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Master of Malt Blog

Tag: Cannabis

High end cannabis-infused spirits are here

While industry tastemakers have been keeping a close eye on the burgeoning CBD oil trend, relatively few producers dare to blend the tincture with booze. But then, the folks behind…

While industry tastemakers have been keeping a close eye on the burgeoning CBD oil trend, relatively few producers dare to blend the tincture with booze. But then, the folks behind CBD-infused spirits company Top Beverages are hardly your average distillers. We chatted with attorney-turned-entrepreneur Nick Pullen, the company’s co-founder, as their inaugural gin and spiced rum bottlings hit the market…

“We wanted to really pioneer something that’s never been done before,” explains Philadelphia native Pullen, who established Top Beverages with business partner Saf Ali back in January 2019. “A lot of folks out there have an existing range of alcoholic beverages and just throw in a [CBD-infused variant] to catch a fad or trend. Our core business is CBD spirits and that’s what’s really going to set us apart within the industry.” Pullen met English music industry and property Saf Ali at their childrens’ school bus stop in Barcelona – the city they call home – and the duo made it their mission to disrupt both the spirits and CBD industries.

For the uninitiated, CBD or cannabidiol is the non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant, so it doesn’t make you feel “high” (that’s down to THC, one of 113 known cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant). Research suggests it offers a range of health benefits, from reducing chronic pain and inflammation to easing anxiety and epilepsy. You can buy ‘CBD isolate’, a pure, concentrated form of CBD with no other cannabinoids present, or opt for ‘full spectrum CBD’, which includes other naturally-occurring plant compounds, and it’s the latter Pullen and Ali chose to use in their range.

Top Beverage

No, not a new Calvin Klein advert, it’s One CBD-infused rum and gin

After months of research and trial-and-error testing, Top Beverages has bottled its first products, a gin and a spiced rum, each available in a limited run of 500 x 100ml bottles at a punchy 54.5% ABV. The RRP is pretty punchy at £30 a bottle, the equivalent of £210 for a standard 700ml bottle. One gin is distilled with juniper berries, coriander seeds, angelica root, orris root, elderflower, lemon peel, lime peel, and a fresh Valencian orange, while One spiced rum is made with cassia bark, orange peel, ginger, and Indian vanilla pods. Both variants contain 10mg of full-spectrum CBD, which injects “a little bit of flavour, but not much,” Pullen says. 

“It all comes down to finding the right CBD,” he outlines. “A lot of what people are calling CBD products are really hemp oil, which has a different flavour profile. We had to do a lot of research and tried dozens of CBD types from different suppliers from the UK, Europe and the US. It took us a long time to identify the best water-soluble product out there and then experiment with when to add it, how to blend it, how to filter it – getting to the end result was a labour of love.”

Top Beverages is working with legal and food safety professionals to guarantee the quality of its CBD, but aside from EU standards that regulate CBD and THC content, no industry-specific regulations exist. This is uncharted territory after all, which means there’s no lower or upper limit to the amount of CBD a producer is required to add to a given spirit, wine or beer. Where some companies may seek to capitalise on this by adding as little as possible, Top Beverages has “a more concentrated approach,” Pullen says, with every 10ml of spirit containing 1mg of CBD. 

Top Beverages

The thing that looks like a slug is actually a vanilla pod

“We view more regulation as a benefit because it’s going to weed out a lot of the potential bad actors,” he adds. “Compliance regulation is ultimately a good thing and the people that adhere to it end up becoming the cream of the crop because ultimately consumers want a trusted brand. It’s really important to communicate that you’re getting what you’re paying for, especially in this virginal market.”

One area there are regulations, however, are in regards to advertising. Communicating how a CBD-infused G&T might compare to a ‘regular’ one in terms of mood-altering effects is, well, a little tricky. I’m not a doctor or a medical professional,” Pullman clarifies. “We’re not allowed to make any kind of medical claims relating to CBD and alcohol, but here’s what I can say personally: About three to four weeks ago I had terrible back pain, I was really struggling. I opened up my gin to make a G&T and afterwards my wife said, ‘Wow, you’re almost dancing now’. 

“There’s a calming aspect and pain relief aspect for me,” he continues. “Obviously, people respond to it differently, and like all spirits, it should be consumed in moderation. But for our focus group, the reaction has been one of, ‘This is an amazing spirit and I feel really good after drinking it’. Whether that comes from the CBD, the alcohol, the natural flavours, or the whole combination, it makes people feel great.”

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Hops and grass, a match made in heaven?

