Dry January has ended, but for many folks, whether Gen X moving into the moderation phase of life, or Gen Z, apparently already enlightened, nonalcoholic (NA) drinks remain a permanent fixture in their lives. That includes me, a longtime wine writer seeking to rotate nonalcoholic drinks into my lifestyle as a complement, not a substitute. NielsenIQ’s data shows the market for nonalcoholic beer, wine and spirits grew more than 20% last year — and more than 120% over the last three years. The market now sees almost $400 million in annual sales. That growth is widely expected to continue.
In search of products to keep on hand at home, I’ve spent the last six weeks tasting craft nonalcoholic beer, spirit-free spirits, zero-alcohol wine, and ready-to-drink (RTD) cans and bottles. Taking my alcohol reduction seriously, I wanted to see if any beverages could replicate the feeling of drinking – especially when socializing – without bearing the emotional weight of giving up my weekend fun or even occasional weekday glass. I am one of those people who likes the taste of gin, mezcal, and IPAs and can’t simply drink more water or more juice. (Juice? Which adults drink juice? Who even recommends that?)
I tasted several products from ISH, a company originating in Copenhagen, Denmark, and was impressed. After sipping a canned G&T over ice that triggered fond memories of late night bouts with friends in East Village bars, I wanted to learn more about the company and how ‘they did that.’ I reached out to Morten Sørensen who founded ISH five years ago in 2018. We chatted about the brand’s origin story, why his products are positioned for consumers who like the taste of alcohol, and the lengthy research and development that goes into simulating the real thing. Sørensen provides a few drink recipes at the end to help readers get started. Check those out.
When and why did you decide to create an NA RTD brand spanning canned cocktails, wine, and spirits?
I wanted to make it easy for everyone to be a mindful drinker. Back in 2017 I decided that I was going to do a 100-day alcohol-free challenge. Realizing that not drinking alcohol wasn’t the hard part but rather the struggle was finding alternatives, I decided to create a brand that made it easy to skip the alcohol but still be able to enjoy an authentic drink. The ready-to-drink (RTD) cans especially are a format that makes it super easy to enjoy NA drinks, so they play an important role in our wide range.
Did you have a personal stake in this market beyond seeing an opportunity, whether health, family, or wellness goals?
I’ve always been mindful about what I consume. The motivator for my 100-day challenge was that I felt slowed down by alcohol and I didn’t want to feel slowed down. I was drinking to be social not for the effect or following brain fog and laziness that often followed, after a few drinks on a Tuesday. I figured others may felt the same way, so I decided to create analog liquids that mimicked the experience so well that my brain still felt like I was drinking without my body suffering the consequences.
Focusing on canned cocktails, what are the challenges to creating an adult NA beverage that tastes as close to the real thing as possible? The canned G&T, for instance, is excellent. Tonic and botanicals do a lot of that heavy lifting, as some of the effect is mental association. Nonetheless, it works.
Thank you. I’m glad you like it. Our internal product development team works very hard and puts a lot of time and effort into making our liquids taste as authentic as possible. There are many challenges, which is why it takes us well over a year to develop a product, where for others, it can take a few weeks. The major element is volatility. Alcohol creates amazing volatility when you take a sip and experience the mouthfeel and flavor molecules explode in your mouth. Without ethanol we rely solely on plants and spices where we’re able to create the similar experience. It’s magical when we hit the right combination and feel the senses are being activated.
Without alcohol, obviously, spirits are hard to mimic. Have you found either white or brown and aged spirits to be harder than the other to recreate?
It’s not difficult creating a NA spirit, but it’s incredibly difficult to create a NA spirit that tastes like a gin, rum or tequila. We’ve been working on it for over 5 years now and have recently launched the 3rd generation of our spirit range. We keep getting better and smarter and we compound this knowledge into our liquids. I feel white and dark spirits are equally difficult because they both require a strong expression of ethanol to be convincing. The trick is to identify the flavor notes you find in the alcoholic counterparts, extruding these and making them stable in an NA version. Our spirits are never really finished. They keep evolving so in our world they are not individual products, they are a symbiosis, making it hard for me to say which one is the easiest or hardest.
