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.

Top Hard Seltzer Brands

By: Calvin Obbaatt

Whether a regular or occasional booze consumer, you have probably come across the term hard seltzer at your favorite liquor store display, social media ads, or other forms of digital commercials. Maybe you missed it at your local liquor store or haven’t come across any advertisement of the same but happened to see a can or two labeled White claw, Truly, Usual, etc., that is the hard seltzer. Below is all you need to know about hard seltzer.

What is it?

  Hard seltzer is carbonated water mixed with alcohol and fruit flavors or fermented fruit that is still gaining rapid adoption. It is also known as spiked soda, hard sparkling water, spiked seltzer, or alcoholic seltzer.  The drink typically contains around 5% alcohol content by volume, but some brands go as high as 12%.

  Despite hard seltzer being mostly made using fermented fruits or flavors and alcohol, can sugar is also used in the US as an alternative. The first widely available commercial example of the style was ‘Two Dogs,’ brewed in Australia in 1993 and widely considered the world’s first modern brewed alcoholic lemonade. Black cherry, cranberry, hibiscus, lemon-lime, blood orange, guava, kiwi, mango, peach, passion fruit, pineapple, grapefruit, raspberry, and other citrus, berry, and tropical fruit flavors are some of the most popular.

Why is it gaining in popularity?

  From the accumulated market stats, it is evident that hard seltzer is one of the fastest-growing alcoholic beverage categories globally. From 2016 to 2021, its industrial growth in the US is projected to average 128% per year (estimates made before COVID struck).

  In 2020, the size of this industry was worth 1.8 billion dollars and was projected to grow by 35% in 2021. From June 2019 to June 2020, its sales reached 2.7 billion dollars, accounting for more than 10% of non-liquor alcohol sales. Although it has been around for centuries, millennial consumers demand healthier, lower-calorie; gluten-free alcoholic beverages have helped spearhead the segment’s growth. Only 4% of US households purchased hard seltzer in the year before 2019, and it was almost unknown internationally. The rapid growth rate allows new entrants with significant finances or great marketing to gain hard seltzer market share. The spirited fight is particularly from large beer and spirits firms concerned about losing beer and spirits market share. In 2016 Anheuser-Busch, an American brewing company headquartered in Saint Louis, Missouri, purchased Boathouse Beverages hard seltzer brand. Anheuser-Busch then renamed the Spiked Seltzer to Bon and Viv spiked seltzer. After renaming the brand, they used the Super bowl to advertise the new brand, quickly gaining the hard seltzer market share.

  The stats are good enough to attract investors into the seltzer market, but what is really in for individuals since the actual consumers are the bare facts behind the stats? When you consider all of the nutritive qualities it provides, such as low calories and carbs, lower alcohol content, gluten-free additives, and low sugar content, hard seltzer appears to be an appealing option. However, an individual may need to dig deeper to determine whether they consume legitimate brands that provide the stated benefits. The reason for exploring the brands is that unscrupulous players in the industry may mislead consumers with wrong information on the contents of their products, hence endangering consumer health.

  Reduced alcohol consumption also equals fewer calories. The majority of hard seltzers come in 12-ounce canisters and have about 100 calories. The quantity of sugar in hard seltzer varies by brand. However, the most common hard seltzer brands generally advertise their low sugar level, usually less than 3 grams per serve.

Celebrity Endorsement

  Earlier this year, in March, the same hard seltzer brand boosted its Cacti Agave spiked seltzer new arrival alongside influential rapper Travis Scott which saw furious demand. When a Grammy’s ad spot dropped the line of a Merch to promote Scott’s endorsement featuring American comedian, Eric Andre; DRINKCACTI’S website claimed to have sold out its inventory in 12 hours before even the airing debuted.

More Brands on the Market

  The brand seltzer market has expanded, allowing several major brands into action. This includes Beer brands such as; Michelob Ultra Bud Light, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Jose Cuervo Smirnoff spirit manufacturers.

