, you might want to read all 230 pages of The Text-book of Sake Brewing. Admittedly, it’s not exactly a riveting read, but it is thorough if nothing else. One part of the book I found particularly interesting was the glossary of sake brewing nomenclature. Here, I learned the meaning of such terms as shinseki, hikikomi, tsubodai, dakidaru and bōshitsu. The latter was particularly interesting. Bōshitsu: Accidental disappearance of finished sake. Translated to English: theft.

  Book not for you? Okay, the condensed version goes something like this:

  Sake’s main ingredients are rice, water, yeast and a curious ingredient called kōji. Sake rice (shuzō kōtekimai) differs from table rice in that the grains are typically larger and contain less protein. It is pos-sible to make sake using table rice. Still, for premium sake, true sake rice – you’ll hear names like Yam-adanishiki, Gohyakumangoku, Miyamanishiki and Omachi thrown around by sake geeks – is de rigueur. The reason is that the rice, at the start of the production cycle, is first polished to remove fats and pro-teins and expose the starch core. Smaller, more brittle table rice grains contain less starch and tend to break apart during the polishing process.

  The degree of polishing has an impact on the “quality” – and price – of the final liquid. The polishing ratio (seimaibuai) refers to the percentage of the grain that remains after polishing (60% seimaibuai means 40% of the rice grain has been milled away). I put the word quality in quotations because I’m un-sure whether the word should be quality or character. Yes, the more the rice is polished, the more subtle and refined the sake’s flavor tends to be. And since there’s physically less rice to ferment, the reduction in quantity leads to an increase in price, which, rightly or wrongly, is typically indicative of higher quali-ty. But in my experience, the result of varying polish levels comes down more to stylistic variation than a case of one being “better” than the other. This brings us to the question of how you, as a consumer, can tell the difference between moderate and high-polish sake. Welcome to the wonderful world of sake classification.

  Within the premium sake (tokutei meisho-shu) realm, there are several “tiers” that correspond to the polish level of the rice used. The highest is daiginjo, with a polish ratio of 50% (or less). This is fol-lowed by ginjo (60% or less polish), honjozo (70% or less) and finally, junmai (polish level not stipulat-ed). So far, so understandable. Where things get a bit dicey is when you see something like junmai-daiginjo. Is this some sort of combination that blends ultra-high polish rice with relatively low polish rice? Though that would make sense in a weird sort of way, when you see “junmai” stuck in front of ei-ther daiginjo or ginjo, it indicates that no additional alcohol has been added. Daiginjo and ginjo, with no qualifier, denote sakes that have a small amount of distilled alcohol added to them.

  Got it? Good. But we’re not done yet. Enter tokubetsu. Tokubetsu indicates that some “special” element has been used during production. The nature of these elements is exactly why Google was invented.

  Now, having a superior rice strain milled to the ideal ratio is still nothing but a pile of – albeit special – rice. As noted earlier, you’ll need water, yeast, and kōji to turn that polished pile into something drinka-ble. Before you can do anything with the rice, though, it needs to be steamed.

  A few years back, I was fortunate to be a guest of the Japan Sake and Schochu Makers Association on a sake tour of (mostly) Hiroshima. On this winter excursion, I was able to see first-hand how all the com-ponents of sake come together.

  I began my days watching clouds of vapor billow out of rice steamers. Steaming typically takes place early in the morning, when most nocturnally-inclined writers are still half-dead. Nonetheless, I bravely hauled myself out of bed to board the bus, don slippery slippers (shoe-wearing being forbidden on brew-ery floors) and observe the rice-steaming ritual. After the rice is washed and soaked to wash away rice dust, it’s steamed to soften the grains, preparing them for the infusion of kōji and ensuring they break up during fermentation. The aim is to get them firm on the outside, soft on the inside.

  When it comes to water used in sake production, there is a distinct difference between the impact of hard and soft water. Hard water has historically been the preference of sake brewers, but soft water is what you typically find in the Hiroshima Prefecture. This area has some of Japan’s most premium sake today, but this wasn’t always the case. About 120 years ago, the water in the region lacked the minerals neces-sary to nourish fermentation. This led to a lackluster brewing reputation that changed when a brewer named Senzaburo Miura, from the village of Akitsu, mastered soft water brewing. He also created a new (at the time) style of sake – ginjo. As the sake produced here started to consistently take home top awards from the Zenkoku Shinshu Kampyou-kai, Japan’s most prestigious sake competition, it focused national attention on the area.

