When Jean-Daniel Francois quit his job working in the spirits business, he only had one mission: to see the world. In the end, it was his travels that spurred on his next spirits project, FAIR Vodka. What Daniel saw as he traveled through South America, Asia, Africa, and the like was that he wanted to change how things were done.
Daniel began to explore the world of fair-trade, a policy that he saw could change the way business — and spirits —forever. When he came back, he began working with his business partner from the cognac business, Alexandre Koiransky, to create something original and ethically sourced. “We thought about different ideas that we had to change the world and system,” he said. “Fair trade was most pragmatic and efficient way to do that.” The two took what they already knew from working in French cognacs, and applied it to another spirit — vodka.
In researching what grains to use (rye, wheat, and potato are the most common), they learned the backstory of one superfood making headlines: quinoa. What they didn’t know was that in Bolivia, farmers were exploited by corporations looking to cash in on the trendy grain. Over ten years, farmers in Bolivia lost 40 percent of their fields to corporations. Daniel and Koiransky learned about a cooperative in Bolivia which was fighting to take back their independence. They saw a solution: use ethically sourced quinoa to make a craft spirit.
With some backing by French investors (and Daniel’s family), a distiller’s help in Cognac, France (where most spirits are distilled in the region), the duo hit success. After eight to nine months of recipe testing, they developed the world’s first quinoa-based vodka –— and the only fair trade spirit on the market.
It’s an unusual spirit unlike most vodkas; after the quinoa is harvested and treated by farmers in the 5,000-strong co-op, the quinoa is then distilled into a beer. Then, the brew is distilled once to make the quinoa vodka. That quinoa is what gives it such a unique taste, Daniel says – it’s not as dry as a rye vodka, and not as thick as a potato vodka. And it’s a much bigger step up from vodka made from wheat, or as Daniel calls it, “the most boring spirit.” It works on its own as a flavorful spirit, but still maintains that neutrality vodka is known for. (Check out Royalton's H 75 and the Sakred Land cocktail that both use FAIR vodka.)
Since the initial product, FAIR vodka has expanded using new sources: coffee and goji berries. While a coffee liqueur is hardly news (Daniel says it’s similar to Patron’s EX coffee liqueur), its fair-trade beans from a Mexican co-op are what make the spirit unique. The goji berries from FAIR’s Goji Liqueur come from a co-op in Tibet, and the sugarcane used in the product comes from Malawi. These more unusual spirits is what shows the company’s innovation, Daniel says. (The company is also working on a rum product, but Daniel couldn’t disclose much more information about it.) (And no, these flavors are nothing like our 15 weird vodka flavors.)
Daniel thinks FAIR vodka hits all the right markets: those interested in a craft spirit, and those interested in the fair trade movement. Together, it’s a winning combination for conscious consumers (and drinkers). “We’re just a layer in this story about the global economy,” he says. While Daniel doesn’t criticize the locavore movement that has pervaded the food and drink scene, he says consumers should be thinking about the larger, global picture when buying. “Fair trade is only 0.01 percent of the global goods consumption,” Daniel says. “We’re trying to think how we can change the existing process and make it better, to make a difference in how the big guys do it. We fall in between that line of pragmatic and idealistic.”
And the difference FAIR is making in its Bolivian co-ops is already showing. The co-op began with only 80 farmers and has grown to nearly 5,000, and women especially have taken the helm of the work. “It’s become the most powerful agricultural organization in the country,” Daniel says.
Daniel says to pair the spicy quinoa vodka like you would any other vodka, or to get creative: he recommends a quinoa Old Fashioned. Or, with the goji berry vodka, try it with a lighter champagne, prosecco, or club soda. And above all, says FAIR’s slogan, “Think human, drink fair.”
Quinoa Makes Vegan Whiskey at Nashville Distillery
Nashville’s vegan-friendly Corsair Distillery is making whiskey out of quinoa.
Whiskey is traditionally made from grains, like corn, barley, rye, and wheat. However, Corsair Distillery – founded in 2008 by Darek and Amy Lee Bell – has moved red and white quinoa seeds into the mix. According to the company, the quinoa gives the drink an “earthy and nutty flavor.”
Whilst the distillery is already officially marketing its product – which is 20 percent quinoa and 80 percent barley – as Quinoa Whiskey, the jury is still out on whether the seed will be included in the official definition of what can make whiskey, whiskey.
According to Food and Wine, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has proposed a change to the definition, which will allow pseudocereal grains like amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa to be officially included. According to the bureau, a number of brands, including Corsair, have applied to use these pseudocereal grains to create their whiskeys. Corsair has been given the go-ahead, but an official decision on the definition will be made in March.
“If I’m making a painting, I want to have as many colors in my palate that I can paint with,” Darek told NPR recently. “So as I’m making these whiskeys going forward, maybe it’s just a small touch of oatmeal that adds a little more to the body of the whiskey, or just a little bit of quinoa that adds something different.”
