Matters of the spirit: The non-alcoholic beverage trend

No longer just a healthier alternative to alcohol, non-alcoholic beverages and mixers are emerging as drinks in their own right. 

“Broadly speaking it’s all about being mindful of my act and that leads to how I act, what I eat and drink, and what I represent,” says Ganesh Iyer, Managing Partner, India of Zeropercent. Probably becoming an overused word, but post-pandemic, there is extra mindfulness about one’s consumption habits, especially when it comes to something that we ingest leading to not just reduced consumption of alcohol, or temporary/permanent abstinence, but also better choices when it comes to soft beverages. As Iyer continues, “it’s not about a 360-degree change to your life, but being a ‘flexitarian’, exploring alternatives in the given space”. Siddharth Saraf of Goa-based Vaum, expands by saying that this move has also been aided by “exposure and curiosity due to improving standards of living with a majority of the target demographic also well-travelled and exposed to the finer things of life”.

Carbonated soft drinks and fruit juices are ceding the high ground to low/no-sugar lemonades, non-alcoholic beer, flavoured tonics and soft seltzers. In the developed world, the shift has moved a few degrees on to “functional beverages”, such as energy drinks or fortified juices that benefit specific bodily functions in addition to providing general nutritional benefits.  

The trend also mimics what we’ve seen play out in the domestic beer and craft spirits industry where most of the new product introduction and innovation has come from first-generation entrepreneurs or small and mid-sized companies. It’s not the giants like Pepsi, Coke and Real juices that are staking out claims, but smaller companies like Svami, Sepoy and Co, Gunsberg, Jade Forest, Jimmy’s and many more. These entrepreneurs are also paying emphasis to the quality of ingredients, including their provenance as well as the process. 

Gunsberg with their ginger beer and ginger ales, stress upon their ginger sourced from Sirmour in HP, and the ginger being juiced the same day of production. Bengal Bay take pride in their use of organic cane sugar from UP and sand-filtered water to make their tonic waters. Many of them focus on being low on sugar or calories, being vegan and gluten free, as also using organic and all-natural ingredients as opposed to “nature identical” ones. Vaum has used London-based mixologists Liquid Fusion to help craft their blends. As a spirit’s brand representative tells me, “These premium mixers add to the flavour of the spirit rather than overpowering it.” 

The product portfolios of many of these companies have also grown wider and deeper over time, a sure sign of their increasing success and acceptability. A case in point being Svami, which began their journey with tonic water, moved on to light tonic water and flavoured tonics, and then to ginger ale. From there to non-alcoholic cocktails like Rum and Cola and Gin and Tonics and then to Salted lemonades. The latest in their arsenal is collab mixers, with a limited edition Jamun Ginger Ale with PCO and a set of special mixers to accompany Belvedere Vodka, Hennessy Cognac and Glenmorangie Single Malt this festive season. In the case of Vaum, they have not just dual-flavoured tonics, but dual-flavoured, quinine-free botanical waters, for people who are intolerant to quinine. I tasted the full range of the latter product at Gurgaon’s Comorin recently, and Varun Sharma, the beverage manager there, added some welcome zing to my mango and fig botanical water by rimming the highball glass with ‘gunpowder’ from the kitchen. 

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If it was Paper Boat that brought in a revolution in the juice market by recreating the smells and tastes of childhood in drinks like kala khatta and aam panna, then Indian flavours are also well in vogue with these entrepreneurs, with flavours like jamun and mango at the fore. Given the preference of the Indian palate, these mixers are also flavour forward, and in a growing number of cases, entrepreneurs are appealing to an evolved palate by using dual flavours, like Sepoy and Co’s Elderflower and Hibiscus, Mango and Fig, and Cucumber and Mint flavoured tonic waters. 