  Forbes on 18th March reported the launching of Topo Chico, a boozy version of Coca-Cola’s sparkling mineral water. The company taped Molson Coors Beverage Corporation as its official manufacturing, marketing, and distribution partner in September 2019. The senior marketing director, Matt Escalante, defined the beverage as a modern take on refreshment that brings a whole new character to a red-hot’s.

How is Hard Seltzer Made?

  For hard seltzer typically comes from straight-up fermented cane sugar. It could also come from malted barley, although technically, that would make it a flavored malt beverage like Smirnoff Ice. Like with every alcoholic beverage, the fermentation process, including your favorite bottle of champagne, is the secret to its boozy character. Yeast breaks down sugars present resulting in the formation of alcohol. The sugars in making whiskey, for instance, originate from wheat harvested to be used in brewing. Hard seltzer is made from fermented cane sugar in its purest form. Hard seltzer can also be made from malted barley; however, it is a flavored malt beverage similar to Smirnoff Ice.

What Countries are Making Hard Seltzer?

  Hard seltzer has gained impeccable success in the US and Canada. The drink is also being adopted in other primarily English-speaking countries, majorly in Europe, gaining massive popularity. Heineken is among the most recent firms to venture into the European market with the Pure Pirana hard seltzer, a brand under Heineken. Pure Pirana launched successfully in New Zealand and Mexico. The successful launch made it possible for Heineken to be optimistic about a breakthrough in Europe. It’s anticipated that the drink will make it to broader markets in the UK and Scandinavia in 2022.

  Despite tariff challenges, hard seltzers are making their way into Africa, with some brands being found locally to overcome the tariff challenges and international brands making their way to African markets. South Africa is an excellent example as the hard seltzer culture is on the rise in the country.

Best-selling Hard Seltzer Brands From Around the World

White Claw: If you plan on giving hard seltzers a shot, then White claw is among the best brands to try. Consistently owns more than half the market though struggles to keep up with demand. A study by T4 shows it had a 58% US hard seltzer market share in 2019.

Truly Hard Seltzer: Truly hard seltzer holds 26% US hard seltzer market share. The brand was launched in 2016 by Mark Anthony Brands, the same company in ownership of Mike’s hard lemonade brand. Its popularity increased so much that in 2019, Mark Anthony brands had to limit distributor allocations due to a nationwide shortage. Despite this, its market share grew in 2019.

Truly Extra: If you are not a fan of low alcohol content servings, Truly elevated the game for you already. Truly hard seltzer introduced Truly extra, a higher alcohol content hard seltzer launched in 2016 under the brand name Truly Spiked and Sparkling, owned by Boston Beer Company, the owner of Sam Adams. Its market share has decreased since its initial. However, its sales are rapidly increasing due to the fast-growing hard seltzer market.

  Truly and white claw still dominate the market as go-to hard seltzer, but newer brands are slowly but surely climbing the ladder. However, the market is more crowded now than it was in 2019. Together, White Claw and Truly control roughly 75% of the market. The mentioned stats were phrased to the insider by Greg Doonan, an IQ analyst at Nielsen Holdings (American information, data, and market measurement firm).

Bud Light Seltzer: If you will stock hard seltzer, then Bud Light Seltzer is your ‘money-making machine’ as the brand is among the fastest-growing seltzers. Anheuser-Bush launched Bud Light Seltzer in January 2020 with a $100 million investment. It became the third biggest brand with a 9% US market share by summer 2020. The same rating is on the Instacart list.

  A couple of brands are new but booming;

CACTI: made with blue agave from Mexico produced by Travis Scott and Anheuser-Busch.

VIZZY: mentioned by Nielsen analyst Danelle Kosmal as one to keep an eye on, produced by Coors.

