By: Tracey L. Kelley
Crafting with spirits is an art that provides endless possibilities for the maker and mixologist alike. But the growing demand for spirit alternatives also demonstrates there are even greater opportunities to present flavor complexity and style.
Whether through herbal tonics such as those found at Dr. Andrew Weil’s True Food Kitchens throughout the U.S.; spirits “for those partaking” and non-spirits “for the whole family” at Vena’s Fizz House in Portland, Maine; special juice and botanical potions at Shine Restaurant in Boulder, Colorado; or booze-free craft cocktails at the Modernist in San Antonio, Texas; producers of zero-proof options seek to expand the marketplace to allow consumers a bounty of choice.
“There’s a knee-jerk reaction in some people when they hear about spirit alternatives. I get it — I love spirits too! I promise we’re not here for your guns,” Marcus Sakey, founding partner of Ritual Zero Proof in Chicago, told Beverage Master Magazine. “Our products aren’t meant to replace liquor. It’s a complement, a way to enjoy when you’re driving, dieting, training, making a baby, looking for balance or just have [stuff] to do tomorrow. The need goes way beyond the sober-curious. It’s like almond milk or the Impossible Burger — 90% of purchasers aren’t vegetarian or vegan. People want options, ways to mark a moment without the alcohol or calories.” Ritual produces high-rated gin, tequila and whiskey alternatives.
Tapping Into What Consumers Want
As Sakey points out, there are numerous reasons why someone might choose not to have alcohol on a particular day, but frequently don’t have alternatives when going out with friends or wanting something to accompany dinner. So while movements such as Dry January or Sober October might have planted the initial seeds for alcohol-free selections, abstinence isn’t the only reason for their popularity.
“We’ve received great support and encouragement from the sober-curious movement since day one, but we’re seeing the trends becoming habits amongst the 75% of drinkers who switch between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks,” said Mark Livings, co-founder and CEO of Lyre’s Non-Alcoholic Spirits, a London-based company with production facilities there as well as Melbourne, Australia and Montreal, Canada.
“Over time, people are reducing consumption, so for a venue to retain patronage, it’s important to have a quality range available when a drinker inevitably looks for a non-alcoholic option.” Lyre’s extensive award-winning non-alcoholic spirit line includes American Malt, Dry London Spirit, Italian Orange, Dark Cane, Apéritif Rosso, Coffee Originale, White Cane, Amaretti, Italian Spritz, Orange Sec, Spiced Cane and Absinthe.
Formerly the bar director of chef David Chang’s famous Momofuku Restaurant Group and mixologist for the speakeasy PDT in New York City, John deBary, creator and CEO of Proteau, wanted to solve another problem for customers. “Drinks that didn’t rely on alcohol were always a challenge. Drinkers tended to think of overly sweet and simple ‘mocktails,’ and finding zero-proof drinks that paired well with food was almost impossible.” Also the author of the cocktail book Drink What You Want, deBary crafted Ludlow Red and Rivington Spritz as ready-to-drink, zero-proof botanical options.
“From a technical standpoint, zero-proof drinks are a fun challenge to a bartender because alcohol, since it’s a solvent, is a great base for flavors. Plus, we have access to thousands of uniquely-flavored products: gin, whiskey, liqueurs, fortified wines – to name a few,” he said. “These challenges are what led me to create Proteau as a way to test my abilities as a bartender/mixologist, and to find a way to create delicious beverages that everyone — not just alcohol drinkers — could enjoy.”
Intent Focuses on Taste and Versatility
“A well-made cocktail is about taste and mood as much as it’s about alcohol, maybe more so. I wanted to introduce some balance to my bar cart; to be able to enjoy evening cocktails and a morning workout,” Sakey said. “Echoing the taste, smell and mouthfeel of spirits was incredibly difficult. Distillation turned out to be a rabbit hole — the cost was impractical, but more than that, it wasn’t possible to get the flavors right while still keeping it truly non-alcoholic.”
Sakey said Ritual’s solution was to treat the process like cooking, building upward and layering tastes with quality ingredients such as all-natural botanicals. “The trickiest part was trying to replicate the kick of spirits. Over 500 iterations, we crafted a complex blend of ‘mouth-punch’ botanical elements — some spice, some cooling, some tingle, a few exciting additions I’ll keep under my hat — that work together to trick your taste buds,” he said.
“Throughout the process, we worked closely with some of Chicago’s best mixologists and chefs. After more than a year of development, one of them said, ‘You know, in a cocktail, I’m not sure most people would be able to tell the difference.’ That was when I knew we had it,” Sakey said. In 2020, the industry-standard Beverage Testing Institute gave all of Ritual’s products three top honors and ranked its Tequila Alternative as the highest-rated non-alcoholic spirit in the world. It also has plans to roll out another spirit alternative in early 2021.
