Consider it a disruption in the practice of social sipping. New alcohol-free beverages don’t just want to help you stay sober — they want to help you feel better.
So it’s Dryuary. Or maybe you’re “sober curious.” Or, it’s Massachusetts and you’ve gone “Cali Sober,” trading booze for pot.
Twenty- and 30-somethings’ waning interest in recreational drinking is shaking up the industry, and their successors are expected to continue in trend. A 2018 Berenberg Research report found members of Generation Z are disinterested in drinking culture, consuming more than 20 percent less per capita than millennials, who started the decline when they were the same age.
On the edge of the increasingly fuzzy wellness market, sober-sometimes innovators say a #mindful abstinence from alcohol doesn’t have to mean giving up what they perceive as positive aspects of drinking culture, like socializing or winding down after a long day. Linked to the growing industry of low- and no-ABV spirits and seltzer, botanical-spiked beverages are marketed and developed to be sipped like a mixed drink. They’re a response to our simultaneously stressed-out and self-soothing nature with some of the psychosocial appeal and (fingers crossed) none of the side effects.
“My partner and I wanted to solve something we were personally dealing with,” said Kin Euphorics CEO and co-founder, Jen Batchelor. “The more we cared about our well-being and supplementing for our well-being, the more we realized alcohol didn’t fit that equation. But we still wanted to socialize so we had to come up with something to support that.”
After rounds of self-testing, Batchelor and co-founder Matthew Cauble launched their first zero-proof product, High Rhode, a blend of adaptogens, nootropics, and caffeine, in December 2018. The $39 bottle came packaged with the social-chic allure of a Cheshire Cat and promises of inducing a state of “bliss.” You can drink it on the rocks or mixed into cocktails — it’s slightly bitter and herbaceous thanks to gentian and licorice roots. They’ve since expanded to canned carbonated four-packs (Kin Spritz) and a nightcap elixir named Dream Light.
“Kin was a way of respecting and honoring what I thought was worth preserving from the social ritual of drinking — everything from crafting cocktails, to who you would enjoy it with, and in what environment,” explained Batchelor, who earned her chops as an Ayurvedic Practitioner at the Kripalu Center in the Berkshires in 2016. “All the things you see on the market that are 'functional’ are quite prescriptive. Here’s some ginseng or tumeric and take this before or after you eat. You imbibe it, and it’s good for you, but you’re doing it in a silo. You’re not going to toast and cheers with it. For us, we dosed [Kin] so there’s something to be lingered, there’s a sipping ritual. It’s something to be shared with friends.”
Boston University graduate Benjamin Witte founded his seltzer brand, Recess, when he wanted a better vehicle for his daily cannabidiol fix. “I felt more balanced, even-keeled, and as a result, more productive, more creative, and less anxious,” he said. “The compound CBD is effective, but the experience of putting oil under your tongue that tastes like grass isn’t a great one.”
Launched in 2018, Recess is a fruity, fizzy blend of adaptogens and organic Colorado-grown CBD. Hyped as canned chill, it comes in Peach Ginger, Pom Hibiscus, and Blackberry Chai, packaged in creamy pastels. Witte said their customer mostly “takes a recess” between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., but he sees the drink’s value as a post-work sub for alcohol.
“Ginseng helps you stay alert and L-Theanine helps with relaxation and stress relief. I found when I combined them [with CBD], it’s a richer effect,” Witte said. “We could create many different product lines with functional ingredient combinations. In the future, you could maybe see something specifically for a bar that’s designed to be a true substitute for alcohol. Maybe it has more CBD or different compounds that deliver a type of buzz.”
Like Batchelor, Witte recognized the need to holistically position his product by emphasizing benefits beyond its active ingredients. He added, “When you look at Red Bull or Starbucks, they don’t market the caffeine. They market the experience.” Witte drove this home with Recess IRL, heavily Instagram-ed experiential pop-ups in LA and New York, that serve the bubbly social lubricant while guests browse vintage or get pierced. Kin’s own lavishly stylish, social spaces, Moon Rise Studio and Kin House L.A., hosted immersive tasting events of their own. Vogue deemed Batchelor the “poster girl for L.A.’s zero-proof party scene.”
Abigail Hueber, founder of Above Health Nutrition in Back Bay, created a medicinal mushroom and adaptogen-spiked beverage bar for Follain’s South End location in July. And while they make a great blended drink, she’s hesitant to call adaptogens a “magic pill” for those looking to unlock their brain’s hidden potential with a single drink.
“Those types of beverages have validity and a place. But it won’t be a huge pronounced thing where it’s like, ‘I took a couple of sips and now I’m zen.’ They’re not a way to pull us out of a [chronic] stress dynamic if we don’t do anything additional to that,” Hueber, who is an Integrative Functional Dietitian, explained. “In bringing in those plant compounds, hopefully they’re reminding us of other methods of stress-relieving activity, like going for a walk or doing something that brings you joy.”
Hueber didn’t deem a quick-fix of adaptogens as Goop-ified snake oil either. “There’s some immediate effect, but it’s subtle,” she continued. “It’s not a prescription medication where you get instant relief or influence. The action of them builds over time . . . normalizing the stress pathways, calming and nourishing of the adrenal glands, and helping support when you’re over-stimulated or looking for energy support because you are exhausted or burnt out. That’s where adaptogens thrive.”
Meanwhile, these brain-hacking, vibes-allocating beverages are seemingly everywhere. Bon Appetit reported these types of disruptors and other alcohol-free spirits “will grow by about 32 percent between 2018 and 2022.” Some lean into their cocktail roots, like Hudson Valley’s Curious Elixirs — complex mixology-inspired blends that rely on rhodiola rosea, ashwagandha, and antioxidants for a booze-less boost. While others toe the line of a recovery drink, like Vermont’s Aqua ViTea CBD-spiked kombuchas, which can be found on the shelves of your local liquor store.
So if we automatically reach for electrolytes for recovery and caffeine for an energy jolt, will feel-good botanicals like adaptogens and CBD replace traditional libations for good? Unclear. The interest in unwinding without alcohol is real. The shiny extras are up for debate. But we do know one thing for sure: just don’t call them mocktails.
Rachel Raczka can be reached at email@example.com.