Bon and Viv: This brand was launched in 2013 as spiked seltzer by Nick Shield Boathouse Beverage. After being sold, the brand was rebranded to its current name in 2016 by its new owners, Anheuser-Busch. The short-term effects of Corona on it is extraordinary market growth will most probably be high. The hard seltzer market shortage is because most popular in the summer and shelter-in-place restrictions may significantly restrict access to sales channels. The long-term impact beyond the pandemic itself will likely be low as alcoholic beverages are resilient to recession shocks.

Spirit of the Rising Sun

By: Tod Stewart

Japan is synonymous with many things: electronics, cars, origami, sake, sushi, intricate art, Sumo wrestling and architecture. Now, if you’re willing to wait out a significant chunk of your day for it, cheesecake.  But whisky?

  Even after seeing Lost in Translation many years ago (a movie featuring Bill Murray as Bob Harris, an aging movie star visiting Japan to promote Suntory whisky), the connection between Japan and whisky still didn’t really register with me. Thankfully that has since changed, and I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying numerous different Japanese whisky expressions, both at home as well as in Japan.

  Today, these drams are becoming increasingly difficult to find, and when you do find one you might experi-ence a bit of sticker shock. However, as with most things Japanese, you do get what you pay for (and here I’m primarily talking about the items I have tried: sake, sushi, Japanese knives, etc.). The Japanese whiskies I’ve sampled have invariably been top-notch. And much to the chagrin of the Scots, they’ve actually been stealing accolades from the world’s top drams.

  A few years back, in his World Whisky Bible 2015, industry expert Jim Murray crowned the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, from Suntory, “World Whisky of the Year.” As it turns out, nary a Scottish whisky made the top five. Since then, Japanese whiskies have continued to bag metal at competitions across the globe (in fact, they were garnering “best of” accolades as far back as 2008). If there’s any consolation to the Scottish distillers now adding tears rather than water to their tipples, it’s that, had it not been for the Scots, the Japanese would likely not be where they are today in terms of distilling.

  Japan has a distilling history that may reach as far back as the 1700s. Yet it wasn’t until after the Second World War that Shinjiro Torii along with Masataka Taketsuru, established the Yamazaki Distillery, which would eventually become Suntory, near Kyoto. In 1918, Taketsuru journeyed to Scotland. He enrolled in the University of Glasgow, becoming the first Japanese person to study the art of whisky making and apprenticed at a number of famous Scottish malt distilleries before bringing his knowledge (and a wife) back to Japan.

  In 1934, Taketsuru branched out on his own, establishing the Nikka Whisky company with a distillery located in Yoichi, on the island of Hokkaido, in the northern part of the country.

  This area seemed, to him, to most closely replicate the Scottish landscape. Japan’s “whisky country” however, is less differentiated than those of Scotland.

  “Although Japan may look like a small island on the map, if you compare it with the map of Scotland at the same scale, you will notice that the nation is much larger and is spread from North to South,” notes Naoki Tomoyoshi, International Business Development Representative for Nikka Whisky. “The climate can vary from the famous skiing resorts in Hokkaido to the beautiful beaches of Okinawa. Within this country, Nikka’s founder Masataka Taketsuru headed north in search for the ideal place for his whisky. He found the land of Yoichi to be the perfect place, a seaside location with a cool and humid climate along with an ideal water source. Then, in 1969, he founded his second distillery, Miyagikyo Distillery, in the mountainous valleys of Miyagi Prefecture, located in the northern part of Japan’s main island. His aim was to create a different style of whisky than that of Yoichi Distillery. The surrounding environment plays an important role in the maturation process, and when that is combined with the different production methods between the two distilleries, the variation of the flavors that can be created is countless.”

  Gardner Dunn, Senior Brand Ambassador at Suntory Japanese Whisky, notes that rather than defined re-gions, the elevation of the Suntory distilleries and the subsequent differences in temperature have more of an impact on the final products.

  “Yamazaki, outside Kyoto, sits at around 160 feet above sea level,” he points out. “Hakushu is one of the highest distilleries, at roughly 2,313 feet in Yamanashi prefecture. The difference in temperature between the two dictates the use of certain sized barrels to optimize maturation.” Dunn explains that as the temperature drops, the rate of maturation slows. Therefore, spirits matured in warmer climates – rum, for example – devel-op more quickly than northern spirits, largely due to the rate of evaporation.

