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.

Blending In

By: Tod Stewart

It’s been said that spirit distilling is a science, and spirit blending is an art. As I am neither a scientist nor an art-ist, I prefer to simply enjoy the end result of the distiller’s science and blender’s art.

  That being said, in the interest of science (possibly art), I’ve subjected myself to the organoleptically humbling “blending exercise” on several occasions, trying to duplicate house styles with the Metaxa Master Blender in sunny Greece; with the Mount Gay Rum Master Blender in sunny Barbados; with the Appleton Estate Master Blender in sunny (sort of) Jamaica; and with the Brand Ambassador for the Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whisky in the bowels of a definitely un-sunny bar in Toronto. I’m sure there were more. Most have been men-tally blocked, as the mind can only tolerate a finite number of crushing failures.

  So, acquiescing to the reality that I would never enter the sacred realm of Master Blender, I chose instead to live vicariously through the lives of those who have, in an effort to understand more about the art and science of blending.

  Enter Cécile Roudaut, Master Blender for St-Rémy, the French distiller of one of the world’s most popular brandies. To her mind, distilling and blending are equal parts art and science, but the approach to each differs slightly.

  “For me, both distillation and blending are arts, but they are expressed differently,” she said. “I think that the art of distillation requires a lot of know-how but also intuition, and depending on what you want to achieve…inspiration.” When it comes specifically to blending, Roudaut said that “the olfactory notes are a bit like music notes, they must be harmonious and not discordant. Blending is the art of harmony of notes; there is a part of intellectual, of artistic property.”

  To me, the art/science/frustration of spirit blending is twofold. First, it aims to create a sort of liquid gestalt, where the blend turns out to be something magically different than its component parts. Secondly, it seeks to do this consistently, day in day out. Most spirits are, in fact, blends. Whether you’re blending whisk(e)y, brandy, rum or tequila, you’ll be shooting for a common goal, though you may go about it somewhat differently.

  “The common objective [in blending] is to obtain a product that conforms to a standard,” said Karina Sanchez, Global Brand Ambassador for the tequila producer Casa Sauza. “For a specific [type of] spirit, the blending process has unique details related to customs and legal constraints, production and warehousing processes, ap-proval criteria and so on.”

  These blends are typically closely guarded secret recipes, sometimes passed down from hand to hand. Could someone who’s not a part of the covenant of the Master Blender/Knights Templar/Masonic Orders in general ever be able to duplicate a successful blend? Maybe it isn’t possible. Maybe trying to replicate a blend is a mug’s game.

  So I asked a few Master Blenders this: Is trying to replicate a blend a mug’s game? To which they replied: “Yeah, pretty much.” See, even if you had all the exact component liquids and mixed them in the exact propor-tions, you still wouldn’t get the correct mix down in a blend-off competition that might last an hour.

  Here’s a possible reason why.

  Spirit blenders have been likened to marriage counselors in many instances, or at least in one instance I know of for sure. In the book Goodness Nose, Richard Patterson, Master Blender for Whyte & MacKay scotch, revealed this about whisky blending: “Not all of the whiskies will immediately fall in love with each other. Indeed, some may be totally incompatible. The boisterous, younger malts may simply flirt, only to go their separate ways. The chosen whiskies must be given time to court, time to sort out their differences and to make the necessary compromises before a perfect partnership is achieved.” Obviously, all this cohabitating, marrying and getting-to-know-each-other isn’t really doable during a blending exercise that may only last a half-hour or less. Before that stage, the professional blender’s task is not only to select the spirits that will best work together to create a final product but also to ensure that there is sufficient stock of the components on hand to recreate this product in the volume required regularly.

  “I believe that blending is about controlling all phases of the rum-making process,” said Nelson Hernandez, Master Blender at Diplomático rum. Hernandez explained that crafting what he calls the  “Diplomático style” calls for a combination of elements and processes, including the final blending of distillates extracted from three distinct stills.