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Restaurateurs like Rakshay Dhariwal of PCO Hospitality are keen endorsers of this wave, saying that they will keep as many products as possible and will always support home-grown craft concepts. In the on-trade, however, these mixers are currently more consumed with alcohol. It’s the off-trade that is a better platform for them. The emergence of direct-to-consumer platforms like thecocktailstory.co and drinksdeli.in coupled with the efforts of individual companies or importers like Bevs.in is giving this sector a further impetus. The complexity of the range, however, also deepens the need for staff training in upmarket bars and restaurants as well as building awareness with consumers. 

The non-alcoholic trend has also extended further to categories like bitters, with Mysore’s Sakura Fresh and Delhi’s Bab Louie & Co., both creating non-alcoholic bitters brands. As Rishabh Bhatia of Bab Louie & Co. says, “this also brings to the fore the massive legacy and tradition of Indian grown and sourced spices and herbs and their medicinal attributes, so that we could add not just taste but also health to our customers’ drinks”. I also recently tasted Fire Cider No. 1, an immunity-boosting vinegar product developed by Uttarakhand-based Kuninda, that involves infusing their own raw apple cider vinegar (made using Kumaoni apples) with a variety of herbs and roots for a month. In winters, you can start your day with a shot of it, or else top it up with a tonic in a highball glass with a squeeze of lime. 

Two categories where we are still seeing only imports or multi-national brands are non-alcoholic beers and spirits. Seedlip is one of the pioneers globally in the world of non-alcoholic distilled spirits, and was founded by Ben Branson, who set out to answer the question of “what to drink when you are not drinking”. Seedlip also claims to be the world’s first distilled, sugar- and additive-free non-alcoholic spirit made with herbs, botanicals, spices and citrus peels. It’s perfect for someone who wants to enjoy a gin and tonic but without the buzz of alcohol.

Seedlip
Seedlip is a global pioneer in non-alcoholic distilled spirits

Non-alcoholic beer also fits perfectly for someone who wants to extend their evening out. In such situations its automatic to reach out for a glass, as a matter of habit, and also to be sociable, with water not cutting it all the time. Here too, the variety of non-alcoholic beer has widened from just the regular Heineken 0.0 and Budweiser 0.0 to Hoegaarden 0.0 and Hoegaarden Rosé, a fruity wheat beer, perfect for those with a sweeter palate. Also on offer are non-alcoholic ales from St Peter’s and a non-alcoholic IPA called Coast from Zeropercent, which might even fool a seasoned beer drinker. As Vineet Sharma, Vice President, Marketing and New Business Development, South Asia of AB Inbev says, “70% of Indian consumers who have traditionally abstained from alcohol, now have a viable alternative. Globally the non-alc beer market is projected to surpass USD 25 billion by 2024, with most major beer brands setting targets like this for their portfolio.” Globally also, hard seltzers have been a formidable challenger in the carbonated alcoholic drinks segment, and India too has seen the launch of non-alcoholic craft seltzers that mimic traditional cocktails minus the alcohol, like the range from Kati Patang NOT—G&T, Cosmo, etc. 

A lot of these mixers are still finding their primary source of consumption as being with alcoholic spirits, with their rise also mirroring the growth of the gin category and rise of other spirits like rum, with, of course, the highball craze that has swept most whisky brands. 

Brands have also begun recommending pairing particular brands of spirits with particular mixers, for example, Monkey 47 gin with grapefruit and rosemary botanical water or Malfy gin with limone tonic. Opinions of the split between consumption with spirits to being consumed on their own vary all the way from 100% in favour of the former by Aneesh Bhasin of Svami to 80% from Gunsberg and 70/30 by Siddharth Saraf of Vaum. 

However, I feel it’s only a matter of time that these products and others of their ilk slip the tether of the spirits that they’re anchored to, and sail away into a welcoming gullet. Cheers!

Vikram for column

Vikram Achanta is founder and CEO of Tulleeho, a drinks training and consulting firm and a co-founder of www.tulleeho.com, a drinks website. He is also co-founder of 30 Best Bars India, India’s first bar awards and ranking platform. His Instagram handle is @rumdoodle69.

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