British invasion: Michelin-starred chef enters CBD-infused beverage space with elevated flavor profiles

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Chef Michael Caines - director of flavor development at Isca Drinks - holds two Michelin stars (picture credit: Isca Drinks)
Chef Michael Caines - director of flavor development at Isca Drinks - holds two Michelin stars (picture credit: Isca Drinks)

Related tags: Cbd, cbd beverages, functional beverages

The CBD beverages space is not for the faint-hearted given the regulatory minefield brands have to navigate, but Isca is hoping to bring a more culinary twist to the nascent category with the assistance of British Michelin-starred Chef Michael Caines.

Co-founded by childhood friends David Perry (based in Nashville, USA); Rob Sanders (who splits his time between the USA and the UK), and Chef Caines (based in the UK); Isca is produced in California, and has just launched direct to consumer at iscadrinks.com​.​ It will roll out to retailers in Southern California, Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Michigan, and Texas in the coming months.

Named after an ancient Roman settlement in Southwest England that's now called Exeter (where all three founders grew up), Isca is available in four flavors (Ginger Ale, Cola, Pink Grapefruit & Rose, and Indian Tonic Water), and contains 20mg of CBD isolate from US-grown hemp, said co-founder David Perry.

We came up with some brand fantastic names, and then we did a trademark search and everything was taken. If we had tried to launch a brand named Isca in England, we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere, but fortunately it was available over here ​[in the US]. But it really makes sense for us, as we’re all from Exeter; it’s part of the DNA of the brand.”

‘Different notes on the front, middle and back end of the palate…’

 The CBD emulsion was supplied by SōRSE Technology, which worked with Caines, Sanders and Perry to create what they claim is “the world’s first totally clear CBD Tonic water.”  

The flavors for the beverages (SRP $5.95/12oz glass bottle) were developed by Caines to deliver “different notes on the front, middle and back end of the palate,​” with the Pink Grapefruit & Rose varietal inspired by a dessert at Caines’ restaurant, Michelin starred Lympstone Manor in Exeter, UK.

The Ginger Ale uses chili (which masks the CBD flavor and provides a spicy kick) and West African ginger extracts (that deliver “heat that comes up through the back of the nose​”), while the Cola flavor deploys “Jamaican Kola Nut amplified with a blend of Ceylon cinnamon and Madagascar vanilla to create a more natural, botanical Cola​,” said Perry, who moved to the US in 1994 and has a background in supply chain and production in multiple industries. 

We knew there was an opportunity when we tasted every single CBD beverage on the market we could find and we were underwhelmed​. We think we have the best-tasting products on the market.”

‘We welcome regulation’

If CBD regulations in Europe are confusing, the US is also something of a minefield for ingestible products, with the FDA maintaining that CBD is not a legal dietary ingredient in foods, beverages or supplements, but several states from Colorado to Illinois explicitly permitting the of such products (although requirements differ state by state).

The FDA, meanwhile, is focusing enforcement action on companies making “egregious​​​​​” health claims, although the confusion over CBD’s legal status has restricted the ability of firms to engage in paid advertising on social media, and created challenges when it comes to processing online payments, conceded Perry, who said Isca has been "funded through a seed investor initially"​ and is planning on "seeking the next round before summer." 

He added: “There are bad actors and some products that shouldn’t be on the market, but it’s the Wild West out there, so we welcome regulation​ [that will permit responsible players to show they are making safe products].”

‘This has Michael’s name attached to it, and it has to be done right’

At Isca, the founders’ focus has been to come up with a great-tasting product with a meaningful amount of bioavailable CBD (20mg of isolate, which is more than some beverages tout, although it’s not generally clear what - if any - effects such small quantities will have on consumers), that is sourced from US farmers and tested to ensure that it doesn’t contain concerning levels of pesticides, metals and other contaminants that hemp plants can suck up from the soil, he said.

Each bottle features a QR code that links back to the brand’s lab test results, while Isca deliberately chose glass (which is more expensive to ship) because it wanted to ensure that none of the CBD could fall out of suspension and attach to the lining of aluminum cans, claimed Perry.

“If it says 20mg on the bottle, it has to contain 20mg that can be traced all the way back to where it was grown. It has to have no THC, no heavy metals. This has Michael’s name attached to it, and it has to be done right. We’re the only beverage brand in the US that has got a chef of Michael’s caliber behind it.”

‘Consumers are driving this, and the states are making up their own minds [in the absence of federal regulation]’

Many large retailers, he said, are still waiting for the FDA to provide clarity on CBD’s legal status, but Isca has seen significant interest from distributors representing functional beverages in multiple states, he said. “Consumers are driving this and the states are making up their own minds​ [and rules, in the absence of federal legislation].

“Under all the large chains, there are thousands and thousands of stores that are saying, we’ve been asked​ [by consumers] to carry this, and so distributors are carrying it.”

As for payment processing, he said, it’s somewhat frustrating that a small [bricks & mortar] general goods retailer that sells some CBD products can run these sales through a regular Square payment processing device at the checkout, “but if I set up a website specifically selling CBD products, it’s suddenly high risk, so we have to go through separate payment gateway providers that deal with smaller banks, and we get charged extra.

“Plus the amount of paperwork we had to submit was ridiculous.”

Marketing CBD beverages: ‘It’s a way to just unwind at the end of the day’

Although there are options from podcast ads to influencer marketing to sponsored content, paid advertising online through the major social media platforms is a no no for ingestible CBD products, meanwhile: “We see some brands engaging in creative ways to get around this, but we’re not doing that at the moment.”

As to the message Isca is trying to convey with the brand, or what the key usage occasions might be, he said: “Instead of dealing with a stressful day by going home and drinking​ [alcohol], it’s about finding other ways to relax, a way to just unwind at the end of the day​.”

isca cbd drinks
Isca CBD-infused beverages come in four flavors: Ginger Ale, Cola, Pink Grapefruit & Rose, and Indian Tonic Water (picture credit: Isca Drinks)
Michael-Caines-isca-Drinks
Michelin-starred chef and hotelier Michael Caines lost his right arm in a road traffic accident in 1994 that could have cost him his career, but earned a second Michelin star five years later. Picture: Isca Drinks
Isca-drinks
The Pink Grapefruit & Rose varietal inspired by a dessert at Caines’ restaurant, Michelin starred Lympstone Manor in Exeter, UK. Picture: Isca Drinks

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