Nuts for inclusive vodka

Canada’s first out-and-proud 2SLGBTQIA+ owned and operated brand is becoming Squirrel Friendz with cocktail fans in B.C. and beyond

Squirrel Friendz isn’t just a spirit brand; it also promotes inclusivity and community, often by hosting drag events. Photo courtesy of Squirrel Friendz

It all started with a night out at a casino, after which Kyle Aszalos woke up with what he thought could be a million-dollar idea. “Cocktail kits!” he said to his partner, Jeremy Fischer. That pivoted to producing their own spirits to put in the kits, and “then we scrapped the kits,” Fischer laughs.

The co-founders of Squirrel Friendz vodka are celebrating the brand’s one-year anniversary this summer, with entry into BC Liquor Stores in May and a bold, colourful presence on many private-store shelves and back bars. “We went with vodka because it’s the quickest to get to market,” Aszalos says of sourcing the crisp spirit, in all-natural flavours with no added sugar, from commercial distillery Orchard City Distilling Co. in West Kelowna. Quick was important, because it meant they could quickly start making a difference.

Squirrel Friendz vodka is available in three cocktail-friendly flavours, from left: lemon lime; the original Inclusive Vodka; and cucumber mint. Photo courtesy of Squirrel Friendz

The brand’s Inclusive Vodka, plus lemon lime and cucumber mint vodka bottlings, stand out for more than their great taste and style (with bright and colourful modern labels courtesy Foe Creative in Victoria). Squirrel Friendz is the first proudly 2SLGBTQIA+ owned and operated spirits company in Canada, with spirits as sippable over ice as they are topped with soda or shaken into fabulous cocktail creations. (Find recipes at and on Instagram @squirrel.friendz.)

It’s a move that Debbie Shing, a co-founder of the drinks-industry diversity, equity and inclusion organization Vinequity, applauds. “Recent 2022 data by Statistics Canada shows that four per cent of all Canadians identify as 2SLGBTQ+, and that percentage increases staggeringly to 33 per cent of all Canadians between the ages of 15 to 34. The highly gendered coding of some on-premise chains and mainstream brands on our shelves simply does not reflect the values and intersectional identities of our shifting population properly any more,” says Shing.

At Vancouver Cocktail Week, Squirrel Friendz poured a drink called the Cucumber Spice Oasis (cucumber mint vodka, jalapeño syrup, pineapple juice). Living Room Creative photo

Squirrel Friendz walks the walk of inclusivity by donating to local organizations to empower 2SLGBTQIA+ people. In B.C., their partner is Qmunity, a resource centre with province-wide services for youth and adults identifying with the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. “We’re giving a voice back to a community that is under-represented in the liquor industry,” says Fischer.

Sons of Vancouver distiller and partner Jenna Diubaldo, who identifies as queer, concurs. “Coming from the non-profit sector in my previous career, I’ve always thought that a distillery as a social enterprise that benefits social causes is something that could make sustainable change,” she says. “More visibility for typically underrepresented groups in this industry is something we’re definitely starting to see more of.”

Squirrel Friendz co-founder Jeremy Fischer says the brand also supports charities like Qmunity. Photo courtesy of Squirrel Friendz

Fischer has a long career history in hospitality, and notes that 2SLGBTQIA+ team members—from bussers and barbacks to bar managers and owners—help power bars and restaurants everywhere. Squirrel Friendz is at its cheeky best when it partners with local establishments. “That’s where we can do a lot of fun events, like putting on drag shows and drag brunches,” says Aszalos. (Drag fans know that so-called squirrel friend queens, um, hide their nuts.) The name is “a conversation starter,” laughs Fischer, who says the brand is all about friends gathering together to build community and have a good time.

The Squirrel Friendz commitment goes beyond rainbow-emblazoned bottles or Pride events, Fischer and Aszalos emphasize. “We are a brand that charities like Qmunity can always trust and count on to support them, and share their stories and projects,” Fischer says, of the commitment to empower the 2SLGBTQIA+ community year-round. “We’d love to work with other brands, to show them how to truly be allies of this community.”

—by Charlene Rooke

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