Canada’s first non-alcoholic gin is ready to shake up the market, thanks to beverage industry pioneer DistillX Beverages Inc. – with help from Niagara College’s Research & Innovation Division.
Sobrii Ø-Gin (zero gin), under the brand label Sobrii, is true to its name, with zero calories, zero sugar, zero artificial flavour and, as the marketing touts, results in zero hangovers.
In replicating the refreshing flavour profile of traditional gin with juniper notes, the distilled non-alcoholic spirit includes classic botanicals such as coriander, star anise and allspice, as well as the non-traditional addition of local Canadian ginseng.
“I pride myself in terms of Sobrii’s taste in that it is very much like the alcoholic product,” said Bob Huitema, president of DistillX Beverages Inc., based in Toronto (Sobrii is craft distilled in small batches in Stratford, Huitema’s hometown). “In fact, I don’t call it a substitute because I think it’s actually better.”
DistillX’s alt-gin product made its debut in November 2019 at the Gourmet Wine and Food Expo in Toronto where more than 2,000 samples were served. It will also be in the spotlight March 1-3 at Canada’s largest foodservice and hospitality event: the Restaurants Canada show in Toronto (Enercare Centre).
“A lot of people said it tasted just like gin,” said Huitema, who noted that its primary target market is anyone who is already drinking the alcoholic version. “My main consumer is people who drink, but to pinpoint that market further, the commonality is the shared awareness of health – meaning less alcohol is healthier.”
No stranger to the world of distilled spirits, Huitema spent four years at Diageo (the second-largest distiller in the world) as strategic accounts director and was marketing/brand director for Guinness, prior to entering the entrepreneurial world. He conducted in-depth market research into non-alcoholic spirits for six months, and visited the United Kingdom where the market is slightly more advanced than North America, prior to turning to the College’s Canadian Food and Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre.
“Expertise from Niagara College’s Research & Innovation Division was instrumental to being able to sell a product that was not only superior tasting but something I can commercially scale and replicate safely,” said Huitema. “I think it’s important to support local academic and manufacturing resources as this is a ‘made in Canada’ initiative.”
This project is just one example of innovation from NC’s CFWI Innovation Centre, which offers a full suite of services to support industry innovation, and commercialization of new products and processes. The Centre includes a research team with a strong history of developing non-alcoholic products – including award-winning Hill Street Beverages alcohol-free craft lager as well as MADD Virgin Craft Brewed Lager.
“Assisting innovative industry partners, like DistillX, with the development of trailblazing new products is at the heart of what we do in our Research & Innovation Division,” said Marc Nantel, PhD, NC’s vice-president of Research, Innovation and Strategic Initiatives. “Projects like this not only tap into the expertise of the staff and faculty researchers within our CFWI Innovation Centre but create exciting opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience along the way.”
Producing a distilled non-alcoholic gin was a challenging endeavour, since the flavour is first derived from ethanol. The trick was to remove the alcohol while leaving the flavour behind.
Ana Cristina Vega-Lugo, PhD, senior food scientist at the CFWI Innovation Centre, noted that it was an extremely ambitious project, 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.
“The goal was to move beyond flavoured water towards a non-alcoholic product that would offer a superior consumer experience,” Vega-Lugo said.
The initial stages of development took place in beverage labs at the CFWI Innovation Centre, and trials were completed to adjust methods and formulation at the College’s Teaching Distillery – the first facility of its kind in Canada – both located at NC’s Daniel J. Patterson Campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Because beverages containing less than 0.5 percent alcohol are considered a food product and must adhere to strict guidelines, Huitema was also required 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 brought on board to advise on food safety risk assessment.
Rachel Gerroir, a graduate of NC’s Culinary Innovation and Food Technology program, worked alongside experts as a research associate 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 said. “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.”
She noted that it is thrilling for her to now see the product in its packaging and know that it is being sold on store shelves. “It’s incredibly rewarding to see it go from our small lab scale to large-scale production and commercialization,” said Gerroir.
Sobrii Ø-Gin, offered in 200ml and 750 ml bottles, is currently available in Toronto at Cocktail Emporium, as well as in Stratford at Bradshaw’s and Junction 56. It can be purchased nationally online at Well.ca and information is available at sobrii.ca.
This project was made possible thanks to the CFWI Innovation Centre Technology Access Centre (TAC). Funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and housed at colleges or cégeps across Canada, TACs provide access to specialized technology, equipment, and expertise to small- and medium-sized businesses to advance their products, processes and services.
Niagara College’s newly expanded CFWI Innovation Centre is located within NC’s new Marotta Family Innovation Complex at its Niagara-on-the-Lake campus. The Complex, which opened officially in September 2019, is the centrepiece of a $34-million investment in the agri-food sector (view Sept. 3, 2019 news release here).
Named Canada’s number one Research College by Research Infosource Inc, (view Nov. 12, 2019 news release here) Niagara College’s Research & Innovation division conducts research projects with industry partners through its Agriculture & Environment Innovation Centre, and the Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre and the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre. The division also offers support in the areas of digital media and web solutions and business and commercialization solutions. Visit ncinnovation.ca/
Niagara College offers more than 130 diploma, bachelor degree and advanced level programs; as well as more than 600 credit, vocational and general interest Part-Time Studies courses. Areas of specialization include food and wine sciences, advanced technology, media, applied health and community safety, supported by unique learning enterprises in food, wine, beer, distilling, horticulture and esthetics. For more information visit niagaracollege.ca.