  The proximity to the sea — just a kilometre from the Sea of Japan — and the influence of the salty ocean air, appreciably contributes to maritime tang of Nikka’s Yoichi line of whiskies. I recently sampled a dram or two of Nikka Yoichi (No Age Statement) Single Malt, which seemed to combine the warm, toffee, malt and hon-eyed tones of a Highland malt with the smoky, lemony and in this case, rather intensely briny notes more typ-ical of something like Bunnahabhain’s Ceobanach — a peated offering from a distillery that typically doesn’t use peat.

  The peat used in Nikka’s whiskies was sourced locally until the 1970s. Today the distillery uses imported barley peated to the required levels. Dunn confirms that Suntory, as well, imports barley from Scotland that has been peated to a specified degree. As well, both Nikka and Suntory strive to use the purest water available.

  “The main source of water for Nikka’s Yoichi Distillery is from the mountain springs and surrounding rivers, in particular the Yoichi River,” Tomoyoshi points out, adding that water for the Miyagikyo Distillery is sourced from the Nikkawa River. Dunn reveals that both of Suntory’s distilleries use unique water sources. “Our beau-tiful, soft water is optimal for producing [our] style of whisky.”

  In terms of casks, Suntory and Nikka have somewhat similar approaches. “We both import and make our casks,” informs Tomoyoshi. “We have a cooperage in each distillery maintaining casks of different sizes and types of wood. We also source various types of casks from around the world, including ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. All refurbishing and re-charring of the casks are done in-house in our cooperages.”

  Suntory uses a range, from ex-bourbon to American white oak and Spanish oloroso sherry casks. The company’s in-house cooperage also fashions barrels from Japanese Mizunara oak. “It is a very tight-grained oak that only grows in the North Island,” Dunn explains, noting that it matures very slowly and imparts notes of oriental incense, spice and coconut to the finished whisky.

  When it comes to whisky, distillers know that the shape and size are crucial in forming the character of the finished product. The copper pot stills used by Nikka Whisky were crafted in Japan and are of varying sizes. “All stills are slightly different from each other, which enable us to produce a wider variety of styles,” informs Tomoyoshi. “In general, the stills at Yoichi Distillery are smaller, with a straight neck and descending line arm. The stills at Miyagikyo are larger, with a bulge neck and ascending line arm.”

  Suntory operates two sets of eight distinctly shaped stills. As any distiller will attest, the size and shape of a still significantly impacts the spirit it produces, and the varying sizes employed by Nikka and Suntory no doubt play a role in crafting the unique character of the individual whiskies.

  While Japan’s whiskies have experienced a spike in popularity, the industry itself, like those in other countries, has weathered ups and downs. The whisky boom of the 1970s and early 1980s gave way to a slump in domestic whisky sales by the late ’80s, resulting in the closure of several distilleries. However, the international acclaim Japanese whiskies have since garnered has led to a resurgence in interest. A lot of interest, in fact. In the case of Nikka, a few factors combined to create the perfect storm surge of popularity. A surge so strong that it resulted in the discontinuation of age-statement whiskies.

  “We delisted most of our age-statement expressions in 2016,” confirms Tomoyoshi confirms. “This was due to many factors, such as the Nikka 80th anniversary in 2014 along with strong – yet organic – growth in foreign markets. Above all, the most impactful factor was the domestic Nikka fever caused by the NHK TV series Massan. This was unpredictable and sudden.”

  Massan was an Asadora – a “morning drama” – that ran from September 29th, 2014, until March 28th, 2015. Based on the lives of Masataka Taketsuruand and his Scottish wife Jessie Roberta “Rita” Cowan, it detailed the creation of Nikka Whisky…and landed a huge audience not only for the series, but for Nikka’s whiskies as well.