  Yeast and kōji work as a tag team to turn polished, steamed rice and hard or soft water into finished sake. For a sake brewer, a toji, the decision of which yeast strain to use is a very big deal in that it impacts the end product’s aroma, texture, acidity and alcohol concentration. After several hours in a highly technical lecture on sake yeast, I became aware of two things: I have no real interest in learning anything more about yeast, and there are many, many yeast strains from which a brewer has to decide.

  Getting the rice to a state where the impact of yeast actually amounts to something requires the rice to be inoculated with kōji. Kōji is a mold cultivated – or sometimes purchased – by sake brewers. When in-troduced to steamed rice, it initiates the saccharification process. Kōji converts rice starch into sugar that can, in turn, be converted by yeast into alcohol (in much the same way qu acts in the baijiu-making pro-cess).

  If I learned anything from my Japan sake tour, it was this: making premium sake is a very labor-intensive activity, even if modern technology is employed to assist, which is rarely the case with smaller, family-run breweries.

  As fascinating as crafting sake can be, drinking it is much more fun. Of course, these days, trying to find authentic Japanese sake is a bit of a problem due to: supply chain issues, transportation issues, fuel cost issues, COVID, Putin, etcetera, etcetera. The good news is that sake production isn’t confined to Japan. There’s plenty of top-notch sake being created in the United States – Oregon and California in particular. There is even a very respectable sake brewery in downtown Toronto. But if you’re a brewer looking to fill a niche, sake might be something to consider as we’ll likely be depending on local suppliers for a little while yet.

  Assuming you can procure some quality sake from somewhere, enjoying it is basically as simple as get-ting it into your mouth. However, as with many things, a few things can up the pleasure level a bit.

  While you don’t need any particularly fancy glassware, there’s now a Riedel junmai glass available, but a standard ISO wine glass works fine. In any case, serving temperature is probably the most important – and misunderstood – factor when it comes to fully appreciating sake. The most delicate and arguably, complex styles – daiginjo, ginjo, and the like – are best served chilled. More robust types – honjozo, for example – can be served anywhere between fairly chilled and fairly warm. Never hot.

  It’s interesting to see how the character can change based on serving temperature. I remember being at a sake dinner (back in the “before time”) where the sake samurai (yes, there is such a thing) served the same sake chilled with sashimi and warm with pork belly. In both cases, the match worked beautifully. Try doing that with a lager beer. (Sure, a chilled lager with sashimi would work fine; a warm lager with pork—or anything—not so much).

  Which brings me to sake and food. Yes, it pairs perfectly with what we might consider “typical” Japa-nese food. But as with all countries, Japanese food varies considerably depending on which part of the country you are in. So do the sakes from each region. But don’t stop with Japanese food. Sake and cheese can yield some surprising combinations. So can sake with chocolate, sake with nuts, sake with fruit, sake with fried foods….

  So, if you’re looking to expand your knowledge and enjoyment of Japan’s national drink, say kampai to a glass of premium sake…at the proper temperature, of course.

Future of the Liquor & Spirit Industry: Based on the Integration of the Metaverse

By: Rohan Doodnauth, Co-founder — OpaLink

In late October of 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced his company’s intention to rebrand from Facebook to Meta and build an immersive platform fueled by augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR). This platform — the Metaverse — will further blur the boundaries between our online digital lives and our more tangible, physical ones. In his 2021 Founder’s Letter, Zuckerberg remarked how the Metaverse “will touch every product we build,” and will allow users to socialize, attend events, create, work, shop, and more in ways that transcend how we think about the internet and digital technology.

  If the past few years have shown the liquor industry anything, it’s that staying on top of emerging technologies and shifts in consumer trends is vital to the success of our brands and businesses. Look at the growth of omnichannel marketing and sales, for example. Between December of 2019 and November of 2020, retail wine sales at multi-outlet stores in the US grew by some 11.4%. For some businesses in the industry, this operational pivot spelled the difference between surviving or closing during the initial stages of the pandemic.

  With these notions in mind, it’s difficult for us not to consider how the Metaverse could impact the liquor industry as a whole. According to Zuckerberg, the Metaverse aims to become a new central hub of e-commerce and consumer activities. As such, brands in the liquor industry will be forced to rethink how its integration into their operations, marketing, and sales will reshape the future of their business, those of their competitors, and even their consumer markets. Furthermore, brands and businesses must possess the capability to remain agile as they integrate more deeply within the Metaverse, and take notice of how this integration might spur shifts throughout the liquor industry.

