The Drinks Industry Goes All-In on Spirit-Free Offerings - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

The Drinks Industry Goes All-In on Spirit-Free Offerings

In a Lilliputian shop on Manhattan’s lower east side, enticing bottles line shelves against white painted brick, while accoutrements like bitters and shrubs fill adjacent racks. It’s everything a discerning drinker could want for cocktail hour, with one important distinction: It’s all alcohol-free. At Spirited Away, founder Douglas Watters was inspired by his own appreciation for complex cocktails and intrigued by the increasing number of alcohol-free “spirits” and products on the market. “There wasn’t a store where you could hold them in your hands and talk to someone who knew a little about them. I like the experience of going to wine stores and liquor stores and browsing and lingering and talking with the staff,” says Watters, who opened the shop last November. “I wanted that experience but for the NA space—the discovery and exploration of it.”

While the sober-curious trend may be nothing new, the options available to both bartenders and at-home mixers looking to create low- or no-alcohol cocktails is more expansive than ever before. When we explored the category back in 2019—at that point still largely dominated by Seedlip, the progenitor spirit of the alcohol-free sphere—we pondered the path forward. Bartenders like Julia Momose of Kumiko in Chicago and Aaron Polsky of Harvard & Stone in L.A. were early boosters, but the intervening years have seen zero-proof spirits trickle from the back bar to the home bar. Plus, more American producers have gotten into the game, making a wider array of options more accessible stateside.

The pandemic both hindered and helped the category, with producers losing access to shelf space in shuttered bars, but drinkers at home became increasingly mindful about how much alcohol they were consuming and eagerly sought alternatives. By the end of 2020, the drinks market analysis firm IWSR predicted the low- and no-alcohol category would grow 34 percent over the next three years. “I have about 100 to 120 different SKUs. I pretty much carry the majority of what’s available, but there are new brands launching all the time,” says Watters. “It’s really still in its infancy, but we’re seeing this great Cambrian explosion of exciting new options.”

Culture Shift “I became sober-curious three years ago; it was really hard for me to reconcile being a highly ambitious person with the depletive effects that I would experience after a night out with friends or a dinner party,” says Fay Behbehani, founder of L.A.-based Bonbuz. Because drinking is so often intertwined with social occasions, Behbehani says that it took her a while to even realize that alcohol was the element she needed to rethink, so she began to contemplate what a different approach to social drinking could look like. Behbehani launched Bonbuz last December, aiming to occupy the “functional” end of the alcohol-free spectrum by incorporating amino acids, adaptogens, and nootropics (the current buzzy ingredients of the beverage world) like Rhodiola Rosea and ginger root, and caffeine from green tea—ingredients all geared toward creating a gently altered state instead of alcohol-fueled intoxication. The bottle is even labeled as a dietary supplement. “The ingredients have the potential to shift your mood, to make you feel lifted, to increase your alertness and concentration, thereby being a vehicle for further immersion in the current moment,” Behbehani says.

Taking a similar approach is the newly launched Aplós—a no-alcohol “spirit” infused with broad-spectrum hemp to “calm and uplift”—formulated in collaboration with acclaimed New York bartender Lynnette Marrero. From a flavor standpoint, both Aplós and Bonbuz occupy a similar realm to other non-distilled, botanically laced and bitter-leaning products like the new Ghia aperitif and John deBary’s Proteau line, using bold flavors to recreate some of the oomph found in booze. “We wanted to create a truly distinct flavor that when you sip it, it is so overwhelmingly bold and un-virginal that it’s almost akin to alcohol,” says Behbehani.

As more products continue to hit the market aimed to offer alternatives for everything from a happy hour beer to a glass of wine with dinner to a cocktails out with friends, the culture continues to both shift and expand, making room for new ways to participate in the ritual of a drink. “What I want to see is true commercialization and for NA to become mainstream—for people to feel comfort and confidence in whatever beverage they choose, especially if it’s a non-alcoholic one,” says Behbehani. “I think with more entrants that come onto the market, we are creating a culture that’s accepting and nonjudgemental—and one that’s fun as well!”

Flavor First Brad Whiting and Seth O’Malley both came from a background in spirits and distilling, and the leap to the alcohol-free space felt like a natural move. “We weren’t interested in trying to directly emulate any existing spirits category, and I think that’s because we both came from the spirits world and have a lot of respect for those categories,” says Whiting. “That’s sort of the magic and the challenge of what we’re trying to do, is describe new-to-world flavors and aromas that don’t necessarily have an easy reference point.”

Following a couple years of formulation, Whiting and O’Malley launched Wilderton last November. With ingredients inspired by its Pacific Northwest home, the brand’s two botanically focused expressions, Earthen and Lustre, could conceptually be compared to gin, though they taste nothing like it. O’Malley handles the distillation, drawing from his background in tea and tea-based distillates to create unique botanical bills that marry smoky Lapsang Souchong with cardamom, spearmint and frankincense in Earthen, and Ceylon black tea with bergamot, bitter orange, lavender and lemongrass in Lustre. The result is complex and aromatic, with a slight tannic structure from the tea that contributes a subtle mouthfeel often missing in alcohol-free “spirits.”

“I was thinking very practically, in that some things extract very well in alcohol, and certain things extract well in water. To try to use water to extract a juniper aroma that’s going to taste like gin? I knew that wasn’t really possible. So you could see it as a limitation, but water is also a powerful solvent for other things, like tea,” explains O’Malley. “I wanted to use the opportunity of this totally new category to get into totally new flavors. They don’t taste like anything else that’s on the market, and they certainly don’t taste like any traditional distilled spirits.”

Still, the influx of new alcohol-free offerings spans the spectrum, from the radically unique to the name-brand doppelgängers. Owing to the adaptability of botanical distillates, gin makers have been quick to adopt alcohol-free interpretations. Amsterdam distiller Damrak launched Damrak Virgin 0.0 last October, matching the notes of their citrus-forward gin for a tart, slightly bitter expression that makes for a refreshingly believable G&T. England’s Salcombe Distilling Co. did the same with the release of New London Light. Heritage brands Tanqueray and Gordon’s recently launched 0.0 versions to keep up with the rapidly accelerating category, and new-to-the-game American makers like Monday and Ritual have entered the market with gradually expanding product lines. Meanwhile, Australian-based maker Lyre’s is offering the broadest range of spirit dupes, with everything from staples like rum and whiskey to liqueur-esque offerings like amaretto and an “Italian Orange” that’s a dead ringer for Campari.

Back at Spirited Away, Douglas Watters says he still drinks alcohol, though admittedly far less given his wealth of options these days. “Alcohol is so pervasive in the culture, if you don’t think critically or discriminatingly about it, you can very easily fall into the trap of drinking what everyone else is drinking,” he says. “But you really don’t have to compromise anymore.”

Check out our Taste Test in the May/June issue for more great alcohol-free spirits recs.

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