Organic alcohol sparks new trend

RIGBY, ID Either way, those who want their dirty martini to be a little cleaner are increasingly pouring organic spirits into their glass.

"I was shopping at the farmers market, using fresh produce in my cocktails and really loving that high-end cocktail experience," said Allison Evanow, who in 2005 created one of the nation's first entirely organic spirits, Square One vodka. "But that whole organic kitchen philosophy hadn't really ever gotten to the bar. Once I had the idea in my head and did a little bit of research, I finally said, `This looks like it's an unmet need."'

So far, the market has agreed. At least three hotel chains -- Marriott, Ritz-Carlton and Kimpton Hotels -- now carry organic beverages in their bars. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay offers Square One cocktails at his newest restaurant.

To be certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an organic alcohol, the spirit must be made of ingredients grown on certified organic farms and processed in a certified organic distillery. That means no pesticides and fertilizers on the grains and no nitrogen or other chemicals in the distilling process.

Organic distilleries even have strict rules about what types of pest control they can use to keep rodents or bugs out of grain warehouses.

"We try to tread lightly on the earth, if you will," Evanow said. "I'm not super-uber green, but I try to do what I can. Being organic means that we're being nicer to the earth. And to be certified, you can't fake it by putting citric acid or glycerine in that bottle to mask that off flavor. There's a lot of quality involved in being organic."

Most drinkers have already been exposed to organic beer or wine, said Matthew Von Ertfelda, vice president for restaurants and bars for Marriott International Inc. Organic spirits are the next step.

"On an annual basis we survey market trends and try to identify any emerging trends that we feel that we should be aware of," Ertfelda said. "The whole organic, greening trend is so widespread now, and guests are increasingly aware of it when it comes to their beverages."

Cocktails have always been susceptible to trends. Think of the legions who ordered their martini shaken, not stirred, after James Bond made his famous utterance, or the women who ask for cosmopolitans, thanks to Carrie Bradshaw.

Vodka, which is essentially flavorless compared to many other hard liquors, has been at the center of many alcohol trends, said Gray Ottley, director of Distilled Resources Inc., an organic distillery in Rigby, Idaho.

He cited the introduction of Absolut, which made vodka a stylish choice for young urban professionals. Then came Skyy Spirits, which claimed a purity that would help avoid a post-drinking headache, Ottley said.

"Then we had a brief movement of the next five to seven years of different raw materials (making) a difference in your flavor," he said. "The final movement, currently now, is edging on organics."

The United States has been relatively slow in joining the trend. Juniper Green Organic London Dry Gin from the United Kingdom claims to be the first organic London dry gin, while UK5 organic vodka claims to be the world's first certified organic of its kind.

Both are products of The Organic Spirits Company, as is Highland Harvest Organic Scotch Whisky, Papagayo Organic White Rum and Papagayo Organic Spiced Rum.

Maison Jomere President Paul Davis imports the spirits into the United States from his office in Plaistow, N.H.

Though organic spirits are "the new growth sector" now, he said, it hasn't been easy breaking into the niche market.

"Number one, we're small. And number two, from a retail point of view, there's no category. We're just not going after the people who drink all these fancy-schmancy vodkas in fancy-schmancy packages," he said. "We're attractive to vegans too, and people who want an excellent cocktail who are just thrilled there's an environmental option. The potential is just huge."

Anna Jovancicevic, a spokeswoman for the Distilled Spirits Council, said drinkers are taking more of an interest in classic cocktails, with many making homemade bitters and infusions out of locally bought organic produce.

"People associate organic with higher quality. Some people think it's healthier to consume things made with no artificial flavors. Even non-organic spirit companies are infusing with natural flavors now," Jovancicevic said. "All these things have been happening over the last four or five years, but really now we're seeing organics trying to gain some market share. We're only seeing it in the liquor industry in the last year or two."

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