Unique VR Dining Experiences

  Within the Metaverse, customers won’t be confined by geographical distance or other physical limitations in exploring the dining or drink options available to them. Rather, upon entering the Metaverse, they will have the availability and opportunity to talk with chefs, foodies, and beverage makers all around the world in the palms of their hands. This will inevitably create a deeper integration of and connection to other cultures, as customers will be able to connect and chat with anyone anywhere in the world at practically any time, and open the door for businesses to provide them with truly unique dining experiences.

  For instance, imagine logging into the Metaverse and browsing a list of restaurants you wouldn’t normally be available to visit in person. Upon selecting a restaurant, you and your party can enter that restaurant’s virtual space within the Metaverse and begin browsing menus for the dishes or drinks you’d like to have. Once your orders are selected and placed, the restaurant’s e-commerce sales system will automatically register the items ordered and be able to virtually send them to you and the others in your party, even without any of you being physically present. Additionally, this method of sales could be utilized for those guests who may not want to show up in person, but still want to try food or drinks they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

  This blend of convenience and experience, fueled by the AR/VR technology the Metaverse is founded upon, will grant brands the ability to offer customers a truly personalized, customizable experience. Through integrating their sales platforms into the Metaverse, businesses can not only reach a far larger range of customers directly, but also indirectly by allowing their customers to send meals and drinks to family or friends who cannot be physically present with them.

  Because such integration of businesses’ operations with the Metaverse will allow them to provide each individual customer with a one-of-a-kind dining experience, this will inherently create greater competition between brands. Much like we saw with the rise of omnichannel sales during the pandemic, those brands and businesses which are able to capitalize on such value earlier on will be far better positioned to outperform their competitors. Likewise, as the technological capabilities of the Metaverse continue to evolve, the businesses that are better able to remain agile to those evolutions and pivots will likely be the ones who see the most success from their integration with the Metaverse.

Adapting to a Hybrid World Amidst Growing Competition

  Whenever a new technology or trend emerges that impacts our business, it brings with it new sources of competition. This is simply the nature of business. Liquor and beverage industry brands seeking to integrate with the Metaverse will need to take note of how this hybrid digital space could affect their initiatives and create new competitive advantages both for them and their competitors.

  For example, dining experiences in the Metaverse will likely become a blend of futuristic physical features of restaurants and high-tech interactive technology. Knowing this, one method businesses could use to stand out from the competition is by making customers part of this immersive and interactive dining experience. Perhaps a craft brewery or small distillery might offer customers a VR-led tour of their facilities to learn more about their business, its history, and its available products. Maybe a gastropub offers new customers a coupon for a certain percentage off of their first purchase in the Metaverse, or offer them a redeemable code that customers can use to virtually send food or drinks to others. Because our appearance in the Metaverse will be one not of our physical selves, but instead a VR-generated avatar, another possibility might be for businesses like these to offer a free side dish or drink to customers whose avatars are sporting their brand’s logo on a piece of their avatar’s clothing. These are just a handful of examples of how businesses in the liquor and beverage industry could remain agile in adapting to growing and emerging consumer trends after integrating with the Metaverse.

  As a virtual universe that is speculated to become a converging point of consumer activity and e-commerce, it can be assumed that the AR/VR technology used to explore and interact with others will inevitably expand the possibilities businesses have to innovate. Although there is still much we don’t know about the Metaverse — and likely won’t know about for the better part of a decade, at least — this should not stop businesses from forming strategies to implement once they are more deeply integrated into the Metaverse itself.

Implementing a Metaverse Strategy

  Consider for a moment the ways in which the emergence and subsequent growth of social media platforms have impacted business over the last decade. If your own business was in operations prior to the rise of Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or other social media platforms, it’s safe to assume that the way your business functioned then is vastly different compared to its current strategies and initiatives. When thinking about how your business can integrate successfully with the Metaverse, it’s likely that there will be similar variances — albeit to different degrees or extents — between its current strategies and those used in a realm driven by AR/VR technology.

