The non-alcoholic spirits revolution is here. What will it take to become the category's defining brand?

Drinkers are looking for a brand that can truly fill the void left by alcohol — in terms of taste, function, and the social rituals that come with it. Can one brand take the crown?

Gnista, based in Sweden, makes dark, alcohol-free spirits. (Photo: Gnista)
CATEGORY DIVE

In 1860, Campari was born. The drink — a bitter aperitif recognizable by its bright red hue — tasted like nothing else at the time, and has since become an iconic cocktail hour staple.

Its popularity-boosting tricks would be familiar to many brands launching today: to convince people to give their newfangled drink a go, the Campari family opened the Camparino bar on a busy Milanese shopping street, and tapped the hottest influencers of the day — artists and opera singers — to visit and endorse their concoction.

It was a cocktail for creatives, with graphic artists commissioned to make the brands’ now-collectible promotional posters, while cocktail recipes that used the spirit as an essential, irreplaceable ingredient were seeded among the bartending world.

Even today’s hard seltzer brands have Campari to thank for the invention of their category: in 1932, triangular bottles of ready-to-drink Campari Soda first hit the shelves.

That was 160 years ago. Today, the world of cocktails and after dinner drinks is going through yet another revolution. Only this time, there’s no alcohol involved.

Alcohol-free brands grow up

A growing consumer preference for modern alcohol-free drinks has been rumbling for ages — add to that the growing contingent of "sober curious" drinkers and it's clear that a more conscious intake of alcohol is here to stay. According to Nielsen, the no- and low-alcohol sector has grown a whopping 506% since 2015, while the category is anticipated to generate $280 million in sales this year.

While many drinkers first dabble with alcohol-free brands during reset months like Dry January or Sober October, the challenge for brands is getting people to stick around once those months are over. Six years on from Seedlip's gin alternative launching, drinkers are still looking for a brand that can truly fill the void left by alcohol — both in terms of taste and the social rituals that come with it.

“Alcohol is a very reliable, very consistently effective functional ingredient, in that it produces inebriation in almost everyone, almost every time,” says Douglas Watters, the founder of New York-based alcohol-free bottle shop Spirited Away. “When you compare any other functional ingredient to something that’s that reliably consistent, we need to reset our expectations.”

Brands like Kin Euphorics and Three Spirit are working hard to explain to customers that their drinks are not just alcohol-free, but “functional” — in other words, containing ingredients they say have mood-changing effects just like alcohol does. Others are taking this idea a step further, infusing their drinks with actually mind-altering THC, as MXXN, Artet and Cann do.

There is also a focus on raising the bar when it comes to flavor, with complex recipes that hope to recreate the oomph of an oaked scotch whiskey or a tannic red wine, and which can stand in on the occasions those drinks are most regularly ordered. In this category, you will find Gnista, which makes a smokey, whiskey-like spirit, Acid League and its alcohol-free “proxies” developed by wine experts, and Bôtan, a herbal distiller, among others.

MXXN, launched in September, makes alcohol-free, THC-infused spirits. (Photo: MXXN)
The making of a heightened alcohol-free drink

It is not easy to create an alcohol-free drink that lives up to expectations, though.

“You cannot remove alcohol from spirits and get something that tastes like a spirit,” says Erika Ollén, the cofounder of Gnista. The brand’s whiskey alternative has been developed completely from scratch, layering up flavors that allude to the drinks' familiar notes — such as oak, for smokiness, or rhubarb, for acidity — and answering questions such as: “What makes a whiskey nice to drink neat? What makes it suitable to mix into a Manhattan?” “We still ended up with something smokey, with lots of rye and wood,” Ollén says. “It’s more like when you’re cooking a meal — balancing the flavors.”

Acid League, which launched a range of “wine proxies” in December 2020, has taken a similar approach to recipe creation. While beers — which on average come at 5.2% ABV or less — can just about get away with having their alcohol removed at the end of the brewing process, wines often struggle to retain the same body and depth of flavor once they have been dealcoholized. “There’s a reason a lot of them are just flavored water,” says Charlie Friedmann, Acid League’s head of proxies. The proxies are instead a blend of “a lot of different ingredients.” This list includes hot and cold extracts, juices, acids and other more unusual ingredient such as “verjus,” the juice of unripened grapes that is considered a waste product of the wine industry, but which has become a favorite among non-alcoholic brands.

Technological advances have also paved the way for new brands to create powerful alcohol-free concoctions. In the case of MXXN (pronounced “moon”), a process called "nanoemulsification" is used to ensure THC is distributed evenly throughout the drink, so every sip is the same strength. Before this process was available, founder Darnell Smith would make his own personal concoctions with cannabis flowers soaked in alcohol, decanted into a dropper bottle for adding to sodas. Now, the drink can be made entirely alcohol-free.

“With any bev-alc or spirit, there’s two main components to the process — fermentation and distillation,” explains Smith, who has 15 years’ experience in the spirits industry. “We skip fermentation because we don’t want the alcohol, and we focus on distilling the flavor extracts.”

Can alcohol-free stand on its own?

Somewhat ironically, one of the biggest marketing challenges facing alcohol-free brands is their difficult relationship with alcohol itself. By leaning on familiar reference points like gin, wine, whiskey or aperitifs, brands can help customers to understand how these drinks should be consumed, or the appropriate moments to pour one out. But make too close of a comparison, and consumers may feel let down by a taste or drinking experience that isn’t quite what was promised.

“It’s really bizarre, this category. It’s been up to the brands to decide: what is a non-alc spirit? So it’s confusing for consumers — it’s very hard to know what to expect from the liquids inside the bottles you buy,” says Ollén. “In these early days, we need comparisons to guide consumers.”

“I don’t want to necessarily change behavior,” Smith says. “ What MXXN is trying to do is fit into an occasion that already exists. As the industry matures, there will be less of a need to have these reference points.”

In the same way Campari did all those years ago, today’s alcohol-free brands are hoping bartenders, restaurateurs and sommeliers can help promote their cause. Smith says that while MXXN’s range contains a whiskey, gin and tequila alternative, the specific flavor profile of these drinks — which are not quite the same as their boozy alternatives — means they pair well with ingredients not regularly seen on a cocktail-maker’s menu, such as coconut water, opening the door for new creative possibilities.

Friedmann says that complex wine proxies have caught the imagination of sommeliers, who are “interested in this product because it looks and feels like the wines they serve, and it gives them an opportunity to introduce people to something that is actually quite complex and interesting.” “We now have proxies being served at restaurants like The French Laundry and the Gramercy Tavern,” he adds.

When it comes to the question of which alcohol-free brands will be able to stand the test of time, taste will always be the ultimate deciding factor. An expert bartender will not add a cocktail to their menu if it tastes awful — or worse, boring — and it will be hard to get flexi-sober customers to come back for more if a taste-test with an alc-free brand hasn’t gone well.

“If you have a non-alcoholic spirit and it tastes like toilet water, it’s not going to go very far,” says Smith. “Innovation breeds improvement. As more [brands] come out, and raise the bar of taste profile, the better chance the whole category has to succeed.”

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