  “We have a continuous distillation system we call Barbet. It was designed in 1959 exclusively for our distillery, with a very particular internal shape that allows us to obtain a light but very aromatic distillate. Another unique system we have was imported from Canada. It is called a Batch Kettle, and we adapted it to get a semi-complex distillate. Finally, we have a discontinuous copper system, which was used in Scotland until 1959 to produce malt whisky. These distinct distillation systems allow us to obtain three completely unique and exclusive distillates, which we then age for different durations and blend them to achieve our specific expressions.”

  Be it rum, whisky, brandy or tequila, once the blender is satisfied with the profile of the new blend — or the proximity to the “standard” is so close that no differences can be detected — the blend is ready to be replicated on a commercial scale. However, given the advances in modern science and technology, I wondered how im-portant the human senses are in the finalizing process, especially when it comes to duplicating a pre-existing blend. Surely in the world of gas spectrometers and the like, this task would be best handled by machines. Or so I thought.

  “The Whisky Mastery Team at The Macallan are a truly unique group of individuals whose abilities to blend single malt whisky have put them at the forefront of the industry,” said Cameron Millar, The Macallan Brand Ambassador. “The human element of whisky making is largely down to the use of a whisky maker’s nose or olfactory sense. This team of whisky makers will nose each and every cask selected for use by The Macallan, providing a quality check that no machine or technology could ever replicate.”

  In fact, of the half dozen or so Master Blenders, Cellar Masters, and Brand Ambassadors I spoke to, all were unanimous in asserting that while technology can offer assistance, it is ultimately human senses that dictate the final blend. “So far, there is no modern technology that has managed to replace the talent of men and women Cellar Masters,” confirmed Anne Sarteaux, Cellar Master for French brandy producer De Valcourt. “Of course, there are analyses that ensure the organoleptic components serving as support for the daily work, but only the human palate identifies the subtlety of the Eaux-de-vie which make up the final blend.”

  Hernandez concluded that, from a strictly human perspective, a Master Blender has to have an exceptionally good memory for aromas and flavors. Probably a bit of an understatement.

  Once the ultimate blend has been settled on, it’s time for the Master Blender to unleash it on a thirsty world. This basically involves recreating the blend by the barrel rather than by the beaker. But it’s not quite as simple as a straight swapping of millilitres for casks.

  “To start, each blend is elaborated in our laboratories with graduated test tubes,” Sarteaux said. “Then we select the available blends that we regularly test. We then develop the blend on a larger scale, always testing the or-ganoleptic quality. Each selection is then tasted. Lastly, we test our brands blind with an independent and expert consultant.”

  Constantine Raptis heads up perhaps one of the most intricate blending regimes. As Metaxa Master, Raptis blends spirits, wines, and a special aromatic component together to create the signature spirit of Greece.

  “I create Metaxa by bringing together aged distillates, Muscat wines from the Aegean islands and a secret bou-quet of May roses and Mediterranean herbs,” Raptis said. “Every blend is created following the same philoso-phy. The first step is to collect, evaluate and record all the information (years of aging, origin, organoleptic characteristics) of every cask where distillates are left to age. Then, based on my experience and — sometimes small-scale tests — I decide which cask will be used for the specific blend. The content of the casks is emptied in a tank and stirred. The new blend is then tested, and if needed, I may add some specific distillate to achieve the final character of the blend that I am looking for. Usually, my blends are 20,000 or 70,000 litres, depending on the Metaxa style that I want to create.”

  Consistent flavor is what a blender aims for, but just as different casks bring different nuances in flavour and taste, color consistency also has to be considered and typically adjusted. Raptis said, “Every blend is created with distillates of different aging that may have certain variations in their appearance. Therefore, every final blend may present slight colour variations that are adjusted by the addition of natural caramel colour. This step is important so as to maintain stable all the other organoleptic qualities of the blends.” Note that the addition of natural caramel color is standard practice in the blended spirits industry and has no impact on the final taste of a brown spirit.