  For starters, contemplate the initiatives your business has implemented for its marketing strategy. You might be paying for ads on social media to cast a wider net to rein in a greater amount of potential customers, or targeting existing customers with regular email newsletters to alert them of upcoming events or deals you might have. In the Metaverse, those paid ads might transition from sponsored posts on users’ social media feeds into a virtual brand ambassador traveling throughout different e-commerce sectors in a VR-driven environment to offer exclusive tastings or VIP events. Likewise, your business’s email newsletters could transmute into a kind of exclusive membership program for customers to use solely within the confines of its virtual establishment in the Metaverse.

  As another example, look to your business’s current strategy for handling reservations or private parties for events. When integrating these operations into a fully-virtual space, the tickets or codes used for referring to reservations could become their own kind of non-fungible token or NFT; a digital token representing a reservation. If your business boasts a signature dish or beverage, each sale of this item to a VIP member could come with a transferable NFT that could be redeemed at a later date for additional rewards like a free entree, bottled spirit, or customized apparel for their avatar in the Metaverse. Eventually, it may even be possible for chefs or brewers to mint the dishes or beverages they create as NFTs themselves, offering them greater creative freedom and additional means of providing (and earning) value from niche sectors of consumer markets.

  Each aspect of your business in its current state will need to eventually evolve to integrate with the Metaverse. Whatever that means or looks like will be subjective for each liquor and beverage brand seeking integration with the Metaverse, but nonetheless must be made if you wish to remain relevant and competitive in this next iteration of the digital world.

Final Thoughts

  Regardless of how far off we truly are from integrating our businesses and lives into the Metaverse, its influence has already left a lasting impression on markets and industries the world over. Though selling virtual drinks, beverages, food, or other consumables to customers sounds like a counter-productive initiative better left to the realm of science-fiction, the Metaverse’s projected capacity to blur the lines between our digital lives and physical ones could easily turn this into reality in a matter of years.

  Indeed, the Metaverse is perhaps the most literal representation of a “Brave New World” if there ever is one. The potential for brands integrating their business with this new frontier of virtual reality to experiment with marketing, e-commerce sales, and communication with customers will be essentially limitless. In turning passive consumption into active participation with their brand, the first round of businesses in the liquor and beverage industry to successfully integrate with the Metaverse are bound to set new precedents for the industry’s next generation of innovative technologies and tools.

Exploring the Rise of U.S.-Based Agave Spirits

By: Becky Garrison

According to research from the International Wines and Spirits Record Drinks Market Analysis, agave spirits represent one of the fastest-growing drink categories in the United States. The agave spirits category is forecast to grow by 4% compound annual growth rate through 2022. The most popular agave spirits, Tequila and Mezcal, posted respective gains of 8.5% and 32.4%. 

  Tequila represents an internationally recognized geographic designation, or, Appellation of Origin. As such, Tequila may only be produced in the Tequila region of Mexico, which includes the state of Jalisco and some municipalities in Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. Along those lines, agave spirits can be certified as mezcal in all or some of the municipalities within Oaxaca, Zacatecas, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Michoacán, Puebla and Sinaloa.

  However, hundreds of agave species grow throughout the world, with a diversity of distillation methods. In particular, 100% agave spirit brands and blends are being developed in the U.S., Peru, Australia, France, South Africa and India.

  On May 4, 2020, TTB Notice No. 176 governing agave spirits sold in the U.S. went into effect. The notice proposed to create, within the standards of identity, a class called “agave spirits” with two types within that class, “Tequila” and “mezcal,” replacing the existing Class 7, Tequila. Hence, Tequila and mezcal are now considered types within the Agave Spirits class, and the standards of identity for those products are not changed.

  The proposed standard would include spirits distilled from a fermented mash, of which at least 51% derives from plant species in the genus Agave and up to 49% derived from other sugars. Agave spirits must be distilled at less than 95% ABV and bottled at or above 40% ABV. Aging, blending, flavoring and coloring of agave spirits are allowed and provide distillers with the ability to develop a unique brand within this category.

  Currently, most agave spirits distilled in the U.S. use syrup imported from Mexico. For example, State 38 Distilling in Golden, Colorado, and NOCO Distillery in Fort Collins, Colorado, obtain 100% organic Blue Agave from Mexico. Each distills and bottles agave alcohol using pristine alpine water from the Rocky Mountains and then adds its unique signature to the spirit. According to Don Hammond, owner and managing partner of State 38 Distilling, they age their spirits in North American oak barrels. Sebastien Gavillet, co-founder of NOCO Distillery, said they triple distill their agave spirits for a smoother finish.

