Ten years ago, when he was running a French-Asian fusion restaurant in Paris, Jean-Denis Courtin tried infusing vodka with mint-flavored chewing gum. That, unsurprisingly, was a flop: "It was a little bit scary," he admits. But he continued the experiment with other ingredients—caramel, vanilla, fruit, herbs—and eventually had hits with mint, raspberry, and watermelon flavors that both he and his customers liked.
Courtin, who now lives in Chicago and owns the boutique liquor brand Qino One, was a restless restaurateur. By the time he started playing with vodka he'd owned three restaurants over the course of eight years, selling one and buying the next because, he says, getting a permit to change the decor was too much trouble. He designed and decorated them all himself, each different from the one before and from the surrounding neighborhood. In a family-oriented neighborhood, for example, he went for an industrial style, with lots of steel; in a more modern neighborhood, he went traditional Japanese, with wooden doors and Asian-style rugs. "My philosophy," he says, "is to try to be different."
The one thing Courtin didn't design was the menus—even though he had eight years of cooking school under his belt. "I'm very bad," he says. "I couldn't cook a chicken. You have to be born to be a chef. I was better at something else. I have a passion for drink and architecture."
His passion for architecture was sated by restaurant design, but his interest in alcohol kept growing. By 2004, infusions were child's play—it was time, he felt, to make a vodka of his own and take it to market. But how to make sure it would be different from all the other vodkas out there?
Vodka is usually made from grain—wheat or rye, most commonly—or potatoes, but it can be distilled from pretty much anything with natural sugars, including fruits and vegetables. Ciroc vodka, the first made from grapes, sparked controversy in the EU when it launched in 2002 and prompted traditionalists to push for a ban on vodkas made from anything other than cereals or potatoes. That campaign failed, and today there are at least half a dozen vodkas made from grapes as well as several made from apples. Three vodka, launched in 2005, is made from soy isolates and "select grains" and markets itself as the first soy vodka. On top of this, of course, vodka now comes infused with almost every flavor imaginable—lemon or orange, pepper or ginger, coffee or chocolate. A couple local places are even making their own bacon-infused vodka.
But in the late 90s, when Courtin was ruining perfectly good booze with gum, there was nothing like that available in Paris. In fact, he says, the only widely available brands were Absolut and Smirnoff. Vodka just wasn't all that popular yet in France—which was one of the things that attracted Courtin to it. It's traditional there for restaurant owners to buy glasses of champagne for their good customers, but he was tired of bubbly and decided to start substituting vodka. "I wanted to do something original," he says.
When he decided to make his own, he wanted it to be not only original but also "all natural, fair trade, and additive free." In the mountains of South America, he found a way to have it all: as well as aiming to be the first certified fair-trade vodka (it's still in the process of being certified by TransFair USA), Qino One is the first vodka made from quinoa. The seed of a plant grown in the Andes (commonly referred to as a grain, though it's technically a pseudocereal), quinoa was considered sacred by the Incas, who also used it as medicine. Over the last several millennia it's been popped like popcorn, made into flour, brewed into beer (known as chicha blanca), and boiled like rice. Most recently it was declared a "supercrop" by the United Nations because it's so nutritious: high in protein, fiber, calcium, iron, and minerals, quinoa's also gluten free and has a near-perfect balance of amino acids, making it a complete protein. Courtin says that's what attracted him; his vodka, however, is no better for you than any other—none of the nutrients survive the distillation process.
To find out if it was even possible to use quinoa in vodka, he consulted with a commercial lab in Malakoff, France, which spent a year experimenting with quinoa and developing a formula.
To find a supplier he consulted with FLO-CERT, a fair trade certification organization for countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, which led him to Bolivia's National Association of Quinoa Farmers (ANAPQUI). He then took a trip to the Bolivian altiplano, where he met some of the 800 organic-certified farmers who belong to the cooperative. "When I do a project I want to be aware of everything, so I want to meet everyone I work with in the process," he says.
Though limited by not speaking Spanish, he communicated with the farmers a little and saw how they lived—without sufficient food, clothes, or medical supplies and mostly without electricity or schools. He decided then to donate a percentage of Qino One's profits to the co-op. "I'm not telling you I'm going to work without making money," he says. "But to share a little bit—it's not bad."
