Researcher’s sophisticated palate lends well to product development

Jaclyn Harriman’s to-do list is long.

The project lead and researcher with the Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre is working with new distilleries to create a full lineup of spirits and ready-to-drink beverages. She’s experimenting with mock-spirits, dealcoholized wine and plenty of interesting tinctures. Harriman is also helping clients to repurpose materials that might otherwise be discarded, with a keen eye on sustainability.

There are other new and established distilleries turning to Harriman to bring their ideas to life seeking foraged, wild and local ingredients. But her prowess in a research lab didn’t start in a classroom.

It started when she spent nine years as an adult travelling abroad to help with grape harvests.

“I love the connection to plant medicine and the complexity of the craft; it draws on your creativity and curiosity to create something unique.”

All roads eventually led back to Niagara College where Harriman enrolled as a mature student in the Winery and Viticulture Technician program. It was as a student on a field trip to Dillon’s Small Batch Distillery in Beamsville, Ontario that her career path became even clearer.

Harriman was so taken with the still – its shape, the copper, the complexity – that she hand-delivered her resume the next day. She was hired as a distiller and botanist soon after graduating in 2016, tasked with growing the botanicals that make Dillon’s spirits industry benchmarks today.

“That will always be a playful area for me,” Harriman notes about working in a distillery. “I love to meet other distillers and talk about what they’re doing. I love the connection to plant medicine and the complexity of the craft; it draws on your creativity and curiosity to create something unique.”

Naturally, she’s particularly fond of a job that lets her do all of that, such as the one she does at Research & Innovation.

“I feel so lucky,” Harriman said. “It’s funny in life how your skills build on one another. I just got to build and build and build.”

Jaclyn Harriman, researcher with the Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre, uses a lab distillation apparatus to extract volatile aromas and flavour compounds from macerated botanicals, for an emerging micro-distillery currently working with NC to develop a gin.

That includes helping to develop some high-profile non-alcoholic spirits, which are capturing greater market share. With booze or without, the process for creating a winning beverage is similar. It’s coming up with ideas, developing then tasting prototypes with her research team, which includes students whom Harriman loves to mentor, creating product applications and ensuring everything aligns with client goals.

“I love the team,” she says. “It’s a collaboration. We all have different skills and we deliver really great products. It’s really, really exciting.”

Still, Harriman hasn’t forgotten how it all started with a plane ticket and some wanderlust.

When she’s not in a lab, she finds inspiration close to home on the Bruce Trail, where she ventures for a standing weekly date with Mother Nature. Anything farther afield might involve a trip in her Honda Odyssey, which she converted into a camper. Add that, and a campfire at Superior Provincial Park, especially, and “I couldn’t be happier.”

But when the world allows, there are planes to catch, most recently to Colombia. There, she based her itinerary on coffee, drinking flights of java and doing cuppings to taste for characteristics such as cleanness, sweetness, acidity and mouthfeel.

“It’s really living in the moment,” Harriman says about engaging in such sensory experiences. “You have to focus on the experience and evaluate.”

Paying attention to her palate, particularly when pairing food and beverage, pays off for her clients. Being able to pick up on traits others might not be as tuned into helps with the product development she does.

And while memories of her travels live on in her trained taste buds, they also exist in Harriman’s garden, which is a growing homage to the places she has been. Take the lemon tree, currently struggling indoors during the cooler weather, that’s her reminder of Portugal, or the Japanese maple that harkens back to another trip.

The red currant, huckleberry, haskap and raspberries provide muses for another of Harriman’s hobbies: making vinegar. This year, she plans to expand her plot, which is as nearly as big as her house, to include edible flowers to decorate her culinary creations.

It might all make her to-do list a little longer, but Harriman doesn’t mind. If anything, it makes her all the more suited to life at Research & Innovation.

“I’m a huge food and beverage connoisseur. I love pairings. That’s another thing that still drives my work at Research & Innovation,” she said. “You have to understand flavours before knowing what you can deliver.”