NAIT helps Hansen Distillery develop plant-based cream liqueur

“I said, 'No way. I'm not a scientist. I have no clue how this is going to happen'”

Kris Sustrik (Welder ’01) is pretty confident in his abilities as a distiller. Hansen Distillery, which he owns with his wife Shayna, is one of Edmonton’s first distilleries, opened in 2016 on the west end, and the city's first maker of whisky. Sustrik even used his skills as a welder to assemble his stills.

What's more, all that experience is rooted in history. “We come from a moonshine family,” says Sustrik. For them, distilling is a tradition reaching back more than a century.

But when it came to making a plant-based cream liqueur, Sustrik wasn’t sure where to start. Dairy he’d figured out, stacking the Hansen lineup with combinations that now include saskatoons, variations on chocolate, even mini doughnuts. As it turns out, though, milk isn’t interchangeable with alternatives designed for those with allergies or preferences.

Four years ago, motivated to meet the need for anyone looking to enjoy a silky-smooth beverage over ice or add a little kick to that special-occasion coffee, Sustrik decided to start experimenting. Then he stopped.

“We attempted it a couple times ourselves,” says Sustrik. But he couldn’t match the quality of other Hansen products. “I said, ‘No way. I'm not a scientist. I have no clue how this is going to happen.’”

But Shayna knew of people who did.

What do food scientists do? Check out NAIT's Centre for Culinary Innovation

A complex product

The couple reached out to product development experts at NAIT's Applied Research Centre for Culinary Innovation for help with what they envisioned as a uniquely Canadian, and even nostalgic, creation.

Their vodka-based liqueur would be flavoured with oat milk, they decided, derived from local crops. One reason for going with the grain was to make the drink safe for those with nut allergies. But the other was simply to evoke the comforting taste and aroma of the oatmeal Sustrik remembered growing up with, flavoured with brown sugar and maple syrup.

After the project was started by two other research chefs, then stalled by the pandemic, it was picked up more recently by food scientist Chris Song. He had experience working with plant-based milk alternatives but remained wary of the challenge.

“It is a pretty complex product,” says Song. “Usually with cream liqueurs, when you add alcohol into the mix, it destabilizes everything.”

That is, milk proteins can come out of solution, leading to the equivalent of boozy cottage cheese.

“When you're dealing with a plant-based cream, that makes it even more complex because the proteins are completely different,” he adds.

The solution to keeping everything as a single solution was an emulsifier. While Song won’t reveal exactly which additive they chose, he explains that it dissolves in a way that binds together different elements of a mixture to keep it uniform and stable. Hitting on the right ratios wasn’t easy.

“I think there were 80-some different recipes,” says Sustrik.

The challenge didn’t end in the lab. “When we finally got a recipe that we liked for flavour, mouthfeel and [that showed] no separation, when I scaled up on site, I made 60 liters of gum, essentially.”

Song headed to Hansen and worked with Sustrik to help convert the successful lab-bench mix into a formulation suitable for production-sized equipment. They monitored the result for a couple of weeks, pleased to see that it remained liquid and homogenous.

“Then from there we made a big batch of it,” says Song. “And it was awesome.”

Persistence, innovation and conversation

photo of kris sustrik, Haley Donadeo, Shayna Hansen hold up bottles of liqueur at Hansen Distillery

In late May, Hansen released its first vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, nut-free cream liqueur. Song, who drinks only occasionally, keeps a bottle on his desk, “almost like a little trophy.” To him, it’s a symbol of persistence and innovation, a toast to a job that demands knowledge and experience, and offers learning in return.

Sustrik, however, will enjoy the victory differently. This fall, Hansen hopes to place the product with the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which oversees the distribution of alcohol products to hundreds of retail outlets and thousands of restaurants and bars throughout Canada's most populous province. Sustrik sees an opportunity to meet a need he believes the national market has yet to adequately fulfill.

(Already, the distillery has been shipping the liqueur by mail to eager customers ordering online from coast to coast.)

In the meantime, he’s happy to be able to accommodate a greater variety of customers here in Alberta.

While Sustrik enjoys carrying on the family tradition of making spirits, he also enjoys bringing people together for conversation over a cocktail in the distillery’s lounge. Four years, 80 recipes and one successful partnership later (with plans to carry on in the works), his continued efforts may go over more smoothly than ever.

“Making something that everybody can enjoy, that's satisfaction for me,” says Sustrik.

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