- The Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau moved closer last month to adding quinoa as a whiskey grain. The TTB proposed a new definition for which crops count as grains in a 132-page document of recommendations for the labeling of beer, wine and spirits.
- Currently, the law says whiskey has to be made from "grains" — which only includes barley, corn, rye and wheat. These recommendations would expand the definition to include cereal grains as well as the seeds of the pseudocereal grains like amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa.
- The proposed changes to the definition will be open to public comment until March 26. The TTB could then decide whether to continue moving forward with the broader definition. It would also need approval by the Treasury Department.
A broader definition could change whiskey production, spurring more consumers to try new varieties and boost demand. Most whiskeys are currently made from barley, corn, rye and wheat. But some companies aren't waiting for the new definition. Corsair Distillery in Nashville, for example, developed a whiskey with 20% quinoa and 80% barley.
"We started looking at a whole lot of grains that were coming out of sort of the health food movement, the green movement," Darek Bell, founder of Corsair Distillery, told NPR. "We're thinking, 'What would it taste like to distill this?' "
However, the company needed approval to label it as whiskey. The TBB originally wanted to classify the alcohol as quinoa rum, but the group proposed a neutral spirit label, according to NPR. But in the end, TBB consulted with the U.S. Agriculture Department and gave them approval to call the drink quinoa whiskey. This could mean that the broader definition is on track for approval, too.
Quinoa has become increasingly popular in recent years as consumers have been seeking out whole grains as the better-for-you trend continues to dominate the marketplace. Big food companies are already paying attention to alternative grains, and they have been looking for ways to incorporate different grains in quiches, cereals, candy and other products. According to Innova Market Insights, quinoa was the top ingredient among popular grains, appearing in 44% of all U.S. product launches involving grains in 2017.
As consumers look for variety in the food and beverages they consume, they become less loyal to alcohol brands. This places the impetus on beverage makers to try trendy, new varieties to keep the consumer interested. That could be beneficial to quinoa whiskey since the popularity of the alternative grain could help attract millennials. Colin Blake, the director of spirits education at Moonshine University, told NPR that this proposed change could be really beneficial for fostering more creativity in the whiskey industry.
Alcohol companies are already working hard to develop new drink varieties — cannabis-infused drinks are among the most high profile — but if the definition of whiskey grains does end up expanding, more companies will likely want to start creating beverages with alternative grains as a main ingredient.