It was all about spirits, and if there’s one thing current trends tell us, it’s that hooch is back to stay.
There will also be a lot of spirits. Historically, the South was a land where the native grapes were nasty and imported ones were louse-food a land too hot to brew beer. It was all about spirits, and if there’s one thing current trends tell us, it’s that hooch is back to stay. Whiskey, of course, is made everywhere. In half a century, one can hope, it will also be all well-distilled and fully matured. (One can hope.)
David Wondrich tells tale of the hot toddy’s history.
A look at American distilling manuals from the early days of the republic, before whiskey chased off all its competitors, reveals a startling range of crops that were once distilled in the region, all ripe for reviving. Some were terrible: Persimmon brandy was notoriously vile. Some were indifferent: Cornstalk rum, distilled from the juice that wells up in the stalks before they put forth ears, was generally thought to be passable if it was made properly (although it usually wasn’t). Some were good: paw-paw brandy, apple brandy, and whiskeys made from various grains. Even Lowcountry rice produced a decent liquor. One spirit was considered so excellent that it cost more than the finest imported Cognac: peach brandy from the Carolinas and Georgia, distilled from fresh peaches and their crushed pits and aged for many years in oak.
In the near(er) future: The Southern Foodways Alliance Guide to Cocktails will publish later this year.
Fifty years from now, somewhere in the South, these spirits and drinks will be crafted, sold, and shaken or stirred into cocktails, flips, punches, coolers, and what-have-you. We’re already well on the way with many of them, as, say, a julep made with Copper & Kings brandy from Louisville will readily demonstrate. As a sort of experiment, here are four reconstructions—or rather, I suppose, preconstructions—of Southern drinks, vintage 2066.
Beyond Quinoa: 5 Healthy Whole Grains You’ve Never Heard of
Evidence abounds that whole grains and other less-processed sources of carbohydrates offer tremendous health benefits—like lowering cholesterol and the risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, aiding digestive health, and promoting longevity, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
You know the mainstream varieties—oats, quinoa—but what the heck is sorghum and freekeh? With the help of The Whole Grains Council, we’ve broken down the need-to-know info on both, plus three other healthy varietes you should add to your diet. Plus, they’re all popping up in packaged snacks these days too, so we’ll tell you where you can find them.
Sorghum is naturally gluten-free. What’s more, the ancient cereal grain is eaten with its outer layers intact, so it retains most of its nutrients. These waxy outer layers are loaded with compounds called policosanols that may prevent and treat cardiovascular disease, according to research. Sorghum is also high in antioxidants believed to reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes, and some neurological diseases. Its mild, sometimes sweet flavor make it an easy sub-in for dishes, and its low glycemic index helps keep you full.
You’ll find it in KIND’s newest line: KIND Healthy Grains Popped. Popped to toasty perfection, sorghum adds a popcorn-like crunch and taste. Look out for their new line—flavors include Salted Caramel and Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt—which launches this May.
Amaranth is another gluten-free whole grain though, unlike sorghum, it’s classified as a pseudo-cereal, meaning it’s actually a seed. Like quinoa, it’s a source of complete protein because it contains lysine, an amino acid, which is thought to build muscle mass, especially when combined Arginine (another amino acid), according to research. Compared to other grains, amaranth has three times the average amount of calcium, contains high levels of protein, and is loaded with other essential vitamins and minerals like iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium. Note: when cooking, make sure you use 6 cups of water for every cup of amaranth—it absorbs that much water, according to The Whole Grains Council.
You’ll find it in Van’s Simply Delicious Gluten Free Fire-Roasted Veggie Crackers. These snacks boast 16 grams of whole grains (amaranth, brown rice, oats, millet and quinoa).
Buckwheat – Healthy Grains
Buckwheat is actually a seed, too. And it’s a standout when it comes to biological protein (the measure of absorbed protein and how readily the digested protein can be used in the body). One cup of cooked buckwheat contains 5.7 grams of protein, according to Calorie Counter. Like amaranth, buckwheat is rich in lysine, amino acids, vitamins and minerals like potassium, zinc and copper.
You’ll find it in Journey Bars. The brand’s savory line of snacks (with flavors like Pizza Marinara and Coconut Curry) all have a whole grain and seed base made from gluten-free oats, organic buckwheat, and sesame seeds.
Before you mess it up, it’s pronounced “free-kah,” and it’s derived from wheat, meaning it’s not gluten-free. It is, however, high in protein and fiber—trumping quinoa—and has low glycemic index levels.
You can substitute it anywhere you’d use whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, farro, bulgur, or steel cut oats. It’s the perfect base for sweet or savory dishes. Try Freekeh Foods packaged frekkeh in Original, Tamari and Rosemary Sage varieties.
