In the nascent zero-alcohol spirits industry, Bob Huitema, of DistillX Beverages Inc., is a pioneer. And with the help from experts at Niagara College’s Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre, he has launched Canada’s first-ever non-alcoholic gin.
After six months of in-depth market research before engaging with NC’s Research & Innovation division more than nine months ago, Huitema has released his alt-gin product, called Ø-Gin (zero gin). The distilled non-alcoholic spirit is under the brand label Sobrii – a nod to the Latin roots of the word “sober.”
True to its name, the inventive cocktail has zero calories, zero sugar and, as the marketing touts: zero hangovers.
In replicating the refreshing flavour profile of traditional gin with juniper notes, Sobrii’s Ø-Gin also includes classic spiced botanicals such as coriander, star anise and allspice. Interestingly, and as a tribute to Canada, is the non-traditional addition of ginseng. (Ontario is the largest producer in the world of North American ginseng.)
“I pride myself in terms of the product that it is very much like the alcohol product,” says Huitema. “In fact, I don’t call it a substitute, because I think it’s actually better.”
He seems to have hit the mark, if consumer enthusiasm is any indication from the 2,000 samples served at his official public launch at the Gourmet Wine and Food Expo in Toronto in November.
“The vast majority of people said it tasted just like gin,” he says, adding his primary target market is anyone who is already drinking the alcoholic version.
“My target is people who drink, but to pinpoint that market further, the commonality is the shared awareness of health – meaning less alcohol is healthier,” he says, pointing out that, according to studies, alcohol consumption is declining globally and in every age group.
While conducting research into non-alcoholic spirits, Huitema visited the United Kingdom, where the market is three to five years advanced, compared to North America. There are also a handful of zero-alcohol distilled gin manufacturers in the United States and now a couple in Canada.
Although his innovative product is new to the market, Huitema is no stranger to the spirits industry. Prior to entering the entrepreneurial world, he spent four years at Diageo (the second-largest distiller in the world) as strategic accounts director and then marketing/brand director for Guinness.
“I’ve always looked at different projects in distilling,” he says. “I knew enough that I thought this could be a very interesting project.”
Interesting indeed, but challenging nonetheless, especially in producing a distilled non-alcoholic gin when all the flavour is first derived with help from ethanol.
“It’s a difficult endeavour because botanicals love alcohol and generally do not like water,” Huitema explains. “The whole trick is obviously taking the alcohol out and leaving the flavour behind.”
He says the proprietary process involves a unique method incorporating maceration of spices and distillation.
“Now, if you’re making gin, you carefully distill the botanical and capture the distillate, but I can’t do that because I don’t want all the flavour to go with the alcohol.”
It was an extremely ambitious goal considering the impact of the alcohol on the flavour and mouthfeel and the fact the characteristic aromatic compounds of gin are being carried by the alcohol, explains Ana Cristina Vega-Lugo, PhD, senior food scientist at the CFWI Innovation Centre. The Centre includes a research team with a strong history of developing non-alcoholic products – most notably the award-winning Hill Street Beverages alcohol-free craft lager.
“The goal was to move away from flavoured water towards a non-alcoholic product that would offer a consumer experience,” Vega-Lugo says.
The initial stages of development took place at the beverage labs at the CFWI Innovation Centre and then a small number of trials were completed at the NC Teaching Distillery to adjust methods and formulation at a larger scale.
Niagara College is not only home to an award-winning Research & Innovation division, but the College’s trailblazing Daniel J. Patterson Campus, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, includes Canada’s first commercial Teaching Winery, Teaching Brewery, and Teaching Distillery, as well as Eastern Canada’s first Commercial Beekeeping program.
“Their expertise was instrumental in terms of being able to sell a product that was not only superior tasting but something I can commercially scale and replicate safely.”
~ Bob Huitema, DistillX Beverages Inc.
It’s significant to note that beverages containing less than 0.5 percent alcohol are not only considered “non-alcoholic” but are also considered a food product and must adhere to strict guidelines. This has required Huitema to obtain food handling certification and a food manufacturing licence.
Angela Tellez-Lance, PhD, a senior food safety expert at the CFWI Innovation Centre, was also brought on board to advise on a food safety risk assessment since the risk of microbial growth is higher, adds Vega-Lugo.
Huitema says he’s purposefully controlling for a number of variables by producing hand-crafted, small batches at a craft distillery in Stratford, Ont., a rich agricultural region where he grew up and which inspired his product.
“I really wanted to do something that speaks to that same natural environment: no sugar, no calories and no artificial flavours or sweeteners.”
He speaks highly of his experience with the research team at the CFWI Innovation Centre and gained a crucial boost of confidence from receiving valuable guidance throughout the project.
“Their expertise was instrumental in terms of me being able to sell a product that was not only superior tasting but something I can commercially scale and replicate safely.”
For Rachel Gerroir, a graduate of NC’s Culinary Innovation & Food Technology program, it was an incredible experience to be involved with such a unique project, she says. As a research associate, she worked alongside experts in the Innovation Centre to develop the process after many trials and experiments.
“It was a very exciting project and of course, very challenging as it’s the first of its kind in Canada,” she says. “I learned how to manage a project from start to finish. This included sourcing ingredients, macerating botanicals and distilling, organizing tastings, and adjusting the product to meet client expectations.”
The Sobrii Ø-Gin spirit is currently available at several Toronto locations of Cocktail Emporium for $35 a bottle, as well as online at sobrii.ca. Huitema is also working on getting included on the shelves at select retailers and on restaurant menus.
“It’s thrilling to see the product in its packaging and to know that it’s being sold on store shelves,” adds Gerroir. “It’s incredibly rewarding to see it go from our small lab scale to large-scale production and commercialization.”
This technical service project is just one example of innovation from the College’s CFWI Innovation Centre, which offers a full suite of services to support industry innovation and commercialization of new products and processes. To read more about what the Centre offers, visit their website.