Distilling Agave Spirits in the United States

  The San Francisco Bay-Delta/Sacramento region, internally described as the “farm-to-fork” capital of the world, shows signs of emerging as a hub for growing agave. Situated at an edge of hardiness zones nine and 10, it does not have a prolonged frost or severe winters, making the region an ideal growing climate for various products, including agave.

  Craig Reynolds of California Agave Ventures, LLC in Davis, California, began experimenting with growing agave and producing spirits in Northern California after receiving seedlings of Agave Tequilana Weber Azul (Blue Weber Agave) from a grower in Southern California. Agave Tequilana has a higher sugar content and a faster time to maturity than other agave species. It’s also the type of agave exclusively used in Tequila.

  In Reynolds’ estimation, the appeal of growing this hardy plant in California is that it can be grown in numerous environments with different variables and soil conditions. Also, as this plant requires very little water, it can be an ideal crop for drought-prone areas. Depending on the species, agave plants take between five to eight years to mature. Hence, growers need to allow time before seeing a return on their investment.

  Because the agave spirits industry is still in its infancy, Reynolds sells his agave to distillers via word of mouth. Also, he custom cooks his agave in a traditional stone pit for clients upon request.

  Reynolds’ clients include Karl Anderson and Jason Senior, co-founders of Shelter Distilling in Mammoth Lakes, California. Anderson became interested in agave spirits after one of his investors, coming from a long line of landscape artists, had a friend pull a 700-pound Agave Americana from his yard and donate it to Shelter Distilling for experimentation. Typically, this variety of agave is used in landscaping, but is now harvested for distilling purposes in the U.S.

  Agave Americano produces flavors more in line with mezcal’s earthiness and vegetal notes than Blue Weber Agave Tequila. However, due to the scarcity of this particular species being used for distilling, Anderson and Senior began buying Organic Blue Agave Nectar from Mexico in 50-gallon drums. “Unlike grain, fermenting agave nectar is really difficult due to the lack of nutrients,” Senior said.

  As Anderson and Senior came from the craft beer industry, they did not want to be known as distillers who purchased other producers’ wares and sold them as their own. “Making a spirit from the plant or the grain all the way to the bottle is important to us. If we can use ingredients from our region, all the better,” Anderson said.

  Anderson connected with Reynolds because he sees him leading the charge in growing agave plants in the United States. “We have an opportunity to grow new and interesting varieties that are new to the U.S. market and are different and higher quality than all those gold tequilas on the shelf,” Reynolds said.

  Senior and Anderson started experimenting with their fermentation techniques to see if they could make something work. “The agave sugars are such that most yeasts can’t easily consume the sugars to produce alcohol. We have to make sure we have the correct yeast and that the yeast is healthy before pitching it into the agave fermentation,” said Senior.

  After purchasing the raw agave plants, brought over the Sierra Nevada in a boat, Senior steams the agave hearts in a mash tun for a few days until the plants are soft and sweet. Next, they send the plants through a wood chipper to shred the hearts and allow the yeast easy access to all the agave sugars. They add these agave fibers to a fermentation tank with pure alpine water, pitch yeast, add nutrients and allow the fermentation to proceed. Once fermentation is completed, and sugar has been converted into alcohol, they pump the liquid and fibers into the still.

  Then, they distill the agave wash twice in a hybrid pot still. The first distillation is a quick run to separate the solids and water from the alcohol and flavor components. The second run is the slow finishing distillation, where they separate the heads and tails from the hearts of the spirit. “The nice flavors of an agave spirit really only come out when the agave fibers are in the fermentation and distillation,” said Senior.

  Shelter Distilling primarily set up its distillery for using malted barley as a raw ingredient. As it doesn’t have room to install a dedicated facility for processing agave, Senior finds making agave spirits time-consuming and labor-intensive. “It’s not just dumping bags of barley into a mill. It’s chopping, splitting, pounding, steaming, pounding some more. It’s sweaty and difficult work, but it’s well worth it when you pour yourself a splash, and you can taste the product you’ve been working on for a month. With agave, you really get to taste the terroir and varietal of the plant. It’s always different, much like wine.”

Assessing Consumer Demand for Agave Spirits

  According to Anderson, while customers are drawn to the nuance and flavor of their agave spirits, they need to be educated about the agave spirits market. In his experience, most people remember Tequila and mezcal from their college days and haven’t learned the nuances of sipping premium agave spirits.