  Sometimes, for blenders to offer something truly unique, a break with traditional practices (and mindset) is re-quired. Canada’s Alberta Distillers Ltd. releases an annual, limited edition Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye Whisky. In blending the final product, a bit of “coloring outside the lines” is necessary.

  “To create our award-winning Cask Strength Rye whisky, Alberta Distillers Ltd. breaks from the traditional blending technique that other Canadian distillers are known for and selects only pot stilled liquid that is aged in new white oak barrels,” said George Teichroeb, the distillery’s General Manager. “Once matured and drained directly from these barrels, nothing is added to the whisky. Additionally, we use both pallet and rack style warehouses during maturation. This, coupled with the unique weather we experience here at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, offer distinctive nuances to this coveted whisky.”

  Like the end product itself, the art and science of spirit blending are complex. But whether they are mingling whisky, rum, tequila, brandy or exotic elixirs like Metaxa, the aim of the blender is the same — consistency and uniqueness in aroma, flavor and color. The Master Blenders and Cellar Masters use both talent and time to en-sure that, as a spirit aficionado, you can be confident that the second bottle you buy will be every bit as enjoya-ble as the first one.

If It’s Premium & Luxury, We’re Drinking It

By: Hanifa Sekandi

Maybe we have been home too long? Could it be sheer curiosity leading us to develop a sophisticated spirits palate? It is true that when your life is busy, you tend to give very little thought to what goes into the cocktail you are drinking. You may know you like gin, bourbon, whiskey or tequila but, unless you are a spirits connoisseur, the quality of liquor you drink may evade you. Now that you have graduated from junior bartender to an award-winning at-home mixologist, drinking just anything does not cut it. You want premium and luxury spirits that are high quality and arouse the palate. You desire a tequila on the rocks that is as smooth to sip as it is when poured for a single shot. Your bar cart is the a la carte experience that your neighbors dream of; they sure do envy it in the community group chat. It is time to expand your horizons to premium and luxury spirits from around the world.

  You may not be able to travel to a far-off land, but you can feel its energy, the ingredients, the rich soils, and the minerals that make up the alcohol in each bottle. Alas, you can feel the African rhythm, the tranquility of India, the heat of Mexico when you savor one of their premium spirits. It is the road less traveled that leads one to incredible experiences. During this time, our hearts and minds come alive and begin to dream again. Until then, the road will be through the liquid poured and made with pure heart by people who want you to discover their lands and what makes them unique.

The Heat of Mexico: Tequila

  It is not that people were not drinking tequila in years past; they certainly were. As with all things great, it takes time for people to appreciate what has always been good. Tequila traces its beginning to Jalisco, Mexico. Travelers to this sunny destination learn very quickly that tequila is one of the essential elements of experiencing Mexican culture. Yes, there is more to Mexican culture than this ancient craft spirit, but there is no denying its pulsating effects. There is the ad-age that you may have heard, “tequila makes babies,” meaning that it goes down so smooth and keeps the party going, you most likely will not remember what happened the night before. With each sip, the heat rises, the party becomes passionate and livelier. What has changed? Why has tequila gained popularity in recent years? What seems like a newfound love for tequila is due to education. Premium tequila brands are going a step further by partnering with brand ambassa-dors, bartenders with in-depth knowledge about tequila and a deep understanding of how tequila is made and what makes a brand luxury.

  For some, tequila is a waist-friendly, craft-spirit-alternative that sips well. It is the alcohol of choice when mixed with low-caloric pre-made drinks. This trend might have been ushered in with popular diet-savvy cocktails, like the skinny margarita, since pared-down emphasizes the quality of tequila used.

  Premium tequila contains 100% de agave. Lower-quality tequila, called mixto, consists of other alcohols and less than 51% agave-derived alcohol. It is most likely what you tried years ago at your local bar before they upped their alcohol repertoire due to the patron’s elevation of tastes.

