As Native Americans take their rightful place in tourism and hospitality, many are also spotlighting beverages, including ingredients and techniques that are important to their individual cultures.
We spoke with five people currently working with Indigenous food and beverages about their current projects and what excites them the most right now, in terms of the beverages they make and/or serve. Note: In addition to thoughtful approaches to wine, beer and spirits, many Indigenous-owned establishments prefer to focus on beverages that do not contain alcohol. Sugar, which is considered a colonial ingredient, is also notably omitted from some programs.
Of course, the ingredients and approaches to drinks vary widely, depending on the region and different tribes, as well as the people making the drinks.
“There are more than 500 recognized tribes in the United States,” says Danielle C. Goldtooth, an Arizona-based bartender, rancher, and entrepreneur. “The one thing we all have in common is that there aren’t many of us anymore.”
Curtis Basina, distiller and co-owner of Copper Crow Distillery
Bayfield, WI (Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa)
At Copper Crow, which makes vodka and gin from Wisconsin whey, as well as wheat-based vodka and rum, “most of what we do with spirits is no different than what than anyone else does,” Basina explains.
It is a deliberate choice. “We really try to walk a pretty fine line when it comes to mixing heritage and especially indigenous foods,” he says. Example: while wild rice grows in abundance in the Great Lakes region, Basina will not make vodka from it.
“It’s a staple food for the aboriginal people,” he notes. “We don’t want to use a staple food to make spirits, which could deprive Aboriginal people of a good food source.
That said, “we don’t shy away from using seasonal sugar sources in our tasting room cocktails,” he says. Indigenous ingredients like maple and birch syrup sweeten drinks, while strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and apples are mainstays in cocktails.
Danielle C. Goldtooth, owner of Dii IINA Food from start to finish
Dudleyville, AZ (Dine Tribe)
A year ago, Goldtooth began what she describes as “a hike for food sovereignty”: She moved her family from Phoenix to Dudleyville, Arizona, where her husband became a rancher, and she learned to slaughter animals. Her business, Dii IINA, means “this life” in Navajo, and it’s about helping her community “stand on their own and find ways to feed themselves.”
Foraging is part of the mission and is related to his previous job as a bartender. A current project: a dinner in collaboration with winemaker (and filmmaker) Sam Pillsbury of Pillsbury Wine, for which she is preparing cocktails with syrups made from filled saguaro fruits; a kumquat shrub made with kumquats grown in the Pillsbury yard, or a tincture made from corn steamed in an earthen oven. “A lot of my cocktail program is based around foraged and farm-fresh produce,” she explains. “When I use ingredients that come from my heritage, I’m proud to share.”
As a Native American bartender, she also views alcohol education as part of her mission, including dismantling harmful stereotypes and increasing the visibility of her community.
Darren Greenspon, Sommelier, Kai Restaurant
Phoenix, AZ (Inspirations: The Pima and Maricopa Tribes)
At Kai, a restaurant located in the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass, the menu highlights seasonal ingredients grown on the nearby Gila River reservation, home to two indigenous groups, the Pima and Maricopa tribes.
Kai, which means “seed” in the Pima language, also features articles from the Native Seed/SEARCH Foundation, a Tucson-based nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving ancient Native American seed lines that would otherwise be extinct.
For the beverage program, “everything we use, we try to source as locally as possible,” says Greenspon (who is not Native American). For the cocktail program, this means working with a forager to acquire certain ingredients. “We take mesquite beans, which the natives grind into flour for bread, and boil them in a sweetener for some of the cocktails, as opposed to agave or simple syrup or honey,” he says. Saltbush, a local plant with a naturally salty flavor, is also foraged. “We’re going to dry the leaves and grind them with a mortar and pestle, and use it on the rim of a margarita rather than on the salt.”
Jake Keyes, Owner and Brewer, Skydance Brewing
Oklahoma City, OK (Iowa Nation Tribe)
For Keyes, building Skydance Brewing was a bittersweet tribute to his father, an avid brewer. During his college years, Keyes began working at a brewery, eventually becoming a manager.
“My dad would come and drink beer, and we would talk about how we wanted to open a place like that,” Keyes recalled. When his father died, “I decided on the spot to start my brewery and not talk about it for the rest of my life.” As the pandemic slowed its plans, the brewery opened its doors in October 2021.
IPAs get a lot of attention, and many whimsical beer names are tied to native culture or tell a story. Fancy Dance, his bestseller, refers to “a dance we have in our powwow,” he explains, while Skoden, a triple IPA, refers to an Aboriginal slang term popularized by the Reservation Dogs television series which means “Let’s go then!”
“Most of the people who drink our beer are not native.” notes Keynes. “It’s our way of sharing culture, demystifying it and making it more accessible to people.”
Rik Mazzetti, President Rincon Economic Development Corporation, (3R Brewery)
San Diego, CA (Rincon Band of the Luiseño Tribe)
Named after the native trail known as the Rincon Reservation Road, it is the first Native American-owned and operated brewery in Southern California on tribal land. In 2019, the brewery was rebranded as “3R Brewery” and opened a tasting room off the reserve in Ocean Beach.
The brewery makes eight basic beers, including “Rez Dog” Hefeweizen; Blurred and clarified IPAs; and a seasonal beer made from local fruit created to serve at the annual August Feast, a gathering for all the surrounding reserves.
For the future, 3R plans to grow hops in the reserve. “We just got permission from our tribal council that will give us 10 acres,” Mazzetti says. “Now we are investigating which hops grow best in this environment.” While all of 3R’s beers are already made from water from the reserve’s aquifer, hops grown on the reserve would be the crowning glory.
“It’s paramount to us, giving back to our tribe,” Mazzetti says. “Not just on a monetary basis, but that the product is something we can be proud of…We want everyone on the reservation to be proud to say, this is our beer, it’s owned by Indians, it’s is 100% from ingredients on the reserve.We are very happy about that.