As various Conservative politicians tumble over themselves to admit their early experiences with drugs of varying illegality, but within limits naturally, it seems as good as time as any for…

As various Conservative politicians tumble over themselves to admit their early experiences with drugs of varying illegality, but within limits naturally, it seems as good as time as any for Ian Buxton to look into the drinks industry’s flirtation with weed.

Yes, cannabis.  Or dope, grass, bhang or pot – call it what you will, it’s currently taking up a great deal of the time, attention and budget of the drinks industry’s senior executives.  Not that they’re smoking the stuff or baking it into their lunchtime snacks, you understand, but a lot of money is changing hands. Cannabis is shaping up to be the next big thing after alcohol.

Much of the activity currently takes place in North America. Canada has liberalised its laws on cannabis and a number of US states are poised to follow. Cannabis-infused drinks are under active development with brewers leading the way. As just one example, giant Canadian brewer Molson Coors took a majority stake in August 2018 in a joint venture with cannabis producer, The Hydropothecary Corporation. It’s taken the resulting Hexo Molson company less than a year to develop their first products, which will go on sale this December as soon as they become legal in Canada.

And what happens in Canada crosses the border to the US fast though currently Federal law prohibits brewers from using marijuana in beer. That hardly presented a problem to the noted craft brewer Keith Villa, the man behind Blue Moon Belgian Wheat Beer. His Ceria Grainwave Belgian-Style White Ale has no alcohol and but includes 5 milligrams of THC, the high-producing ingredient found in cannabis plants. It’s currently available in Colorado, with further distribution planned.

Ceria Brewing

Image courtesy of Ceria Brewing Company

Likewise San Diego’s Two Roots Brewing Co. which has five styles of non-alcoholic THC beer available in California and Nevada. Other craft brewers are piling in, and this hybrid category is rapidly gathering momentum. Apart from the obvious attraction, drinkers seem to be motivated by the wellness trend that is attracting younger US consumers – an alcohol-free buzz definitely fits with the millennial zeitgeist.

A few craft brewers doing funky things is all very well, however, but what about the big boys.  Well, they won’t all fess up to their plans but, behind the scenes, work is definitely going on.  After all, as Spiros Malandrakis, Euromonitor’s senior alcoholic drinks analyst explains, the industry needs to realise that it can’t stop cannabis’ inexorable rise. The management “can complain”, he says, “but this is going to happen. They can either sit in their offices and say: ‘Oh my God, our industry’s going to die,’ or they can do something and evolve alongside it.”

And, of course, they are. Heineken, for example, owns California’s Lagunitas Brewing, maker of Hi-Fi Hops.  According to their ‘Brewmonster’ Jeremy Marshall, “We’ve often dreamed of hops and their cannabis cousin partying together at the family reunion. We wanted to bring this party to life in a beverage. It’s high-time that good beer inspired a provocative, yet refreshing non-alcoholic alternative. With a smidge of California sun-grown cannabis in every sip.”

For the moment, Diageo has yet to make a move.  Though rumoured last year to be in talks with three Canadian cannabis producers the official line is that they are “watching” the market but that cannabis-infused alternative drinks have yet to make any discernible impact on their North American sales. “I wouldn’t call them a threat,” says their North American chief Deirdre Mahlan.  

Cannabis, coming soon to a bar near you (if you live in Canada or Colorado)

Pernod Ricard take much the same line.  According to CEO Alexandre Ricard: “We’re seriously monitoring the situation and starting to consider if it (cannabis) would or would not fit in our portfolio.” He went on to say: “We’re not there yet, we’re currently just analysing the data and observing the market from a consumer point of view in a number of US states and Canada. At this stage, and let me be very clear, we have no evidence whatsoever that cannabis legalisation may have an impact on premium spirits consumption.”

Well, perhaps not.  But others don’t agree. Legal marijuana in the US is predicted to reach a value of $23bn by 2022 and that’s too lucrative a market to ignore. Step forward Constellation Brands, a major US drinks business (products include Corona Extra lager; Casa Noble Tequila; High West whiskey and strategic investments in a number of craft distillers), who last year pumped almost $4bn into Canopy Growth, a Canadian cannabis group. This followed a previous smaller investment which made Constellation the first Fortune 500 company and the first major alcoholic beverage maker to take a minority stake in a marijuana business.

Others will surely follow.  Let’s hope their money doesn’t go up in smoke.

Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks.  A former Marketing Director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog.  Or just buy his books.  It’s what he really wants.

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