The Missing Piece: How Non-Alcohol Brands Are Trying to Capture the Most Elusive Elements of Alcohol


Mock spirits and cocktails are booming — it’s now a nearly $10 billion market in 10 key global markets (including non-alcoholic beer and wine), according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. The IWSR also notes that the non-alcoholic spirits market in the United States grew by 51% in 2021 alone and is expected to grow another 14% this year.

“I want it to look like a drink, walk like a drink, I want it to drag on your palate like a drink – something that can give you that lingering sensation,” says Lexie Larsen, COO and co -founder of Spiritless, which makes an alcohol-free bourbon and tequila substitute, as well as a new line of canned mocktails.

But how to achieve it? For the many that have popped up in the past year alone, that’s no small feat. Beyond the impact it has on mood and cognition, alcohol brings a number of welcome elements to the party. From taste and texture to the physical experience, here’s what alcohol contributes to booze, besides buzz, and how non-alcoholic beverage providers strive to achieve it.

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The search for spice

“Alcohol plays a huge role in bringing flavor to the human palate,” says Milan Martin, founder and CEO of The Free Spirits Company, which makes non-alcoholic versions of gin, tequila, whiskey and aperitif. Italian. “Not necessarily the alcohol itself, but its ability to serve the supporting flavors in a spirit, like the vanilla, oak and caramel notes in a bourbon, the smoky and agave notes in a tequila reposado or the herbaceous notes of a gin.”

For Derek Brown, owner of a pioneering craft cocktail bar in Washington DC and author of “Mindful Mixology: A Comprehensive Guide to No- and Low-Alcohol Cocktails”, alcohol adds four elements to a drink: the intensity of flavor, length (“a Daiquiri without rum is lemonade“), texture and spiciness.

The spiciness is that bite — an ineffable quality “that twists your face when you’ve got a shot of tequila or whiskey,” Brown says. It’s the chemosensory response – the reaction in your mouth transmitted to your brain from a sudden slap of something sharp and, well, pungent.

You don’t find that kind of spiciness in sodas or fruit juices. “With the alternatives to basic spirits, you have the challenge of replicating the burn of alcohol,” says Nick Nemeth, who makes Novara, an alcohol-free bitter aperitif that tastes like a close cousin of Campari. “A lot of producers use capsaicin or black pepper to give it that kick you associate with a straight spirit.”

Martin at Free Spirits follows this approach. “Without that burn, it’s just a one-dimensional experience versus the multi-sensory experience of a cocktail,” he says. “That’s why we use certain spices in Free Spirits as a proxy for that burn, and why we continue to research new, more authentic ways to deliver it.”

Nemeth says he focuses more on the textural element of alcohol. “The burning sensation is one of the first things you’re going to feel,” he says, “but there’s also a weight to the alcohol – it’s heavier and denser, and coats your tongue and skin better. inside your mouth.”

Novara uses a touch of sugar to help create that weight, much like the bourbon and tequila substitutes made by Spiritless. In developing their product, Larsen says the Spiritless team paid attention to the legs left in a glass after giving it a swirl – they didn’t want it to be too thick and syrupy, nor too thin. “There are so many things that tell your mind what you’re going to taste,” she says.

Capture lightning in a glass

There is another element that can fuel the taste cortex when processing flavor: the psychological and experiential links to alcohol. “I think there’s definitely a mental aspect to it, and it helps you in terms of rituals,” says Hilary Sheinbaum, author of “The Dry Challenge: How to Lose the Booze for Dry January, Sober October, and Any Other Alcohol”. -Free month. “It helps you slow down and relax.”

Martin from Free Spirits agrees. “I don’t know, maybe it’s corny,” he says, “but a tall glass of a wonderfully blended cocktail always gives me optimism and excitement. And, frankly, a glass of Coke is for kids. It’s boring, it lacks complexity, it’s full of sugar. Just because someone decides that booze isn’t in the plan doesn’t mean they deserves something less exciting than what everyone is drinking.

Brown believes that creating non-alcoholic beverages with all the sophistication and care of a cocktail is worth giving people the same special experience, even without the alcohol. “When you go out with friends enjoying a beautiful, crystal-clear Martini that sparkles and shines in a beautiful glass and has such complexity of flavor, and you drink Coca-Cola, you just don’t feel the same.” he says.

And for many, this kind of experience, this kind of ritual, is essential.

“There’s this huge part of our business that we may have underestimated,” says Larsen of Spiritless. “No profile here, but he’s the gentleman over 60 who used to have a few bourbons at night, and maybe his doctor said hey, you need to slow your roll, that’s not okay. not well with your blood pressure medicine,” she says. “We have people who get a case of 6 packs every week. That’s something we never would have expected – we were so targeted at millennial parents and the younger generation.

Removing ethanol from adult beverages may seem like taking a leg off a four-legged chair. But producers have risen to the challenge by understanding what alcohol contributes to the overall drinking experience. And a three-legged stool, it should be pointed out, can sometimes be less wobbly than a chair.

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