  Presently, consumer demand for Shelter Distilling’s agave spirits exceeds the amount available. Anderson attributes this to the lack of agave being grown in the U.S. and the difficulties of processing the plants.

  Along those lines, the growth of the agave spirits market has altered the availability of quality agave plants in Mexico. Lou Bank, founder and Executive Director of S.A.C.R.E.D., a nonprofit organization working to improve the quality of life in the rural Mexican communities where heritage agave spirits are made, has concerns that, as agave spirits increase in popularity, consumers will love the plants to death. “If you drive around Oaxaca today, it looks significantly different than it did 10 years ago. Where you used to see a lot of wildlands, now you see more and more agave farms popping up.”

  Bank is concerned that the greater quantity of plants may come at the cost of quality, that mass agriculture methods will raise lower quality agave, leading to lower quality spirits.

  With the TTB beginning to define agave spirits, Anderson predicts more distillers and growers will look to enter this new market. “We do what we can with putting out promotional material and educating our guests. The more U.S.-based distilleries who get into this market and educate their customers, the more people will understand that this is an American product that can be as good as, if not better than, what’s being produced in Mexico,” Bank said.

The Most Popular Spirit You’ve Never Heard of: “Vodka”

By: Tod Stewart

That’s likely the answer you’ll get if you ask any spirits aficionado—and even a few distillers—what is the world’s most popular spirit. Though whiskey would have been a better guess, neither of these categories combined can hold a candle to one that you may never have heard of, namely, baijiu, China’s “white alcohol.”

  You probably don’t see it advertised in North American magazines, on roadside billboards or as a sponsor of entertainment or sporting events. But baijiu’s lack of visibility in no way diminishes its incredible sales perfor-mance. A glance at the 2021 Brand Finance report on global spirits shows that baijiu brands captured the five top slots in terms of brand value. And though “popular” may mean different things to different people, most who make a living distilling would likely prefer high revenues over high visibility. The top baijiu brand—Kweichow Moutai—generated an eye-popping USD 45 million in sales in 2021. The next one down, Wuliang-ye, pulled in a modest $26 million or so. It’s not until you work your way to the sixth spot that you hit some-thing recognizable—Jack Daniel’s. Sales generated? Close to four million dollars in 2021. Nothing to sneeze at, to be sure, but pretty much chump change compared to Moutai or Wuliangye.

One reason China’s national spirit flies under the radar of most Western hooch lovers is simple: About 99% of the volume distilled never leaves its homeland. Another is likely that, to the uninitiated, baijiu’s aromatic and flavor profile is decidedly alien, but we’ll get to that. Also, the stuff isn’t cheap, with the most coveted bottles selling for hundreds of dollars. A few go for well over 1,000 Canadian dollars.

  In its homeland, baijiu flows like a river through birthdays, weddings, national celebrations and even diplomat-ic encounters. It was baijiu, after all, that helped thaw the ice during the somewhat tense Sino-American ne-gotiations of the 1970s. President Richard Nixon raised a glass, possibly two, in an historic toast with Chinese Primier Zhou Enlai in 1972. Margaret Thatcher was treated to a round of it upon conceding Hong Kong back to China. At one point, baijiu consumption by Chinese government officials got so out of hand that in 2012 President Xi Jinping ushered in austerity measures to prevent copious amounts of public funds from turning into copious expenditures on baijiu. In China today, baijiu enjoys a fanbase that runs into the hundreds of mil-lions who actively consume most of the billions of liters distilled every year, so why even bother with an ex-port market?

  Okay, so it’s historic and popular, and expensive. But what the heck is it, exactly?

  Pronounced “bye-jeeoh,” baijiu is a clear spirit distilled primarily from sorghum, a hearty, drought-resistant grain of African origin. What makes it particularly useful in spirit production is its easy gelatinization—a fancy term for the breakdown of starch into a paste when steamed. (It can also be particularly useful in generating triple-word scores in Scrabble). Rice, glutinous rice, wheat, millet, peas and corn can also find their way into the mix. These are not the ingredients most international distillers would even contemplate using, with the ex-ception of corn. But if the ingredients seem a bit unconventional, it’s the distillation and aging of the spirit that raise the most eyebrows.

  The process that most of us are familiar with typically starts as a two-phase endeavor. For example, in whis-key making, grains are first subject to saccharification (another potentially winning Scrabble entry)—the con-version of starch to sugar. Yeast is then introduced to convert the sugar to alcohol before being distilled.