  If tequila is the main event for burgeoning spirit enthusiasts delving into premium alcohol, skip-ping the frills and enjoying it “just as” seems appropriate. A familiar mid-level premium brand is Clase Azul Reposado. Due to the white ceramic bottle with beautiful blue hand-painted details, it is a recognizable brand. Although this mid-range tequila only ages for 8-months in American oak barrels, it boasts a rich flavor profile. It is not unusual to find this bottle perched on the shelves of travelers who have visited Mexico and needed to take a piece of tequila splendor home with them. Another noteworthy premium tequila made with agave from the highlands of Jalisco and aged for five years is Tears of Llorona Extra Añejo Tequila.

  Word travels fast with the premium brands recognizing that tequila education increases aware-ness and demand. Hence the prevalence of tequila tastings has become a common occurrence not just in Mexico but in bars across the globe that showcase premium tequila as the main event.

Feel the African Spirit: Brandy

  South Africa is known for its Winelands but, for those who know, there is something rhythmical-ly beautiful about African-crafted spirits. Each country on this rich continent has homegrown spirits that keep the symphony of well-made liquor loud enough to entice explorers far and wide. It is not surprising that as the premiumization of this sector flourishes, South African spirits are found on the top shelf right next to the best American-made bourbon in town. Although South Africa is known for its brandy, there is a diverse array of spirits that never fail to impress. A standout spirit is a blue-hued botanical gin by Six Dogs that gets its color from a blue pea flower. The magic of this gin is apparent as it changes to a lovely pink when mixed with tonic.

  On the world stage, South African brandy has received prestigious accolades. KWV Centenary Limited Edition Brandy, made in the Paarl region of South Africa, has a premium price tag that will send chills down your spine. Its namesake and distiller is Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid Afrika, a distillery that has been making brandy for over 100 years.

  The word brandy derives from the Dutch word ‘brandewijn,’ meaning burnt wine. Brandy’s long legacy dates back to the 17th century with Dutch settlers. This is apparent with the breathtaking gardens and Dutch farmhouses where spirits are still made. South African brandy is described as having a velvety texture with robust citrus and floral notes along with an enchanting aroma. A standout attribute is that distillers maintain traditional brandy-making practices. Although they have pivoted with the times, honoring the tested and true techniques produces a premium amber spirit.

  What brandy distilleries in this country have maintained is crafting beautifully aged batches with copper pot stills as the first stage. They follow this by further aging it in oak barrels. Batches un-dergo this process for at least three years before a brandy with an alcohol content of 38-43% is ready to be bottled.

  South African brandy is composed of Colombar and Chenin blanc grape varietals, fermented to make this chest-warming spirit. For those who love wine but turn their nose up at this deep-colored, rich, alcoholic beverage, the two are close relatives that share the same roots, often liter-ally.

  When sourcing authentic South African premium brandy, keep in mind that the rules are strict for brandy distillers. Therefore the real deal is only made from grapes endemic to the South Afri-can Winelands and distilled, aged, and bottled there.

The Tranquility of Spirits in India: Whiskey

  When most people think of India, they imagine themselves in an ashram meditating and doing yoga. India is a country where people travel to find what is missing within and, for some, to simply find what is yet to be seen. It is a land that is full of beauty and undiscovered treasures. It is not surprising that premium spirits are made in a country rich and diverse with indigenous plants. The climate is ideal for growing and harvesting; therefore, making unique premium whis-key was inevitable. 

  For Hermes Distillery, a premium spirit distillery founded in 2018, producing homegrown pre-mium whiskey was a necessary endeavor. Founder Amit Kore recognized that India could pro-duce top-shelf liquor just like America and Europe. The Rockdove premium label whiskey made by this nouveau distillery bouts all the luxuries that an avid whiskey drinker desires: A rich and deep-colored whiskey, light-bodied and smooth like scotch.

