They say it’s an honour just to be nominated, but Niagara College student Emma Cuthbert didn’t even know she was in the running.
So it was a pleasant surprise when Cuthbert opened her email recently to see a message from Niagara College head distiller David Dickson.
He informed her that the Twisted Berry Gin that she and her artisan distilling program classmates created last year for their capstone project was a winner at the 2022 U.S. Open Whiskey and Spirits Championship.
“I didn’t actually know that it was entered,” Cuthbert said. “I got the email from Dave at the distillery saying that we won gold. It was just kind of a shock.”
The U.S. Open Whiskey and Spirits Championship ranks the best distilleries, whiskeys and spirits among entries it receives from across the United States and Canada.
Twisted Berry Gin earned one of two gold medals the Teaching Distillery was awarded at the championship. While Twisted Berry Gin won gold in the Gin Flavored /Infused category, the college’s Chocolate Porter Liqueur won gold in the Flavored Whiskey category.
The Teaching Distillery also took home a bronze in the Dark Rum/Gold/Barrel-aged Rum category for its Dark Rum.
Cuthbert said she and the others in her group wanted to make a gin for their capstone project so they could experiment with different applications of botanicals. One of their initial thoughts was to include berries.
“When it came to the recipe development of the gin itself, we wanted it to be good on its own, but also have characteristics that would highlight the different flavours of the berries,” said Cuthbert, who graduated from the program last year and is now finishing up the college’s beverage business management program.
“It was really cool to see how little tweaks in just the amount of botanicals made a difference in the final product.
“When we were deciding on what berries to use, we did a lot of extractions at home, just to kind of test out what flavours we thought we were going to like the best and (to try) different flavour combinations.”
Twisted Berry Gin is an unsweetened gin infused with raspberries, strawberries and blueberries, giving it a natural sweetness that can be used in different cocktails and paired well.
Cuthbert said the recipe was supposed to use blackberries — not blueberries — but when the group tasted the extraction, it wasn’t anything like what they were expecting. So they replaced the blackberries and found that the substitution enhanced the flavours of the other two berries.
Finding the perfect balance is what made the project the most fun.
“The creative aspect was the most enjoyable — trying to figure out how much of each of the extractions we were going to use,” Cuthbert said.
“The recipe development for the gin itself … was what we thought was going to be a challenge, but it actually ended up working out very well. The berries aspect was the most challenging.”
This is the third year Niagara College has entered at least one spirit for judging and has won at least one medal each time, Dickson said. Last year, the Teaching Distillery won a bronze for its Spirits 101 Ambrosia. In 2020, it won a bronze for its School Spirits Small Batch Rum.
Chocolate Porter Liqueur — the second of this year’s gold-winning spirits — got its inspiration from the Teaching Distillery’s Southern Hospitality bourbon-style spirit. The recipe was modified to include specialty grains, including Pale Chocolate Malt and cocoa nibs.
“Half of the chocolatey flavour comes from those grains and half comes from cocoa nibs,” Dickson said. “It’s short-aged in a barrel, and it’s probably been our most successful or our most sought-after product so far.”
The third winning entry — the Dark Rum — is a high percentage molasses-based rum that was aged for an entire year in an oak barrel. Molasses gives a different character than a more neutral sugar does, Dickson said, so it has a “bigger, bolder set of flavours.”
Judging for the competition is blind; the judges know only the categories, but they don’t know what they’re tasting. Canadian entries are judged by distillers and industry professionals in Niagara, and then shipped off to Oxford, Ohio, where they go through a second round of judging — along with the American entries.
Steve Gill, general manager of the college’s Learning Enterprise Corporation, said it’s important to enter these types of world-class events because it gives students a chance to see how their skills measure up to their counterparts at distilleries elsewhere.
It also provides a unique opportunity for them to apply what they’re learning and potentially be rewarded with international recognition.
“It allows the students to gauge how well they’re doing in class,” he said. “The students get to be really hands-on and they get a better understanding of the distilling process. They’re creating world-class products and we’re so very proud of them.”
Cuthbert said she’s proud of herself and her team for coming together to make something that was recognized by her peers as being exceptional, and now at an international level. The real joy, however, was working on the capstone project.
“It’s a very unique and beneficial experience to anyone that’s taking the distilling program, because it really gives you that freedom to test out a product that you think would be a good idea,” she said. “It’s a very good experience to have that under your belt, especially when you’re moving forward in this industry.”
Twisted Berry Gin and Dark Rum are small batch products that can be picked up at the college’s Wine Visitor + Education Centre Centre (135 Taylor Rd., Niagara-on-the-Lake) while supplies last.
Chocolate Porter Liqueur has sold out and is no longer available. Spirits from the Teaching Distillery, Teaching Brewery and Teaching Winery are also available at ncteachingwinery.ca.