  In baijiu production, this becomes a one-step operation thanks to the use of jiuqu or just qu (pronounced “chew”). Qu is an interesting little beast. For those who know the ins and outs of sake brewing, qu in baijiu making can be likened to koji in sake brewing—both are fermentation starters, and they both result in what is referred to as “solid-state” fermentation. There is plenty of scholarly material floating around the internet for those curious about the process (or are having trouble sleeping). Suffice to say that it incorporates a solid ra-ther than a liquid fermentation catalyst (solid-state fermentation vs. submerged fermentation). The “solid,” in this case, is qu.

  Writer’s note: I should pause a moment here to say that what I’m describing next refers to grain-based “big qu.” There’s also a rice-based “little qu.” The ingredients differ, but the use of each and the end results are similar.

  Qu typically starts its life as a paste made from clumps of moistened grain. When raised in the proper envi-ronment, these clumps attract wild yeasts, bacteria, and assorted microorganisms from the air. Fashioned into bricks, the qu—having generated considerable heat (up to 145 degrees Fahrenheit) during the microbe infestation period—are cooled for several weeks before sitting in storage for a few months to maximize flavor. In the baijiu fermentation process, ground grains are soaked, and crumbled qu added. The enzymes in the qu convert the grain’s starches to sugar. The yeast in the qu then converts the sugar into alcohol. The fermented grains are then distilled—a process that involves forcing steam through the grains and collecting the concen-trated alcohol. This process is repeated, with each batch stored separately. Aging typically takes place in clay pots, sometimes buried underground (fermentation often takes place in underground clay vessels as well). In the final process, various batches of aged baijiu are married together. In some cases, up to 200 different batches make the end product.

  Okay, so what’s the result of all this toil? Upon their first nosing and sip, Baijiu newbies may wonder why so much time and effort went into creating something so, well, “unusual” (I’m refraining from using more descrip-tive language here). Baijiu is a complex spirit, no question there. The real question is whether or not you have any hope of warming to the sort of complexity baijiu offers.

  First, it’s helpful to know that baijiu “styles” are defined aromatically and fall into four broad categories: light aroma, rice aroma, sauce aroma and strong aroma. These are pretty self-explanatory, but you probably won’t be able to figure out which is which by looking at the label, even if you can read Mandarin. Of these, the most popular—and probably the most challenging to the new-to-baijiu crowd—is the strong aroma variety. I’ve tried a few of these, including Wuliangye and Yanghe, and, personally, find them a bit tough to describe. Funky, fruity, fishy, earthy: To some, fascinating, maybe not so much to others.

  I’ve also tried a few in the sauce aroma category, including the famed Kweichow Moutai. While I wouldn’t necessarily be inclined to get up early to secure a bottle, I’ll admit I found Moutai to be rather pleasant—in an “I have never tasted a spirit that even came close to something like this,” pleasant. With its penetrating soy sauce, herbs and fermented bean aromas and flavors, it’s a savory, slightly salty, and certainly distinctive tip-ple. For those into the umami-rich profile of nato, soy sauce, kimchi, miso and other fermented delicacies, sauce aroma baijiu might be your next thing.

  A note of caution: Baijiu is potent stuff, typically bottled well over 40% ABV. The traditional Chinese way of toasting with it involves a rather complex ritual, culminating in the knocking back—or more accurately, re-peatedly knocking back—of thimble-sized glasses of the clear liquor amidst cries of “ganbei!” which trans-lates, somewhat loosely, as “bottoms up!”

  On that note, I wish you ganbei and good luck in your exploration of a new adventure in the spirits world!

Taking it Easy With Light Spirits

By: Hanifa Sekandi

You want to be the life of the party, but you do not want the party to take the life out of you. So you are on the hunt for a middle ground where you can entertain and imbibe with friends yet feel refreshed in the morning. So far, you have tried mocktails and light cocktails with just a splash or two of tequila. Globally, you are not alone. Just like you, people are looking for lighter spirits that maintain a robust flavor profile. Luckily, the industry is catching on. Spirits, ready-to-drink beverages and beer brands create must-have light spirits and drinks to keep the party going with-out tipping the scales.