  The 100-year old technique used by Hermes Distillery at their Tomsa plant, the first in India, is from Spain, and it is the same technology used by familiar brands Crown Royal and Johnnie Walker. Moving at a pace that would take most distilleries decades, Hermes is opening the door for Indian-made premium liquor to join prestigious distilleries as a top-shelf selection.

  Drinking premium or luxury is not about social class. It is about quality. A survey conducted by Bacardi found that 75% of the people value cocktails made with high-quality spirits. For those looking to experience more than a night out with any old cocktail, premium spirits allow them to enjoy the moment with ease and appreciation. It is better to stretch your wallet just a little bit to drink the real deal. In the case of tequila, 100% de agave is a must! And wouldn’t you like your botanical gin to contain ingredients sourced from the lush gardens of South Africa? Seeing the meticulous effort that goes into an Indian-made whiskey, you must recognize that there are no shortcuts for luxury. So, as we usher in a new year, let’s take the long road down luxury lane, slowly sipping one premium spirit at a time.

Bubbling Kombucha: The Cool Brew in Town

By: Hanifa Sekandi

With some degree of certainty, it can be said that alcohol and health do not go hand-in-hand; however, a new wave of prepared alcoholic beverages would like to change that. Can the well-ness and beverage industries form a new frontier where imbibing supports a healthy lifestyle? Believe it or not, it’s happening. From alternative sweeteners to organic ingredients, there is a steady move away from artificial by-products in craft drinks. It is easy to read the room and rec-ognize that having fun does not mean entirely sacrificing your health.

  Alternatively, the movement might be partially due to the popularity of curated cocktails made by world-renowned mixologists. Further, people are looking for the at-home, a la carte experi-ence, and ready-to-drink alcoholic beverage innovators and game changers are taking note. High alcohol kombucha is turning heads both in the wellness and alcohol industries.

What is Kombucha?

  Kombucha, an ancient, probiotic-rich, carbonated, sourish, gut health-friendly tea, has become a popular beverage in the wellness industry in the last few decades. It’s not new, but over the pre-vious 10 years, mainstream society has finally caught on to its benefits.

  Traditionally, kombucha contains alcohol. Not enough to leave you with a hangover or lead you to any hazy decisions but a small amount that occurs during fermentation. How much alcohol is dependent on the length of time the tea is fermented. So it is no surprise that producers see an easy entry point into the RTD alcoholic beverage market. Who knew beer and kombucha would make a robust blend or that it would pair well with gin or vodka? All good beverages start at the bar with skilled mixologists who can create drinks in real-time. They create a demand for one-of-a-kind cocktails at your local liquor store. You may have noticed CBD is the newest addition to luxe cocktails, but for now, it’s all about bubbling kombucha.

Healthy Origins

  Kombucha has been touted as the ultimate tart gut health elixir, but how did it come to be known that way? Before exploring the possible benefits of kombucha, let’s first trace the origins of this primordial fermented beverage. Although new in the west–only making waves for the last 60 years–the drink dates back approximately 2,000 years in both China and Japan; however, it isn’t easy to pinpoint an exact moment when it was invented.

  The origin of the name is slightly easier. Sources say that around 400 AD, when the emperor of Japan, Emperor Inkyo, was ill, Korean Dr. Kombu brought the tea from China to help the ailing ruler. Adding the Japanese word for tea, cha, to the end of the doctor’s name made it Kombucha. At this time, it was used for its believed curative properties.

  The growth of European trade routes in the early 20th century opened the doors for people around the world to reap the benefits from this ancient slow-brewed tea. As with the wine indus-try, kombucha also experienced a slump due to the second world war that saw a decline in sugar and tea reservoirs.

