U.S. opens a whiskey door for buckwheat

New regulations will allow distilled spirits using buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth to be officially called whiskey

A new market could soon be materializing for buckwheat.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has published proposed new rules to modernize the labelling and advertising regulations for wine, distilled spirits and malt beverages.

The 132-page document includes one paragraph proposing to define the term “grain” used to make distilled spirits to include cereal grains as well as the “pseudocereal” grains amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa.

The bureau said it has received a number of applications for labels for distilled spirits containing pseudocereals.

The public has until March 26, 2019, to provide feedback on the proposals.

Current legislation says whiskey has to be made from grain, which is limited to barley, corn, wheat and rye.

Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations say whiskey is a potable alcoholic distillate made from cereal grains including wheat, rice, oats, barley, corn, wild rice and rye.

According to an article on The Whiskey Wash website, a craft whiskey explosion has occurred in the last 15 years in which a number of distillers are experimenting with new ingredients.

A handful of these craft distilleries are making buckwheat whiskey but aren’t allowed to call it whiskey, which hampers marketing efforts. The proposed new rules would eliminate that obstacle in the United States.

Rejean Picard, buckwheat specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, said whiskey would be a refreshing new market for a languishing crop.

“I don’t know how big it would be, but any new use of the grain itself could potentially increase the acreage,” he said.

Growers in Manitoba planted 5,400 acres of buckwheat last year, according to Statistics Canada. That is down from 30,000 acres at the turn of the last century. Another 3,600 acres were planted in Saskatchewan.

“We’re not talking a very big crop,” said Picard.

Marc Durand, president of the Manitoba Buckwheat Growers Association, said any new market is a positive development, but he doubts it will have much of an impact on Manitoba’s acres.

He said growers have reduced acres for a number of reasons, including the extreme variability in yields that can range from five to 50 bushels an acre.

“Too many guys had too many wrecks,” said Durand.

“When you get that five bu. an acre, it gives you a bad taste in your mouth, especially when your canola, even on a bad year, you’re probably still doing 30 bu. an acre.”

Another factor is the lack of herbicides, which some farmers believe leads to dirty fields the following year.

As well, the industry has lost a few buckwheat buyers, leaving only three or four in Manitoba.

However, Durand has been growing the crop since 1993 on his farm near Notre Dame de Lourdes, Man., and he plans to continue because it is a low input crop that grows well on poor land.

“It’s a hit-or-miss crop but long-term it has been a very reliable crop,” he said.

Japan used to be the top buyer of Canadian buckwheat, where it is milled into flour that is used to make soba noodles.

However, the U.S. now tops the list, purchasing 2,931 tonnes for the first 11 months of 2018, followed by Mexico at 719 tonnes and Japan at 639 tonnes.

In the U.S. it is used in pancake mixes, cereals, multigrain bars and breads. And now it is being used to make whiskey.

Picard said buckwheat groat is mostly starch, which is what is needed to make alcohol.

“It is a starchy grain, so it would be suitable for distilling, for sure,” he said.

The grain has a bitter, nutty flavor that appeals to Asians and Eastern Europeans, so there could be a nice niche market for buckwheat whiskey among certain ethnic groups in the U.S., said Picard.

Buckwheat has other marketing attributes as well, such as being gluten-free and a source of high quality protein.

“It has got a lot of things to offer,” he said.

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