This one’s pronounced “trih-tih-KAY-lee,” and it’s a hybrid of wheat and rye, combining the benefits of both grains, according to The Whole Grains Council. Like rye, triticale is rich in dietary fiber and arabinoxylan fiber (a byproduct of wheat flour, and one of the main components of soluble and insoluble dietary fibers, shown to have strong antioxidant activity). Triticale is also composed of acids and compounds that may help moderate insulin levels, weight management, and help improve satiety.
You’ll find it in Bob’s Red Mill Rolled Triticale Flakes—a great substitute for oatmeal. You can also purchase their Triticale flour, which can be subbed in for the regular stuff in baking and cooking recipes.
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The Future of Spirits Is Quinoa - Recipes
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Quinoa Breakfast Recipe: 2 Ways To Make Quinoa Porridge
I did not know how to cook quinoa grains and now, I am sharing quinoa porridge recipes now!
I remember reading an article that listed all the benefits of a grain called quinoa! I rushed into a supermarket the very next day to buy it. I really wanted to start benefiting from this ingredient. The very first time I tried quinoa, I HATED it. Yes, I did not like it at all! I had a whole bag of this ingredient. I only used a little bit in my recipe and I did not like the taste of quinoa at all. What was I meant to do? If this ingredient is so beneficial, I really want to learn how to eat it. After a few experiments, I realized that one of the most enjoyable ways of consuming quinoa is as breakfast! So for those of you out there that are struggling to like quinoa. Dear friends the recipes in this video are for you!
6.76 oz almond milk (or any other milk of your choice)
Raspberry Nut Quinoa Porridge
2 tbsp fresh or frozen raspberries
1 tbsp crushed walnuts & almonds
4 cubes of dark chocolate (>60% cocoa)
1 tbsp tahini (or any other nut butter you like)
Chocolate Banana Quinoa Porridge
1 tbsp of cocoa or chocolate spread
1 tbsp crushed walnuts & almonds
1 tbsp honey (or any other sweetener you prefer)
In a pan, add the ingredients of the base (quinoa, water, milk, and mashed banana).
Cook for 15 minutes approximately until the liquid is absorbed and the quinoa takes a porridge-like texture.
All About That Base
Olivia Hu, the beverage director at Sunrise/Sunset in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, agrees that the relatively new interest in vodka’s agricultural origins and the marketing shift that has accompanied it have been a good thing. She has been using Fair quinoa vodka in a house cocktail for several years. The fair-trade-certified spirit is made with Andean quinoa rather than a more traditional potato or wheat base.
“It’s valid to question the meaning of these labels,” says Hu. “However, spirits are made from food products and are ultimately part of our food culture.” As people have become concerned with the origins of their food, spirits have naturally followed suit. She also points to an oat vodka out of Utah called High West 7000, which is distilled from pure snowmelt mineral water in the area. In upstate New York, there’s 1857 Spirits, which makes a farm-based potato vodka. For a bartender, it makes sense to reintroduce consumers to vodka through these smaller brands that have clear origins and ingredients, as well as distinct flavor profiles.
Recipe: Southwest Quinoa Breakfast Bowl
I know what you’re thinking: Waking up on a Wednesday, cooking a pot of grains, and chopping onions and garlic is just not reality. I hear you (and I’m only cooking for me and my husband we don’t even have kids yet).
But I want to make a case for this dish, in the spirit of prepping for an excellent, inspiring breakfast ahead of time. If you start this recipe on Sunday afternoon, you’ll be set for the week ahead and it’ll take you far less than an hour. It’s one of those nice investments in your future self, and it’s guaranteed to be a reprieve from standard weekday morning fare.
Quinoa is one of the quicker-cooking grains, so if you get up early on weekdays, this might even be possible to pull off without any advance prep — but as I said, for many of us that might not be realistic.
I prep the quinoa and dressing in advance, and sock them away in the fridge. Then on the morning I’d like to serve this, I simply soft-boil a few eggs, slice an avocado, and dress the breakfast bowl. Undressed, the bowl can remain in the refrigerator for four to five days. Feel free to double the recipe to get even more mileage out of it (or at the very least, double the dressing so you can be primed and ready for a salad later in the week).
I’ve worked to streamline this recipe to make it as simple and speedy as possible. Namely, I tweaked the method so you’re cooking the onions, garlic, and the spices along with the quinoa the benefit here is that you’re not getting out an extra pan or adding an extra step. One pot. A few cans to open, an onion and a few garlic cloves to chop. The dressing is super mild and not spiced in and of itself, so it easily translates into this morning meal.
