Phrases like “complex booze-free beverages infused with herbs and adaptogens to help you unwind” seem familiar territory these days, given all the nonalcoholic (NA) and ready-to-drink (RTD) brands entering the market. However, Curious Elixirs was thinking about ingredients and their purpose long before the current crop of competitors hit local retail shelves.
JW Wiseman, founder of the alcohol-free cocktail company, spent the better part of his career as a builder of NYC startups (Thrillist, Skillshare, Daily Harvest), bars and nightclubs (Whiskey Brooklyn, Output), and generally living the life of a professional partier by way of related industry businesses. After a crazy night in 2012, however, JW (or John), realized he had to make some changes – and dropped his alcohol consumption by 95%. What followed was the creation of Curious Elixirs, a brand that has gone from pitching a small domestic market to earning global reach in just 8 years. The secret? Drinks that are layered and characterful and leave the consumer open to sipping another. And another. Without the negative health ramifications.
Forbes spoke with Wiseman about the founding of his company, the development of new products, and where he sees the industry heading. (Hint: up and up and up.)
When and why did you decide to create an nonalcoholic ready-to-drink brand?
After 20 drinks in one night in 2012, I woke up the next day terrified. I knew I needed a drastic change with my relationship to alcohol. I quickly grew bored of club soda + bitters and wondered why nothing existed that was sophisticated and non-alcoholic, something that was fun to drink and also made me feel good. I began tinkering at home in the Hudson Valley for myself and friends that were starting to drink less. After years of tweaking recipes, I began collaborating with award-winning mixologists and food scientists. Before the term ‘sober curious’ had even been coined, Curious Elixirs was born in 2015. More quickly than expected, Curious became the first top-selling name in booze-free craft beverages and we’ve seen an entire industry develop around it.
What are the challenges to creating an adult NA beverage, especially one that seems to blend cocktail and wine adjacent concepts, into something complex and drinkable, especially beyond one glass.
The challenges are many but the rewards are even greater. From my time at Daily Harvest and working on clean label foods, I knew I wanted to create something that was 100 percent real food. That’s the hardest part. It’s easy to make something taste okay when you use fake stuff. But Curious has no natural flavors, no refined sugar, no preservatives, no bullshit. It’s been a big challenge to use only the best real ingredients and to find suppliers that will create organic extracts that don’t use alcohol. That’s why it took a few years to get to it right and why Curious is more lauded and more expensive than pretty much anything else that’s come after us.
Do any of the beverages you create go through fermentation then require removal of alcohol? Or fermentation then arrestation? What about tweaking recipes and finding new techniques — does the research continue in perpetuity, so to speak?
We do not use fermentation, and never need to do alcohol removal. Wherever possible, we use unrefined ingredients like coconut nectar instead of sugar. We’re always working on new techniques and tweaking our recipes in our quest to make the world’s best booze-free beverages. Our work is never done!
Why do you think the NA beverage movement is growing?
People are increasingly interested in NA options because millions more people are waking up with clear heads, fewer hangovers, quality sleep and making healthier choices. And, they’re willing to invest in new beverages because it’s fun and there’s a real business opportunity.
To many people, it seems like the non-alcoholic movement came out of left field. The truth is that it’s taken years for it to become socially acceptable to not drink alcohol. Curious Elixirs began 8 years ago, and we’ve been quietly shifting culture since then.
Even when we began in 2015, over 165 million adult Americans drank 0-2 alcoholic drinks a week, according to an International Wines and Spirits Record (ISWR) report. That number is sure to be even higher today with the continued momentum of Dry January, Dry July, and Sober October, not to mention the rise of the wellness industry at large.
What levels of growth have you observed since the launch of Curious Elixirs?
Every year since we launched, we’ve seen tremendous growth: 450% growth in the past 3 years alone. It’s only now in our 8th year that we’ve been able to catch up with demand.
What feedback have you had about your products?
We’ve had over 3,000 glowing reviews from customers and of course, a few that mentioned Curious just wasn’t for them. Our cocktails have complex, bold flavors, so that’s to be expected. Luckily for us, Curious has had positive feedback everywhere from Esquire to Vanity Fair to the New York Times. Together with cocktail bar Death & Co, we recently won “Fan Favorite” at the Good AF Awards.
Should NA wine and beverages strive to become more sophisticated to ultimately mirror the real thing? Give us Burghounds 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?
We make drinks that evoke aspects of some of our favorite cocktails, but always with a twist. We aim to give you that touch of flavor nostalgia but we’re always creating something new and innovative with every flavor. For example, we just launched Curious No. 8: an intergalactic after dinner drink. Inspired by amaro, it’s bittersweet and herbaceous, bold and luxurious, with an intriguing combo of organic blackberry, blueberry, fig, and a special layer of richness from blackstrap molasses. It’s wildly different than anything you’ve ever tried before, yet familiar and comforting as a digestif should be.
Where should your beverages be placed in the grocery or liquor store? Should they be sold in beer and wine aisles? Under specialty drinks? I think one challenge of many of the current RTD brands is that they run a wide gamut in intention and figuring out your audience is critical.
That’s a great question. Currently, Curious is only available online and in select restaurants, hotels, performance venues and specialty stores. Ten years from now, we’ll be everywhere. And not just the US, this is a global opportunity.
What have been the challenges to opening new accounts, both retail and on-premise? Competition? Convincing venues to expand their lists? What about opportunities?
Some challenges we’ve encountered have been with old school bartenders who just don’t realize that 1 in 4 of their restaurant guests don’t drink. Others understood Curious immediately, whether it’s Michelin-starred restaurants like the French Laundry or world class clubs like Blue Note that recently reached out to us and added Curious to their menu.
What is Club Curious, how long has it been around, and what purpose does it serve both for the public and the brand?
Club Curious is our sober speakeasy and arts club located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We opened it Dec. 31, 2020. It’s a space to showcase our booze-free craft cocktails and bring together creatives to showcase their talents. We’ve had mentalists, authors, Alvin Ailey dancers, Grammy nominees, and so many more fascinating sober-curious creators through the Club. The best way to find out about our events is to follow us on Instagram or sign up for our newsletter. Or you know, ask me.
Anything else you want to add about where Curious Elixirs and the category are heading in the future?
Stay tuned, this is just the first act of the opera.
Curious Elixirs can be purchased online, at local NA bottle shops, or found at select restaurants and bars around the country.