Livings’ interest in zero-proof options evolved from his personal wellness journey, combined with an awareness of how friends’ and colleagues’ deliberate drinking choices. “They all expressed a common problem: they missed the drinks they knew and loved, and they weren’t impressed with the available alternatives.”
With a long career in the beverage industry, he had the resources to pull together a team of bar staff, liquor marketers and liquor salespeople. “We figured that if anyone was going to change the way the world drinks, it should be a group of people who have plenty of drinking experience and would never compromise on taste. The big breakthrough was the ‘ah-ha’ that you didn’t have to take the alcohol out of a spirit product to produce a non-alcoholic spirit.”
The single most important challenge, Livings said, was to provide true non-alcoholic versions of each classic spirit. “The flavor, aroma and appearance of each Lyre’s variant had to meet our high standards and basic test of, ‘Does it feel like I’m having a drink with booze in it?’” he said. “Over two years were invested in breaking apart flavors of the classics. It was very important that each was as close as physically possible to the classic spirits we are paying homage to. We don’t distill our products, as it’s not required when you craft the flavors using essences, extracts and distillates on a non-alcoholic base.”
Proteau isn’t distilled either, as deBary chooses instead to blend a proprietary mix of botanical extractions with clarified fruit and artisanal vinegar for a low-sugar beverage. “For me, the eureka moment was when I sampled test batches with friends and colleagues, and they didn’t believe there wasn’t alcohol in the recipes. This is when it really dawned on me that the sensation of drinking a complex, intellectually-engaging drink wasn’t reliant on alcohol, and if we could disentangle that, we could open up a whole new world for people.”
Crafting a Solid Future
Data points to a consistent rise for hand-crafted or small-batch zero-proof spirits, even if on-premises sales are skewed by 2020 pandemic repercussions. Future Market Insights in London indicate key demographics for spirit alternatives — considered part of the functional beverage market — includes 18 to 24 and 25 to 39, with product growth projections of nearly 3% each year for the next five as individuals seek “a multi-sensory drinking experience.” So innovation in the bottle must extend into well-positioned partnerships for marketing and promotion, and our makers know this all too well.
“Again, people want options. This isn’t just me saying it — sales data bears it out,” Sakey said. “Across 90 days, we have a reorder rate of greater than 40% from major players like Binny’s Beverage Depot, Total Wine & More and ABC Fine Wines. If you extend the period to 120 days, it jumps to 70%. Better still, because Ritual Zero Proof is an ‘and’ product, it leads to higher sales, while serving a set of customers that liquor retailers often couldn’t otherwise capture.”
Sakey and his team rely on integrated efforts to attract attention. “We’re cocktail aficionados, both leaded and unleaded, and so we love to work closely with mixologists. Some of our favorite Ritual recipes, like The Green Go-Go, have been created by artists like Carley Gaskin [of Hospitality 201 in Chicago], who was selected as The World’s Most Imaginative Bartender in 2018,” Sakey said. “But one challenge we often find is that retailers aren’t sure how to place spirit alternatives. We work closely with them, sharing best practices and providing POS materials. By showcasing a set, including components and mixers to create no- and low-ABV beverages, our partners see notably higher cart rings. It’s a win all around.”
Livings said the company produces much faster now due to experience and “what the ‘rules’ are of non-alcoholic flavor architecture.” This enables the brand to span the world, broadcasting “an unparalleled range of drinks that you can make with Lyre’s. We have over 20 brand ambassadors, all classically-trained bartenders, so their expertise is the perfect base to help educate and collaborate with other bar staff and mixologists,” he said. “We’ve also worked closely with influencers, bloggers and passionate supporters.”
In keeping with virtual outreach as venues’ occupancy ebbs and flows, Livings said the company offers one-on-one mixology classes through video chat programs. “When you purchase Lyre’s via our e-commerce site, we set up a private, 15-minute class with one of our brand ambassadors to demonstrate how to make delicious non-alcoholic cocktails at home,” he said. “It’s a unique offering, and we love the opportunity it gives us to meet our Lyre’s drinkers.”
The primary message deBary reinforces with customers is “they don’t need to lift a finger to enjoy Proteau as intended.” But he trusts what his colleagues can do to provide a unique drinking experience. “Bartenders are naturally creative and experimental people, and we’ve been really happy with how they’ve used Proteau in their recipes and will continue to support that.”
He also understands the unique value of providing people with a range of selections to fit their desires. “When I was bar director for Momofuku, and we would expand the non-alcoholic drink options at one of our restaurants, we noticed an overall increase in beverage sales,” he said. “The expanded options didn’t cannibalize from any other category and showed us, in real numbers, that we were reaching people who had previously been left out of the conversation. Accessibility is the core of hospitality, and it’s not just the right thing to do; it’s also great for business.”