As you may already know, quinoa comes in a few different colors (white, red, even black) and I love the red variety for this recipe purely because the color complements the feel of this bowl. If you’re in a huge hurry, you can skip the egg altogether and have the quinoa on its own – it’s still loaded with flavor, packed with protein, and will satisfy you until the lunch hour. I often soft-boil eggs, but love a good runny fried egg if time allows.
I prefer to enjoy this quinoa bowl warm or room temperature. You can also give it a quick reheat in the microwave if you’re headed out the door — by the time you’ve settled in at your desk it’s likely come close to room temperature. I have a hunch your coworkers may be jealous. At the very least, you’ll pat yourself on your back for planning ahead.
Next Round: The Future of Super-Premium Vodka With Miranda Dickson of Absolut Elyx
On this episode of “Next Round,” host Adam Teeter chats with Miranda Dixon, the global brand director for Absolut Elyx. Dixon walks listeners through the unique history of Elyx — one that heavily involves the use of copper stills. Listeners will also get a chance to learn about the product’s controversial release and strong focus on consumer education.
Like many alcohol brands, Elyx has recently been forced to shift its focus during the Covid-19 pandemic, adjusting to marketing its products for at-home rather than on-premise consumption. Dixon explains how Elyx has adapted to this “new normal” as a super-premium vodka. Tune in to learn more about the past, present, and future of Absolut Elyx.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter. And this is a “VinePair Podcast” conversation. We are bringing you these conversations in between our regular podcast episodes to give you a better idea of what’s going on in the alcohol beverage industry. Today, I’m talking with Miranda Dixon, the global brand director for Absolut Elyx. Miranda, thank you for joining me.
Miranda Dixon: Thank you for having me.
A: Where do we find you on this lovely day in March?
D: Well, here I am this Sunday morning, sitting in Los Angeles.
A: Wow, so talk to me a little bit about Absolut Elyx. Most people, I think, are aware of it now. It’s been around for about 10 years, but what is the brand? I’m also curious as to how it sits outside of Absolut, because I always assumed that Elyx was sort of part of Absolut, but to hear that you are the global brand director of Elyx, I’m so curious about what the hierarchy is and where the brand fits in the brand family of Absolut.
D: It took us three years to make Absolut, and that was between 2007 to 2010 when we made Elyx. Of course, everybody’s fully aware of the brand Absolut Vodka. With Elyx, what we did was look at every element of the way we produced Absolut Vodka and tried to craft and finesse each stage of the production process. For example, in the wheat fields that we use for Absolut Vodka, we went to one of the farmers that we have the best relationship with and worked with him to try and create a very specific wheat variety from the terroir. Then, from one single estate in Sweden, we use that wheat for the creation of Absolut Elyx. We’re not saying that wheat is giving a better product. It’s just a different product. What we wanted to do is create something that was a handcrafted expression of Absolut Vodka. Taking every element that we’ve learned and building it into a craft, something that’s a handmade product. Therefore, it takes much more time to create Elyx. We make it in one distillery, which is the original Absolut distillery in southern Sweden. It’s very closely related, from a production point of view, from how we actually make the product from the ingredients that we use. We’re very lucky in southern Sweden because the distillery sits on top of a huge ancient aquifer that we use the same water for Absolut Vodka as we use for Elyx, because it’s complete purity. There are lots of similarities between the actual product itself. However, it comes from one single estate and it is a handmade product. It really is handmade, there are no computers in the distillery. It’s about seven guys who know how to operate this equipment. It is genuinely a handmade product.
A: What was the decision to create Elyx? Why create Elyx?
D: Krister Asplund was a master distiller who had worked creating Absolut Vodka for 35 years. He really had ambition. In 1973, when we created Absolut Vodka, the world was a very different place, and what was possible through manufacturing was very different from how it is today in the world of vodka. All knowledge gained from Absolut Vodka, he had a lot of energy in distilling down this knowledge to finesse a different expression of Absolut — using that wheat to give the vodka a slightly different profile. I suppose that could be described as this more refined product.
A: Has the hope been to graduate the Absolut drinker to Absolut Elyx? Are you trying to bring other people into the vodka category through Absolut Elyx? Where do you see the brand fitting in among drinkers in general and what people are looking for?
D: I think we see Elyx as the product that you’d reach for as a special occasion. For example, if you were an Absolut drinker, maybe Elyx is the product you would grab to take to a friend’s party on the weekend. As I said, when Absolut launched, the world of the vodka shelf was a very different place than it is today. We would say that Elyx is absolutely exceptional in a Martini, for example, which perhaps isn’t the way people are consuming Absolut Vodka today. It could be in longer drinks, more simple mixed drinks. The way that it has this very refined, very special mouthfeel is so much better enjoyed in spirit-forward drinks, for example. That is a space in which one might select Elyx as an option. Also, we see the brand is appealing to non-vodka drinkers as well. Elyx has a very distinct taste, flavor, and specifically a very refined mouthfeel. It’s very, very smooth and silky in texture. It showcases extremely well in a spirit-forward drink.