  This change is a major innovation in an industry where consumers desire more than just the same thing packaged differently. Light spirits attract discerning beverage enthusiasts who seek a healthier lifestyle or simply to consume less alcohol. However, craftsmanship and ingredient still matter, and consumers are not ready to compromise quality. Brands who plan to enter this bur-geoning, niche market must understand consumer demand and how and what to bring to the shelves.

What is a Light Spirit?

  When discussing light spirits, it sounds like we are talking about the paranormal. Alas, we are not. However, it does seem like magic when thinking about a once hard liquor becoming less po-tent.

  So, what is a light spirit? A light spirit, also known as a spirit drink, is an alcoholic beverage that contains a low alcohol percentage between 0.05% and 1.2%. This percentage scale is not con-sistent across the board and is dependent on the alcohol type. Some lighter alcohols are referred to as “reduced alcoholic” beverages since they contain higher alcohol content than light spirits. Anything above a 5% ABV is considered a reduced or moderate alcoholic beverage. Moderate alcohol drinks contain approximately 9.5% ABV. This percentage scales up to 20% ABV for spirits, far below the higher alcohol range for spirits with a legal minimum of 40% ABV.

  As the market gains momentum, lighter spirits will provide consumers an outlet to create and imbibe quality cocktails and drinks that still taste as good as their full alcohol counterparts. One could consider lighter Scotches, whiskeys and gins as the rebellious offspring of the spirit world, having one foot in tradition and the other in modernity. An example is Scotlands’s Whyte & Mackay Light with a 20% ABV. This smooth, earthy spirit is aged in bourbon and Sherry casks. The fact that it can be enjoyed neat or over ice is a true test for a moderate spirit.

  This trend has seen gains in North America and across the globe. A study conducted on alcohol consumption in the U.K. found that Brittons are either reducing their alcohol intake or opting for no or low alcohol alternatives. According to the study, by 2030, there will be a decrease in alco-hol consumption per adult by 11 liters. The change is predominantly led by individuals 18-24 in the U.K. and 25-34 in the U.S.

  The results provide perhaps an unexpected pivot from previous generations who viewed these years as a time when drinks were endless and throwing caution to the wind was the norm. The “viva forever” celebration no longer fits the ideals of many younger imbibers. Light spirits seem like an appropriate transition for these consumers, who have less desire for wild nights of binge drinking.

  Globally, the light spirit trend is set to grow 34%, a significant marker since product selection in this category can be limited. This growth possibility opens the door for some brands to change focus and become light spirits producers.

  Two things that cannot be compromised when crafting lighter spirits are that they must be pre-mium quality, and they must blend in. It is not about standing out. It is about being a welcome addition to a bar cart or restaurant menu selection. The pleasant surprise for a low ABV spirit should be that there is no compromise on taste, so much so you cannot tell the difference be-tween it and its higher alcohol counterpart.

Taking it Light & Easy

Around the Globe: South Korea

  Change in every industry is inevitable. The transition to lower alcohol spirits has been slowly happening over the last ten years. Notably, in 2015, Diageo debuted a 35% ABV “spirit drink” – W Ice by Windsor – in South Korea. The spirit was the first low ABV whisky.

  What spurred this change in South Korea? Simply, whisky is no longer the desired spirit. There was a time in South Korea when Scotch was the drink of choice and often used to make a popu-lar drink called poktanju, a combination of beer and Scotch. Another reason for this change, sim-ilar to other countries around the world, is affordability. Younger consumers in South Korea want inexpensive spirits. In addition, spirits synonymous with youth appeal to this generation. Although there has been a shift and the younger generation is finding interest in what was once considered an “old man’s” drink, the creation of spirits that appeal to younger consumers has taken hold as brands observe the popularity of vodka.

  As a result, the goal of whisky brands in South Korea is to entice people to see it as a viable drink choice by lowering the alcohol content and promoting it under the guise of light and con-scious imbibing.

The Sensible Imbiber

  Taking something old and giving it a new image needs to encompass more than beautiful pack-aging. A complete product delineation needs to be undertaken to make spirits appear new and fresh. The central premise must sit within the ideal of living a more healthy lifestyle. Drinking just one glass of spirit neat or over ice and not feeling the effects also signifies the end of an era of binge drinking, ushering in a new time of sensible imbibing. For the light spirits consumer, drinking is about living life while not feeling pressured to be anything other than yourself. It is not about standing out or being the life of the party. Instead, it is about connection and requires one to slow down and experience moments that build memories worth remembering.