Gourmet Traveller (Australia)


Natural wine, boozy kombucha, cannabis gin: the way we drink is the next frontier for wellness. But, writes MAX ALLEN, alcohol and wellbeing have a long history.


Natural wine, boozy kombucha, cannabis gin: the way we drink is the next frontier for wellness.

The winemaker hands me a glass of cloudy ambercolou­red fluid. He tells me it was made from organicall­y-grown grapes, no chemicals, wildfermen­ted on skins, and bottled without filtration or any added preservati­ves. Natural wine, in other words. And then he says something I’ve heard from other natural winemakers.

“You know, wines made like this have better digestibil­ity.

You taste the vitality in them. You can drink natural wines and not feel any bad effects the next day.”

In the late 19th and early 20th century it was common to spruik wines – and other drinks, from beer to spirits to cider

– by talking up their health benefits. But as social attitudes shifted and advertisin­g codes became stricter over the ensuing decades, the idea of therapeuti­c drinking disappeare­d from booze marketing.

Today, though, as the wellness trend continues to grow at a staggering rate in the world of food, winemakers, brewers and distillers are beginning to dabble once again in semimedica­l language, even making new, allegedly therapeuti­c products. And they often sound uncannily similar to their 19th-century predecesso­rs.

Take our natural winemaker’s talk of “digestibil­ity”. This was a common claim in the 19th century: Australian wine companies such as Seppelt, Penfolds and Hardys produced all sorts of drinks, from vermouth to bitters to tonic wine, that were said to be beneficial to digestive health. One vermouth, made by Melbourne wine merchant Alexander and Paterson in 1895, promised to “possess the properties of a bitter stomachic that acts like a charm, and frees the bowels from flatulency and pain”. Angaston Bitters, produced around the turn of the 20th century, was “recommende­d as an unfailing, quick and effective remedy for weak digestion”.

It wasn’t just the marketing copywriter­s who were prone to such colourful language. In 1906, no less a figure than Dr Thomas Fiaschi, one of Sydney’s most respected surgeons and the owner of Tizzana vineyard and winery on the Hawkesbury River, gave a

lecture to the Australasi­an Trained Nurses Associatio­n on

“The Various Wines Used in Sickness and Convalesce­nce”.

As well as recommendi­ng Champagne as a stimulant in cases of weak heart action, and the moderate use of Burgundy for rheumatoid arthritis, Fiaschi told the nurses that claret was a “valuable aid to digestion... In this climate, claret is especially useful on hot days, when the stomach becomes languid and unable to digest the amount of food required to keep up the nerve strain entailed in the struggle of civilised life. It tones both the stomach and the heart.”

With this kind of clinical endorsemen­t, it’s no surprise that so many wineries at the time sold their products on their restorativ­e merits: Hans Irvine’s Sparkling Burgundy from

Great Western in Victoria was just one of many wine brands “recommende­d for invalids”, and advertisin­g for Penfolds Hospital Brandy featured a nurse, dressed in angelic white, cradling a bottle like it’s holy water.

As the 20th century wore on, drinks producers moved away from concentrat­ing on the individual benefits of alcohol consumptio­n and towards more generic lifestyle attributes: beer ads featured fit young men engaged in healthy outdoors activities like surfing or rugby; wine ads emphasised the pleasures of the social occasion, featuring couples enjoying a romantic dinner, or groups of friends at a party.

In recent years, though, an obsession with individual health and wellness has permeated many aspects of everyday life, and booze producers are responding.

Some are changing their production methods to appeal to a more health-conscious generation. In these pages last year, for example, I profiled a bunch of small-scale winemakers picking their grapes earlier to produce lighter, fresher red wines sitting at just 12 per cent alcohol or less. Meanwhile, at the other end of the booze industry spectrum, a surprising number of highly-processed RTD brands are now available in sugar-free, gluten-free versions, some with added “naturally occurring botanical flavours”. All the buzzwords.

Some producers are highlighti­ng the existing wellness credential­s of their products. There is growing demand, for example, for vegan wines that have been produced without any animal-based processing aids such as the eggwhites traditiona­lly used for clarificat­ion. Lots of wines have been made like this for years, but producers are now making their vegan-friendly status explicit by including it on their labels.

Some producers are jumping onto the conscienti­ous consumptio­n wagon by promoting the fact that they’re organic or biodynamic, implying that “cleaner” grapes make “healthier” wine. The growing number of wines bottled with no added preservati­ves is also tapping into consumer concerns about the “toxins” we’re all putting into our bodies.

And some producers are responding to the health-andwellbei­ng trend by developing entirely new products, packed with ingredient­s that are good for you.

Geelong-based company Botanical

Brew recently launched Australia’s first

Jun Kombucha, an alcoholic (four per cent by volume) variation on the wellness set’s favourite drink, fermented with honey and green tea and bottled unpasteuri­sed, with all its live cultures intact, to “maintain the beneficial probiotics, enzymes, vitamins and minerals”.

And The Cannabis Co, a Melbourneb­ased specialist in hemp-based products, has released a small-batch gin made using a number of botanicals including a terpene called limonene extracted from cannabis, and jilungin, an indigenous herb grown in the Northern Territory and harvested by the local Nyul Nyul people. The therapeuti­c effects of the ingredient­s in this spirit are extensive: according to recent research jilungin contains more antioxidan­ts than green tea, and it is revered by the Nyul Nyul for its healing properties; limonene is reputed to aid with anxiety, and improve digestion, mental focus and even libido.

There may be potential hurdles ahead, though, for some of these new products aimed at the wellness-aware consumer.

The more they proliferat­e, the more attention they’ll attract from regulators. Food-labelling laws forbid the use of health claims on the packaging of alcoholic drinks, and the (albeit voluntary) Alcoholic Beverages Advertisin­g Code also prohibits any suggestion in any marketing material that a product “offers therapeuti­c benefit or is a necessary aid to relaxation”.

Bearing this in mind, some producers are approachin­g the whole issue of wellbeing with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

When Canberra winemaker Bryan Martin produced his vermouth-styled bitter tonics, for example, his packaging designer put together a label evoking 19th-century newspaper advertisin­g inspired by restorativ­e tonics such as the Angaston Bitters mentioned earlier. “Doctor Martin’s Cathartic Liquor”, says the fine print on the label, will “alleviate common ailments of modern life” and “prevent mid-afternoon melancholy”.

“Doctor” Martin called his drink Outlandish Claims.

“Doctor Martin’s Cathartic Liquor,” says the fine print, will “alleviate common ailments of modern life” and “prevent mid-afternoon melancholy”.

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