When Jean-Daniel Francois quit his job working in the spirits business, he only had one mission: to see the world. In the end, it was his travels that spurred on his next spirits project, FAIR Vodka. What Daniel saw as he traveled through South America, Asia, Africa, and the like was that he wanted to change how things were done.
Daniel began to explore the world of fair-trade, a policy that he saw could change the way business — and spirits —forever. When he came back, he began working with his business partner from the cognac business, Alexandre Koiransky, to create something original and ethically sourced. “We thought about different ideas that we had to change the world and system,” he said. “Fair trade was most pragmatic and efficient way to do that.” The two took what they already knew from working in French cognacs, and applied it to another spirit — vodka.
In researching what grains to use (rye, wheat, and potato are the most common), they learned the backstory of one superfood making headlines: quinoa. What they didn’t know was that in Bolivia, farmers were exploited by corporations looking to cash in on the trendy grain. Over ten years, farmers in Bolivia lost 40 percent of their fields to corporations. Daniel and Koiransky learned about a cooperative in Bolivia which was fighting to take back their independence. They saw a solution: use ethically sourced quinoa to make a craft spirit.
With some backing by French investors (and Daniel’s family), a distiller’s help in Cognac, France (where most spirits are distilled in the region), the duo hit success. After eight to nine months of recipe testing, they developed the world’s first quinoa-based vodka –— and the only fair trade spirit on the market.
It’s an unusual spirit unlike most vodkas; after the quinoa is harvested and treated by farmers in the 5,000-strong co-op, the quinoa is then distilled into a beer. Then, the brew is distilled once to make the quinoa vodka. That quinoa is what gives it such a unique taste, Daniel says – it’s not as dry as a rye vodka, and not as thick as a potato vodka. And it’s a much bigger step up from vodka made from wheat, or as Daniel calls it, “the most boring spirit.” It works on its own as a flavorful spirit, but still maintains that neutrality vodka is known for. (Check out Royalton's H 75 and the Sakred Land cocktail that both use FAIR vodka.)
Since the initial product, FAIR vodka has expanded using new sources: coffee and goji berries. While a coffee liqueur is hardly news (Daniel says it’s similar to Patron’s EX coffee liqueur), its fair-trade beans from a Mexican co-op are what make the spirit unique. The goji berries from FAIR’s Goji Liqueur come from a co-op in Tibet, and the sugarcane used in the product comes from Malawi. These more unusual spirits is what shows the company’s innovation, Daniel says. (The company is also working on a rum product, but Daniel couldn’t disclose much more information about it.) (And no, these flavors are nothing like our 15 weird vodka flavors.)
Daniel thinks FAIR vodka hits all the right markets: those interested in a craft spirit, and those interested in the fair trade movement. Together, it’s a winning combination for conscious consumers (and drinkers). “We’re just a layer in this story about the global economy,” he says. While Daniel doesn’t criticize the locavore movement that has pervaded the food and drink scene, he says consumers should be thinking about the larger, global picture when buying. “Fair trade is only 0.01 percent of the global goods consumption,” Daniel says. “We’re trying to think how we can change the existing process and make it better, to make a difference in how the big guys do it. We fall in between that line of pragmatic and idealistic.”
And the difference FAIR is making in its Bolivian co-ops is already showing. The co-op began with only 80 farmers and has grown to nearly 5,000, and women especially have taken the helm of the work. “It’s become the most powerful agricultural organization in the country,” Daniel says.
Daniel says to pair the spicy quinoa vodka like you would any other vodka, or to get creative: he recommends a quinoa Old Fashioned. Or, with the goji berry vodka, try it with a lighter champagne, prosecco, or club soda. And above all, says FAIR’s slogan, “Think human, drink fair.”