  Though they may currently be a little scarce in some international markets, Japanese whiskies are worth pursuing. They offer the best qualities of their Scottish counterparts — including complexity, harmony and great depth of character — along with certain exotic aspects that distinguish them as unique, different, and worthy of the accolades they have garnered both in the Far East and around the globe.

The Charismatic Spirit: The Heat of Jamaican Rum

By: Hanifa Sekandi

It is a warm summer night in Montego Bay. The sound of the ocean, the harmonious steel drums, sand beneath your toes, and laughter allow you to forget your worries while you clutch your cocktail in one hand. You have most likely never given much thought to that velvety smooth texture and golden color, the fermented by-product of sugarcane. It’s the drink that is unequivocally the life of the party. So infamous it deserves a special place in your holiday baked goods: rum. There is no better way to describe Jamaican-made rum than simply sublime.

  For some, it is the best accompaniment for plantain, callaloo, ackee and saltfish. Perhaps you prefer it while you dine on curry goat or spicy jerk chicken? It is the spirit that is bar-none, best sipped on the rocks. You feel the heat of this distilled spirit immediately pulsing through your entire body with just one sip. Rum, a Jamaican classic spirit with deep historic roots enlivens you and exhilarates you. You can fuss with it, add a little this or a little that but, rum revelers know it’s simply good just the way it is. What makes Jamaican rum so good?

  As you sample your way through the best of Jamaican rum you will learn quite quickly that each rum carries its own secret. This is why so many bar carts around the world carry more than one from a few of Jamaica’s acclaimed rum estates.

The Beginning of Jamaican Rum

  It was Christopher Columbus, in 1494, who brought sugarcane to the shores of Jamaica. This birthed an industry that although not as robust in size as it once was, still thrives today. With all things good, there is another side that is not as sweet. The production of rum in Jamaica began in 1655. It was brought over by British colonialists who imported the art of rum-making from Barbados. Under British rule, rum was made by the hands of enslaved labor. The mass production of rum during this time in Jamaica led to its popularity around the world. There were approximately 148 rum distilleries in Jamaica in 1893. When slavery was abolished in the 1800s the free and now finally autonomous rum laborer, was free to live as one should. This emancipation led to a decline in rum production.

  Where is rum today in Jamaica? In 1893 approximately 31, 555 acres of sugarcane was cultivated by sugar estates that housed and operated distilleries. Even with the reduction of the scale of production and rum mills, Jamaica produces 50 million liters of rum yearly. With only six remaining rum distilleries sugarcane, the oldest running industry in Jamaica is still a predominant labor source with the employment of over 50,000 people. Jamaican rum makers produce large and diverse varieties of rum that are distributed around to world to more than 70 countries. The six remaining rum distilleries are Worthy Park Estate, Appleton Estate, Long Pond Distillery, Clarendon Distillery, and Innswood Distillers Limited. The later three distilleries are owned by the National Rums of Jamaica.

Making Jamaican Rum

  Who knew sugarcane is the key ingredient to this deep rich spirit? With no sweetness on the palate when sipped that one would discern if they chewed on sugarcane. The process of making Jamaican rum is quite intriguing. Molasses, partially responsible for rums golden color is a sweet syrup with a thick consistency. Perhaps you have used it as an alternative sweetener. Blackstrap molasses is full of minerals and vitamins. With that said, a shot of

rum is not your new multivitamin replacement! This rich thick sweet syrup comes to life when sugarcane juice is boiled until it is crystallized and then fermented. In the case of gold-hued rums, the color begins to take hold by using oaken casks to age the clear liquid which turns color due to the tannins from the oak. On average Jamaican rums age close to seven years. A process that differs when making another popular spirit, white rum.

  Deeper-toned rums are made from the dunder or skimmings from vats used to boil the sugar and molasses. What makes each rum unique are the expertly blended elements that will determine the flavor profile and aromas. For example, the addition of caramel when aging commences creates a silkier and darker liquor. It’s these little nuances that create a vast difference between one rum to another although they may appear similar in appearance.