A: Where does that mouthfeel come from? Is it because of the wheat you’re using? Is that from the distillation process? How is that occurring?
D: It basically comes from the distillation process, exactly. The way we create Absolut Elyx is, again, very unique. We use copper, which is not unique. We know spirit production uses copper, but it’s the way that we employ copper. We use a vintage still from 1921 to make Elyx, which is this hand-operated still. In addition to that, we’re using sacrificial copper in the first distillation. What that is doing is removing many of the primary unwanted impurities. It’s removing a lot of unwanted odors or fusel oils at the first point of distillation, so you have a fine spirit that you’re going to be creating. It is already a very different profile from Absolut Vodka. It’s crafted completely through this copper still. I know that Krister believes that the still is the magic of Absolut Elyx, that gives it this very specific profile.
A: It’s interesting to me that we’re talking a little bit earlier about modernism from where we were in 1973 to how we’ve changed in vodka since then. But then for forward-thinking products, you went back to a machine built in 1921. That’s really interesting. Copper is obviously a big part of the brand. That’s how I’ve always seen the brand show up. Was it known by the distilling team at the time that copper would be the type of still to use in order to create the type of vodka they wanted to make?
D: Yes. When I talk about looking at every element of the process of Absolut Vodka, they’re using copper in the primary distillation process, but it’s not sacrificial. It’s not being discarded after every single batch, which is how we produce Elyx. I think it was evident that this copper catalyzation process very much helps impart something differentiated to the vodka. Copper is part of the tradition of distillation in Sweden, and it’s central to that. It made sense to use copper. Even within the huge facility, which creates the millions of cases of Absolut Vodka, copper is employed and is inside stainless steel. It’s still there. It’s still being used, but not in quite the same proportion as we’re using it with Elyx.
A: Interesting. Full disclosure, when I was a kid, I collected Absolut Vodka ads because I thought they were super cool. When you were creating Elyx, was this also to give Absolut a competitor against like a Grey Goose or a Belvedere? Was that how you came to have a super premium? I always thought that Absolut was super premium until Elyx was released, so I’m curious as to what the business decisions were behind it.
D: We see Absolut sitting firmly on the premium shelf. What you saw in the early s with the release of Belvedere and Grey Goose, you see a complete changing of the vodka context. Honestly, I don’t think that a consumer understands premium or super premium. They just understand the price point.
D: What’s interesting with the super-premium category as a whole, but specifically with vodka, there’s no aging process. There’s no appellation on whiskey, Cognac, for example. The price point is largely defined by a fancy bottle, various claims, and marketing claims on the pack. This category with vodka seems to be between $25 — in America, it’s especially broad — but $25 up to $140. It’s so broad. I went to the store the other day and I see what I would say is a premium product sitting next to a super-premium product with the same price point. Pricing in the U.S., specifically on shelves, is quite interesting. With Absolut Elyx, we didn’t say, “OK, we need something to go up against Grey Goose or Belvedere,” who obviously were the market leaders at the time. When we first positioned it, it wasn’t really about that. It was about creating something that really was a handcrafted expression that says something much more craft-forward. In the initial process, we never thought about it being something that would be drunk in nightclubs and sparklers. As I imagine, many of the Champagne houses never would have dreamed of that either. We never saw that being a play in the product. It was more about very good quality drinks and creating a product that could deliver on exceptional, spirit-forward cocktails.
A: I remember when Elyx debuted, it was the brand that helped re-educate or remind bartenders at craft cocktail bars that you could make really good drinks with vodka. I remember seeing Elyx pushing very hard into that space. Was that intentional?
D: Yes. We deliberately partnered with initially 15 bars in New York and specifically forged a great relationship with Jim Meehan to educate people. I think we came around at a time where bartenders were anti-vodka. I wanted to say to people that’s not really fair. First of all, the consumer still loves vodka, even if the bartender is anti-vodka. There’s a lot more to vodka than you may think. It was always important to us to continue to push for education. People need to understand what makes good vodka, and to teach people that it is a fundamental entry point.
A: When I first came in contact with Absolut Elyx, I believe it was at Betony (RIP) and they had a ton of pineapples and things like that. This was one of the very early days of VinePair. I think I was just starting the publication. It was around the time you guys were launching, like seven years ago or so. They used to tell me that people stole them. Is that true?
D: Yes, actually, the first time we showcased the pineapple was at Talese of the Cocktail in 2015. We made 200 of them. I remember going to the POS team and them saying, “You are crazy, these are so expensive, what are you doing?” We put them out there and out of our 200, I think only 54 came home. You could see immediately that these were a hit, but it was a good problem to have. So we started replicating. We found a way to make them less expensive and make them available to bars and restaurants all over the world. In fact, I think right now there are over 60,000 of these out in the on-premise globally. What we saw is that exactly. People were tipping the ice out under the table and putting them in the handbags.