  Kombucha’s gut health benefits were brought to the forefront after a study conducted in the 1960s in Switzerland documented that kombucha could have the same probiotic benefits as yo-gurt. This discovery sparked a wave of interest in kombucha. It first saw growth with family-owned brands sold in small health-centric markets and then drew the attention of corporations who saw the monetary possibilities of this fermented tea. Its steady consumer popularity has been due to the purported medicinal benefits for individuals suffering from various health condi-tions. Everybody knows at least one person who swears by it and drinks it daily.

How is Kombucha Made?

  Anyone considering homebrewing kombucha has most likely heard about a SCOBY. A SCOBY is a “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.” Since it can be used to make several batches of tea, it’s considered fermentation gold. Traditional kombucha combines tea –generally green tea, but also black– sugar, strains of bacteria and yeast. The mixture undergoes fermentation for approx-imately a week. During this time, gases, acidic elements and small amounts of alcohol produce carbonation. Be cautious when considering DIY Kombucha since there are health risks due to contamination or fermenting too long. The longer kombucha ferments, the higher the alcohol content, and it also reduces the potential medicinal properties.

  Hard Kombucha contains approximately 3% to 11% ABV.  Larger quantities of sugar and yeast are added during a dual fermentation process to increase the alcohol content.

What are the Benefits?

  Most people do not consider the health benefits of a cocktail. Even a mimosa and freshly squeezed orange juice do not scream, “I am being healthy!” But, since oranges are full of vitamin C, you might feel a little less guilty during a Sunday brunch with this citrus-laden bubbly. Mak-ers of kombucha drinks are likewise stating their case. Although it may not be as probiotic-rich once fermented into hard kombucha or when it’s paired with beer or other spirits, it remains an antioxidant-rich fermented tea that is easier on the gut. This applies particularly to gluten-free hard kombucha. Hard kombucha also has a lower caloric content and far less sugar than other prepared cocktails, beer and cider. However, although kombucha is known to promote gut health, it is not one size fits all. The gut microbiome varies from person to person. Hence, the probiotic strains found in kombucha may be beneficial for you and not others.

  Why does gut health matter? The gut is the epicenter for health and vitality. It not only takes in vitamins and minerals from the food you consume, but it also helps to regulate inflammatory re-sponses in your body. Good gut bacteria allow the body to digest food and absorb nutrients. Like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and other fermented food, Kombucha is probiotic-rich and contributes to balanced gut flora. It is primarily made with green tea, an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich tea that also contains minerals, and is known for its ability to contribute to fat burning. It is an ideal alcoholic drink for individuals who consider calories when purchasing alcohol. Drinking an alcoholic beverage made with kombucha, particularly one not combined with beer or any al-cohol produced with wheat, may also be helpful for those with gut sensitivities or inflammation.

What Place Does it Have in the Alcohol Industry?

  You may have spotted hard kombucha next to ready-to-drink organic cocktails, beers and ciders at the local health store. Kombucha with an ABV of 0.5% is deemed an alcoholic beverage under federal law. The higher the ABV, you will notice that it is called high alcohol kombucha. High alcohol kombucha can reach ABV levels close to wine or other ready-made cocktails.

  On the surface, blending kombucha and alcohol does not seem a likely pairing, but, with its in-creased popularity and ability to stand on its own as a thirst-quenching alcoholic beverage, it’s easy to see why large corporations like Molson Coors are getting on board. Their acquisition of Clearly Kombucha shows a shift toward lower-alcohol drinks. The ability to craft kombucha with varying ABVs and the fact that it already contains trace amounts of alcohol render this a natural progression into alcoholic beverages. Kombucha makers are not reinventing the wheel. With a little more added yeast and sugar, they are just letting this fermented drink do what it does on its own.

  The appeal of a low calorie, low carb, low sugar, gluten-free kombucha beer is there for anyone who already enjoys the non-alcoholic version, as well as for those who look for health-conscious brands that support and encourage better lifestyle choices. Even knowing that high levels of al-cohol kill or diminish the probiotic benefits found in traditional kombucha, the other benefits make it a tempting drink. It offers the best of both worlds: a calming drink and a happier gut.