  A full-bodied rum is aged in casks that have great depth and are large in size. These casks, “puncheons”, can hold approximately 111.6 gallons. The difference between light and full-bodied rums is fermentation. In the case of full-bodied rum, slow fermentation is required, and this is referred to as wild fermentation. Light-bodied rum mostly produced in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico undergoes a process called cultured fermentation where yeast is derived from raw material. The aging period for these lighter-colored and dry rums is under four years. In some cases, light-bodied rums are aged for only one year.

Who Is Joy Spence?

The First Woman Master Blender?

  Appleton Estates is the oldest sugar estate and one of Jamaica’s six thriving rum distilleries. It is where Joy Spence, their Chief Chemist since 1981 and the first woman Master Blender, has been

making her incomparable mark in the global rum market. She has a Masters’ degree in Analytical Chemistry from Loughborough University. Spence was under the helm of the previous Appleton Estates Master Blender, Owen Tulloch for over 16 years who mentored her. During this time, she was able to use her passion for chemistry to become a world-renowned blender.

  In 1997 Spence, unbeknownst to her at the time, became the first woman master blender. At this time, there were no other women designated with this accolade. This show-stopping rum that Spence has been creating for over 35 years draws its sweet soft taste from the limestone-filtered spring water it uses from the Black River, the longest river in Jamaica. This distillery is located in a favorable area with limestone hills and an ecological system that works perfectly to nurture the abundance of greenery. Due to this natural irrigation sugarcane is easy to grow.

  Joy Spence is credited for masterfully blending two rums that made Appleton famous. The 8-Year-Old Reserve and “50-Year-Old which is according to Appleton Estates “the world’s oldest barrel-aged rum that has been bottled and sold. “The Appleton Estate 8-Year-Old Reserve, a full-bodied rum is probably one of the most recognized rum brands at your local liquor store. You have most like experienced its robust aroma and flavorful smooth notes. Sold at a price point that will make your jaw drop, something this good does not come cheap, the Appleton Estate 50 Year Old — Jamaica Independence Reserve rum by Spence will have you singing the best I ever had.

Notable Jamaican Rums

Appleton Estate 12-Year-Old Casks

Did you know the number on the front of the bottle is the number of years the rum has been aged? Yes, this is true. With so much variety offered by Appleton selecting your favorite rum is not an easy task. Once you have been introduced to one of their rums you will find yourself wanting to explore the entire repertoire. This 12-year aged rum has a smooth dark chocolate flavor and the sweet smell of almonds; you may catch hints of caramel. Best enjoyed on ice or just on its own. When you sip on one of these rums you are stepping into the magical world of Master Blender Joy Spence.

Worthy Park Single Estate Reserve

Rum-making began at this estate in 1741. Most people describe this rum’s flavor as earthy, citrusy, and spicy. An interesting combination that also includes other notes such as toffee, cinnamon, and cloves. Although it serves well on its own, it proves to be an excellent carrier of cocktails since it cuts through without overpowering other ingredients. Worthy Park Estates is a distillery that honors tradition and as a result, distill their rums in a traditional Jamaican Pot.

Hampden Estate Pure Single Jamaican Rum

Wild fermentation is the method used to make Hampden’s pure single rums. There is no sugar added during this process. Their Pure Single Jamaican rum aged for eight years carries a lot of heat. Its strong spicy, earthy herb-like taste with a touch of citrus, banana, and caramel strikes the palate with tremendous strength and also warms the senses. Serve over ice and sip slowly. This is the best way to go with this rum.

Long Pond Distillery — 18-Year-Old 2000 Mezan

Hopefully, the price tag does not scare you away from this vintage 18-year old Jamaican rum. This rum slowly ages and matures in a bourbon oak cask. As you can imagine, a lot of rich flavor and aromas embody this spirit. Its sharp ginger and tropical fruity notes along with a warm and spicy base create a nice finish.