A: They were drinks vessels, correct? They weren’t shakers.
D: Exactly, they’re cocktail cups. We sat back and said “Wow, this is crazy.” We started initially with a website that was linked to Water for People, which is a charity we were working with at the time. And you could purchase a cup of pineapple and give a donation of $5 to Water for People. People just loved these vessels. With that in mind, we started expanding, and I worked on expanding the whole range of copper vessels. Now, we have copper gnomes, pineapples, mermaids, turtles, cats, and little lovebirds. We have this whole range of fun, fantasy-style copper drinking vessels. A huge flamingo punchbowl. We’ve also set up elyxboutique.com, where we retail those directly to consumers. That’s also been a big part of our play during times of Covid, because it gives the opportunity for people to go online and buy these great cups, which make great gifting, with cocktail ideas, how to drink with each cup and vessel, etc. That’s complemented by copper bar tools and other lifestyle pieces like cufflinks and decorations.
A: Very cool. You very much leaned into copper. I love it.
D: It’s the cornerstone of how we made the brand. It just made sense. It’s great that it also happens to be fashionable as a color and a material. It’s also absolutely central to the way we create Absolut Elyx.
A: Very cool. Now that we are obviously full-on in a global pandemic and the on-premise has closed — which I used to see Elyx at a lot — how has your strategy changed or had your strategy already evolved prior to Covid? What have you done since the beginning in terms of positioning of the brand?
D: The brand has massively evolved since we first launched. While we were in spirit-forward craft cocktail bars and hotel bars, we realized that there’s a scope outside that. We started working very closely with global trade, in terms of creating more exciting drinking experiences, as well as educating on the product. The reality is the territory of this so-called super-premium category is nightlife as well. It was difficult for us to remain in the bars as part of the portfolio. Because the way our company is set up, we’re a decentralized organization. What that means is that, transparently, our sales guys will be going into accounts, selling a bunch of different products, and vodka is obviously part of that setup. People want to drink great vodka in nightclubs. Honestly, it wasn’t a strategy of ours. It was more about the fact that this is what the bars, restaurants, and nightclubs wanted. They wanted a vodka, and we see that expanding in that segment. It’s really the Champagne, tequila, and vodka. Then, we created systems, ideas, fancy ice buckets, things that were not sparkler-forward. But something that could work in that environment for the brand and then embrace that as another facet of the brand.
A: Since you brought up nightclubs, which is interesting to me, I’m curious. Obviously, Cognac has seen massive booms in Covid. The sales are just through the roof. Obviously, that has to do with the Cognac already surging prior to Covid. It was already on the upswing. Our own independent data sets that we have through VinePair Insights were showing that early on. One of the other large reasons people are saying Cognac is booming is because a lot of people who drank it in the clubs started to realize how much it actually cost off-premise, and were buying more of it. They’ve seen massive sales because of that. I’m curious, has the same happened to Elyx?
D: No, unfortunately not. Covid really pushed it in the off-premise. We’ve been a very trade-forward brand, and we’ve been very on-premise focused. The way we show up, which you touched on earlier on copper, is creating a visual identity of the brand. That’s very much still an on-premise play. With 10 years, we’re still a brand in its infancy. Once we started doing some co-packs with fancy copper cups in the off-premise, it’s not something that we’ve really pushed or embraced. Being in grocery stores, for example, has not been a major part of the brand because it’s been more about seeding the brand, growing equity within the on-premise.
A: You’re in L.A. because of a special Elyx house, correct?
D: Yeah, that’s correct. We talked a lot about the product itself and how the product’s made, but that was never the whole story of Absolut Vodka. You talked about the advertisements. People touched on this cultural identity of the brand just as much as they talked about the actual liquid itself. That was a great inspiration for us with Absolut Elyx, because if we look at the heritage of Absolut, art, fashion, and culture is so much part of the DNA of the brand’s disruptive character. That’s something that really motivated and inspired me when working on Absolut Elyx and expanding and exploring that. That came to life by creating these Absolut Elyx houses. We started off by creating one in New York in a loft apartment in Manhattan. Then we created this Elyx house in the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles. The idea of the houses is to create this utopia, where you’re stepping into the world of Elyx where nothing is branded. It’s more about creating this alternative lifestyle. We’ve used the house for hosting trade events, parties, celebrity birthday parties, educational sessions, etc. That’s basically the usage of the house, and obviously for company internal meetings and seminars, etc. It’s a fully dedicated mansion in Hollywood that is the Elyx house.
A: Does the New York one exist anymore?
