Via The Toronto Star

They set out to recreate ancient Roman Gatorade, but along the way, Scott Friedmann and his team of culinary scientists at Acid League, the boutique vinegar start-up based in Guelph, stumbled on something that might just change the way we drink.

The two-year-old brand, as savvy home cooks and some of the world’s best chefs will tell you, has already disrupted the condiment market with their line of Living Vinegars, flavourful fermented inventions made from ingredients like mango, smoked malt and peach brine.

The team at Acid League (from left): Nicole Korb, Allan Mai, Irvin Mai, Rae Drake, Scott Friedmann, Charlie Friedmann, Cole Pearsall and Devin Campbell.

It was while studying the history of vinegar that they struck upon the idea for their latest project, Wine Proxies. “We landed on this concept called posca,” explains Friedmann, one of the co-founders. “It’s sometimes called the world’s first energy drink, and it was a beverage for the Roman army. At that time, wine got you drunk and water could make you sick, neither things good for an army, so they would take vinegar and mix it with water, honey, herbs and spices to create this drink for soldiers.”

Friedmann’s idea was to recreate posca in an upscale way, but after one especially successful experiment built around orange wine vinegar, it was obvious they had something much more compelling on their hands. By layering juice blends with tea and spices, they’d created a style of non-alcoholic beverage that approached the look and feel of wine, without the buzz and inevitable hangover.

“When we decided to try going beyond posca, we realized the world was our oyster,” he says, “and we had this question of ‘Are we trying to kind of mimic wine, or are we trying to just create amazing beverages?’ I think we ended up doing both.”

The first batch of three Proxies, in dark glass wine bottles with colourful wax necks and labels created by artists from around North America, was released late January through Acid League’s online, direct-to-consumer wine club. The three styles, inspired by New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Burgundian Pinot Noir and of course posca, were flavoured with things like green Sichuan peppercorns, blood orange, myrrh and oolong tea, and sold out almost immediately.

Acid League initially launched with a line of raw, unfiltered and fermented Living Vinegars.

“We’ve had a huge embrace from the sober-curious and sober community, from the halal community and from the pregnant community,” Friedmann says. “I think it’s been incredible for people who either don’t want to drink during the week, or just don’t want the health impact of drinking as much as they have during COVID.”

Heather McDougall, founder of the wine shop Sips Toronto, has also seen a large increase in the number of inquiries she’s fielding from customers looking for low- or no-alcohol alternatives. Nonetheless, her experience with most of these products caused her to approach Proxies with some caution. “I had pretty low expectations,” she admits. “Having tasted a bunch of other alcohol-free wine and spirit-free beverages, I always expect them to be a lesser version of something I know to be good.”

McDougall’s first taste of Proxies, however, impressed her so much that Sips became one of the first retail stores in the city to stock them. They’re super versatile, she says, “because they have structure very similar to the structure of wine — they have acid and tannin and fruit and body. The only thing missing is alcohol.”

For their February releases, Acid League turned to popular wine styles like Alsatian Gewürztraminer and Northern Rhône Syrah, but also looked beyond wine for inspiration. Their Terre Sauvage was blended around the idea of the Canadian landscape itself.

“We tried to create a product that was kind of reflective of Canadian home soil,” Friedmann explains. “We used some apple vinegar and some McIntosh apple, but also spruce tips and cedar, Labrador tea and juniper and caraway and maple syrup, to create something that almost tastes like a trail, like you’re hiking in Canada.”

Looking beyond wine for ideas and flavours will prove crucial to the brand’s success, according to Nick Oliveiro, head sommelier at Peter Pan Bistro in Toronto. “They’re not just trying to imitate wine — they are their own thing and that’s really important,” he says. “They might offer the same range of complexity as wine, but they have different flavour profiles. When the restaurant reopens, I could easily see myself using them because they do have unique flavour profiles I would be happy to explore with food pairings.”

The next batch of Proxies — a nod to Chardonnay built around roasted coconut vinegar and Bai Jian white tea; a sun-dried tomato vinegar and Kashmiri chili red inspired by Sangiovese; and a unique citrus-driven experiment featuring orange blossom vinegar — will be released later this month.

We might not be any closer to knowing what Roman Gatorade tasted like, but as Pliny the Elder (almost) said, In Proxies Sanitas: “In Proxies there is health.”