Courtin also started looking around Cognac, where most French vodka is made, for a master distiller to help him create a recipe. Several turned him down because they'd never heard of quinoa and didn't want to work with it. He finally found a willing partner in Gilles Leizour, owner of Distillerie Warenghem, and the two spent almost a year refining the recipe. It's mostly quinoa, with rye to balance the natural sweetness, but Courtin can't say what the exact proportions are—not because he wants to keep them secret but because they vary with each batch, which is constantly tasted and adjusted. The percentage of rye, he says, ranges from 3 to 20. The vodka is distilled five times and filtered four times. While some "super premium" vodkas are distilled ten times or more, Courtin says it's important to him not to distill or filter so much that the vodka loses the nutty, creamy flavor that the quinoa gives it.
Courtin's next step was deciding where to base his operations—he didn't want to do it in France, although Qino One is made in Cognac and Brittany. "I am in love with America," he says. He fell for the U.S. 20 years ago, he says, when he lived in New York for a year, working as a waiter: "People are nicer, less hypocritical. If it's black it's black. In France if it's black, the day after it's white or gray."
But New York wasn't in the cards: he didn't think he had enough money to break into the market there. He considered San Francisco, but rejected it as too far away from France, where he still travels often to oversee production. Chicago won out because, according to Courtin, it has a good market for spirits but it's less competitive and expensive than New York or San Francisco, making it easier for a small brand to start up. He also says bar managers and buyers for liquor stores here are more open to meeting with the head of a little company without a lot of money backing it.
Though Qino One was initially funded only by Courtin's savings, he's recently started taking on investors. Still, compared to a company like Smirnoff, which produced 23 million nine-liter cases of vodka in 2007, it's minuscule. Courtin has sold about 15,000 cases (180,000 bottles) since launching in November 2007. Each batch he makes is only 20,000 bottles. Qino One is now available in nine states (Illinois was the first); in September it'll launch in Canada and India.
But while he's not producing a huge quantity of vodka, Courtin sees no reason to limit its variety. A raspberry-infused version of Qino One has been on the market in Chicago since mid-May; kumquat and mint, the next flavors to be introduced, will be released in September. And he's in the process of expanding the brand beyond vodka: a quinoa beer is also due out next year, along with a quinoa whiskey.
Courtin says his last addition to the Qino One line will be a quinoa liqueur made with "a completely secret flavor" that comes from a fruit grown by Tibetan monks; the monks he buys from will get a percentage of the profits. Courtin and Leizour have been working on it for months, but it's a slow process since they're about 4,000 miles apart—Leizour mails Courtin samples to taste. It'll be on the market by 2010.
Six months ago Courtin founded Act Fair Trade, a fair trade foundation dedicated to quinoa farmers that's still in the process of being approved by the IRS. If all goes according to plan, it'll distribute a total of 5 percent of Qino One's profits to ANAPQUI and Oxfam. He's also working with several bars and restaurants to create a cocktail program similar to the one at Uncommon Ground, which promises that for every "Treetini" sold a tree will be planted. The cocktails in Courtin's program would of course use Qino One, and for each one sold a dollar would go to Act Fair Trade; it's on hold pending approval of the foundation but Courtin hopes to launch it later this year at One Sixty Blue, Spiaggia, and the Hotel Intercontinental.
Courtin is critical of like initiatives by competitors like Modern Spirits, which promises that for every bottle of its Tru vodka sold it'll plant a tree. "It's complete bullshit," he says. "What's the relationship between buying a bottle of vodka and planting a tree?" What makes his company's own donations different, he says, is the relationship to the recipient: because Qino One is made from quinoa, it makes sense for its profits to help support the farmers who grow it.
Courtin's next project is a line of food products that will actually take advantage of quinoa's nutritional value. Quinoa is comparable to soybeans in protein and higher in iron and most other minerals, and the dairy-alternative market currently dominated by soy is the one Courtin's focusing on first, with quinoa milk, ice cream, and yogurt due out in May. Other products in the line, expected to become available next year, will include quinoa-based veggie burgers, energy bars, pancake mix, and cookies. Courtin developed the recipes with the help of Gerard Tabuis, a chef who'll also be a partner in the company, and is now testing them on panels of tasters. If a deal Courtin is working on with Sysco Corporation goes through, they'll be distributed in more than 20 countries.
And when he gets bored with that? Well, Courtin speculates, he might like to own a hotel. All hotels are all the same, he says—his would be different. He'd design it himself, incorporating unusual elements like one he used in one of his Paris restaurants: he put an ice maker on the ceiling with a glass tube looping up to it from the bar so that patrons could watch the ice on its way down. "I'd like to break the rules a little bit," he says.