D: No, it doesn’t. We had it for a year, and we ran the two houses together. From an organizational/operational point of view, it is very difficult to keep them both going. We had that house for two years. We’ve had the Elyx house in L.A. for five years.
A: What happened to the house during Covid for the last year?
D: Well, we’ve been making lots of content creation there. You asked earlier about what we have done with Covid? Well, one of the things that have become apparent — something that I focused on anyway — is how are we going to get people excited about how to drink Elyx, especially if they’re sitting at home? We’ve done a lot of work with trade based in L.A doing films on how to make perfect Martinis, how to make great cocktails, and shooting in our ready-made set. That’s the main way in which we used it. For the holidays, we did some work with Dita Von Teese, and we did Halloween, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Eve. She made some great, fun videos at the house, too. That’s what we’ve been using for content creation.
A: At this point, do you think post-Covid, the plan is to go back to the playbook you had been using in terms of pushing into the clubs and being more of an on-trade liquid? Or do you think that, given Covid and everything that it has done to at-home bartending and consumption, will it cause you to reevaluate the strategy? Will Elyx be showing up more in people’s homes than it used to?
D: Yes, of course. We will continue to work with the trade. I think that the trade and the professionals in our industry are really the heartbeat that keeps it so exciting in our industry. Even when people aren’t showing up in bars and clubs, these are still the people creating the trends, creating the cocktails. We’ll continue to work with them on solutions for how to keep encouraging people to drink better at home, to finesse their cocktail techniques, and impress their friends. Using professional hats and doubling down on that still. At-home bartending is definitely not going to go away, and there’s so much more interest in it than there ever was before. It would be foolish not to continue what we started during Covid, but also to really work with bars and restaurants as they start coming back and getting back on their feet after the crisis. How can we support them in creating tools and solutions for them to weather this new world post-Covid?
A: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Well, this has been a really fascinating conversation, and I really want to thank you for taking the time to chat with me more about Elyx, what’s going on with the brand, and how it developed. It’s been really cool to hear its story. I want to thank you, and I wish you the best of luck in the future with the brand.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please leave a rating on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tasting director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
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The typical Western diet—heavy on meat, starch, and sweets—is taking over the world. From Mexico to China, changes in what people eat are driving up rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
Research published last month underscores another disturbing consequence of this energy-dense diet. If the cheeseburger and fries don’t kill you, the food system that sustains it one day could—by putting food supplies in peril.
The largest global survey of crop diversity and diets conducted to date, released last month, paints a bleak picture of global food supplies. Countries are 36 percent more reliant on the same staple crops than they were 50 years ago. Just 50 crop commodities provide more than 90 percent of calories, protein, and fat around the world.
To paraphrase folk singer Greg Brown, it’s as if “the whole world struggles to become one bland place.”
It’s not just that our food choices are dull. It’s a recipe for disaster.
The big three cereal crops are wheat, corn, and rice. Improvements over the past five decades in breeding and growing these three crops have helped feed the world. But annual yield improvements in these same crops are slowing and are expected to start declining after the 2030s because of climate change. And pests will have a field day (pardon the pun). A fungal pathogen of wheat, a stem rust dubbed Ug99, evolved to infect wheat varieties once resistant to the fungus. It has spread throughout Africa and into the Middle East and poses a serious threat to global wheat production.
With 2 billion more mouths to feed by 2050, those are daunting vulnerabilities.
Staring at global crop data for the past year had an impact on Colin Khoury, an American researcher based at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia, who led the new analysis of global crops. He’s been thinking a lot about what he calls “radical eating.” It sounds hardcore, but it’s actually pretty simple—eat more of the world’s less popular foods.
“I didn’t realize until I saw the data that, in a world where soybean and palm oil have become dominant oil crops, it is a radical thing to drizzle olive oil on my pasta,” says Khoury. He still eats wheat and rice, but, when he can, he eats unique or local varieties, anything to promote diversity in the agricultural system.
At least 7,000 species of plants could be eaten by humans. The hard part is getting even a few of these edible species on a supermarket shelf, much less on a fork. Most of the so-called neglected, or orphan, crops are eaten primarily as traditional foods in small pockets of developing nations, if at all.
Quinoa was once a neglected crop. Until recently, this ancient grain was a staple of South American highland farmers. The recent quinoa craze was made possible by two notable characteristics: The gluten-free, high-protein grain is loaded with eight essential amino acids, and health food nuts were willing to pay top dollar for it. Since the 1980s, the world harvest of quinoa has almost doubled, and its market price jumped 600 percent between 2000 and 2008.
Researchers worldwide spend considerable effort looking for the “next quinoa.” It’s not as easy as you might think. First, people are picky eaters. Second, most edible species in the world’s complex, disconnected global food system have had little scientific attention. It’s often not clear what type of culinary qualities a plant possesses or could easily be bred to have.