Why do you think the NA beverage movement is growing and do you think this is a trend or a seachange? Weather or the climate, so to speak?
There are multiple factors in play. We have macro trend like health and wellbeing leading the initial push towards NA. When our consumers realize the benefits of moderating their alcohol consumption and realize that they can enjoy all the cocktails they please, there’s often an aha-moment that makes them stick. Additionally, we have a whole generation Z that are drinking less than the generations before them. This combination makes me believe that NA is here to stay and not just a momentary trend.
What have you observed as far as growth and demand since the launch of ISH?
Besides a significant growing demand, I have seen the stigma fade. In the beginning most people had a puzzled look on their face when I offered them a non-alcoholic G&T and the question I’d often get in return was “why?” Today it’s a totally other story. People are used to seeing NA options on their menus and expect it too.
What feedback have you had about your products, both good and bad?
We are grateful to have a 4.6 /5.0 star rating on Trustpilot, +40 international taste awards and a +50% return customer rate online. I mention this because we know most consumers are skeptical. Rightfully so. We’re all smart consumers and cautious about how we spend our hard earned money. At ISH we’re proud to often over-deliver on the consumers expectation and we see that as an important contribution to the category. Of course, we can’t please everyone and will sometimes get a 1-star review. In these cases, we try to open a dialog with the consumer to understand what went wrong and what we can do better. The feedback we gain is typically the inspiration that goes into the evolution of our products.
Should NA beverages strive to become more sophisticated to ultimately mirror the real thing? Give us Burgundy-lovers a decent facsimile of Premier Cru Côte de Nuits? Or should the goal be simply to create something pleasant, hopefully complex, and vaguely reminiscent of drinking an ‘adult bev’, which of course, has wide connotations depending on who you ask?
I think the category has room for both. Some consumers love the fact that they can flip between G&T’s with and without alcohol. Others don’t enjoy the taste of alcohol at all. At ISH we cater to the first group, the moderators, that love the drinks they are used to, but has the desire to consume less alcohol. The latter group has a bunch of sophisticated options that they find satisfying. If you’ve had the pleasure of visiting a Boisson store, you will see the selection across the category. It’s fascinating.
Where should your beverages be placed in the grocery and wine and liquor shops? One challenge of many RTD brands is that they run a wide gamut in intention and figuring out their audience is critical.
They should be placed next to their alcoholic counterparts, clearly marked as NA on the shelf to guide the consumer properly. The ISH consumers know their way around the alcohol section and are looking to be inspired. They might be shopping for a dinner party, which we know is the main occasion for ISH consumption. They are selecting their alcoholic wine, maybe a spirit and convenient RTD’s. When they see ISH they will add a few extra items in the basket because they know a good host makes sure there’s an option for all their guests – also the ones that might be driving, are pregnant or just want to moderate for the evening.
Anything else you want to add about the challenges and opportunities for NA bevs and projections for where you and the category are heading?
In the near future you will experience that you can’t go into a bar or restaurant that does not have a serious NA program. Venues will understand the importance of inclusivity, the hospitality element of offering what the consumer desires. That does not mean that everyone will stop drinking alcohol, not at all, it just means that there will be more options. Satisfying options, so we can all celebrate together, any day of the week.
From the ISH spirits, what’s the best recipe/spirit combo you’ve tried that’s closest to enjoying the real thing? I’d like to make it.
I would suggest a classic G&T, Daiquiri or Margarita. Choose the one you had most recently so your reference is as current as possible. We hope it will blow your mind and make you feel the placebo effect when your brain is telling you that you’re drinking alcohol when in fact it’s NA.
Gin-ISH & tonic
5 cl ISH London Botanical Spirit
12 cl Indian Tonic
6 cl ISH Caribbean Spiced Spirit
2 cl Lime juice
2 cl Simple syrup
6 cl ISH Mexican Agave Spirit
3 cl Lime juice
1 cl Orange juice
2 cl Simple syrup