“Everybody knows what to do with wheat because the crop has been grown, eaten, processed, and bred for thousands of years,” says Sean Mayes, director for biotechnology and crop genetics at the Crops for the Future Research Centre in Malaysia. Increasing wheat yields leads straightforwardly to more bread, pasta, cereal, and beer. That’s not often true for neglected crops.
There are two primary ways to help a neglected crop get a spot on a plate: Create demand or create supply.
Celebrity chefs may be the main ones able to spark demand—especially if the new ingredients boast superfood-like nutritional benefits. Kale sales soared 40 percent last year after celebrity chefs (and actress Gwyneth Paltrow) touted its health benefits. Kale chips even made it on Wolfgang Puck’s Oscar ceremony menu this year.
But it takes hundreds of farmers and researchers to create supply.
Frank Morton is one of those suppliers. He was growing quinoa before quinoa was cool. Back in the 1980s, he got some quinoa seed from the Abundant Life Seed Foundation in Port Townsend, Wash., one of the first places in the United States to sell quinoa seed being produced by a three-person Colorado operation devoted to bringing the grain from South America to North America. But Morton grew it as a green, not for grain. Working near Seattle at the time, Morton grew wild salad mixes for chefs sick of iceberg lettuce. Quinoa was a heat-tolerant green that, unlike lettuce, wouldn’t wilt on a warm summer day.
As he kept growing quinoa, he realized he was, inadvertently, selecting for traits that made it grow well in the Pacific Northwest. He ended up with six varieties that he sold through his Wild Garden Seeds catalog and website based out of an organic farm in Philomath, Ore., a small operation with only a handful of employees.
He watched as quinoa made its way onto health food shelves. Interest really started to grow once Peruvian restaurants started to open in his region about a decade ago, and other restaurants took notice of the cuisine. “Chefs are the celebrities of food,” he says, “and they always want something new, so that’s what I provide.”
In the past few years, requests for his quinoa seeds have poured in from researchers and entrepreneurs in Abu Dhabi, Morocco, Qatar, Slovenia, and Kazakhstan. Morton was dumbfounded that he was the go-to guy for quinoa seed. “I kept asking myself—how did our food system, which is supposed to innovate for nutrition and climate, get so freakin’ broken that nowhere was anybody else working on this?”
Quinoa was on a priority list of underutilized cereals published by Bioversity International in 2002, highlighting species that deserved more R&D. Quinoa, so far, is the best example of a crop that made it off the list and into the mainstream.
These species are called neglected for a reason. They get extremely little funding, especially compared to staple crops. Researchers have to be strategic, and that means thinking 20 years out. They most often focus their effort on crops that will help improve nutrition and supply in the most food-insecure regions.
Mayes, for example, works with partners in developing countries in Southeast Asia and Africa to find profitable ways for small-scale farmers to grow Bambara groundnut, a drought-tolerant, nutritious, chickpea-like nut.
Growing orphan crops that are adapted to drought or heat tolerance will be increasingly important for local food security as changing climates dictate where we can grow staple crops on a large scale. It’s one of the reasons Mayes may soon test Bambara groundnut in southern Europe’s marginal lands.
He and Morton agree that forgotten high-protein grains—like teff or amaranth—have the makings for the next big craze. Other researchers hope foodies get excited about finger millet, an ancient African grain that is high not only in protein but also in calcium and fiber.
What’s clear is that the world has reached a strange point in history. Consumer choices will affect not just individual nutrition, but possibly global food security. Without concerted efforts to develop and eat neglected crops, many may disappear altogether. “The only thing that has ever served humanity well in the face of uncertainty is diversity,” says Morton.
One thing Khoury has learned is that the food system is always in flux. “We’re already seeing changes on the ground that aren’t showing up in the data yet,” he says. There is a small but growing trend toward eating less meat and more vegetables, for instance, particularly in northern Europe.
African leafy vegetables (nightshades, but not the deadly variety) are now on Kenyan supermarket shelves, which wouldn’t have been likely 15 years ago given locals’ preference for exotic vegetables like cabbage or carrots, according to Khoury’s colleague Luigi Guarino, senior scientist at the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Bonn, Germany. Efforts to promote nutritional benefits of local diversity helped increase demand.
Diversity used to be prized in agriculture. Thomas Jefferson boasted about the 330 varieties of 89 different vegetables grown at Monticello. He favored the rare and unusual such as orach, asparagus bean, and sprout kale, foods that are likely almost impossible to find in Virginia today.
To do my part, I looked for amaranth flour on my latest visit to the market. It was there amid several other ancestral grains from a local natural food mill I’ll try them next. My daughter and I made zucchini chocolate chip cookies with amaranth flour this weekend. It added a rich, nutty flavor and a dash of adventure to our regular old recipe. It was an easy way to help ensure her future will include a diverse mix of foods to choose from.