The Missing Piece: How Non-Alcoholic Brands Are Trying to Capture Booze’s Most Elusive Elements

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Non-alcoholic 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 the International Wine and Spirit Report (IWSR). IWSR also notes that the market for non-alcoholic spirits grew in the U.S. by 51 percent in 2021 alone, and is forecast to grow another 14 percent this year.

“I want it to look like a drink, walk like a drink, I want it to hang out on your palate like a drink — something that can give you that lingering feeling,” says Lexie Larsen, COO and co-founder of Spiritless, which makes an alcohol-free bourbon and tequila substitute, along with a new line of canned non-alcoholic cocktails.

But how does one achieve this? For the many that have popped up in the past year alone, it’s no easy feat. Above and beyond the impact it has on one’s mood and cognition, alcohol brings a number of welcome elements to the party. From taste and texture to physical experience, here’s what alcohol contributes to booze, besides the buzz, and how non-alcoholic purveyors are striving to achieve it.

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The Search for Piquancy

“Alcohol plays a huge role in delivering big 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 Italian aperitivo. “Not necessarily the alcohol itself, but its ability to serve up the supporting flavors in a spirit, like the vanilla, oak, and caramel notes in a bourbon, the smoky, agave notes in a reposado tequila, or the herbaceous notes of a gin.”

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

Piquancy is that bite — an ineffable quality “that twists your face when you have a shot of tequila or whiskey,” Brown says. It’s the chemosensory response — the reaction in your mouth conveyed to your brain of a sudden hit of something sharp and, well, piquant.

You don’t find that sort of piquancy in sodas or fruit juices. ”With base spirit alternatives, you have that challenge of replicating the burn of alcohol,” says Nick Nemeth, who makes Novara, a non-alcoholic bitter aperitivo that tastes like a close cousin of Campari. “A lot of producers are using capsaicin or black pepper to give it that hit that you associate with a straight spirit.”

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

Nemeth says he focuses more on the textural element of alcohol. “The burn 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 more dense, and does a better job of coating your tongue and inside of your mouth.”

Novara employs a touch of sugar to help create that weight — as do 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 too thick and syrupy, nor did they want it too thin. “There are so many things that tell your mind what you’re going to taste,” she says.

Capturing Lightning in a Glass

There’s another element that may feed into the gustatory cortex as it processes flavor: the psychological and experiential connections to alcohol. ”I think that there is 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 at Free Spirits agrees. ”I dunno, maybe this is corny,” he says, “but a full glass of a wonderfully mixed 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 alcohol isn’t in the plan doesn’t mean that they deserve anything less exciting than what everyone else is drinking.”

Brown believes that creating non-alcoholic drinks with all the sophistication and care of a cocktail is worthwhile to give people that same special experience, even if there’s no booze involved. “When you’re out with friends who are enjoying a crystalline, beautiful Martini that shimmers and shines in a beautiful glass and has such complexity of flavor, and you’re drinking Coca-Cola, it just doesn’t feel the same,” he says.

And for many, that sort of experience, that sort of ritual, is critical .

“There’s this massive chunk of our business that we may have underestimated,” says Spiritless’s Larsen. “Not to profile here, but it’s the over-60 gentleman who is used to having a few bourbons at night, and maybe his doctor said hey, you’ve got to slow your roll, this doesn’t mix well with your blood pressure medicine,” she says. “We have people who get a 6-pack case sent every week. This is something we would have never expected — we were so targeted on the millennial parents and the younger generation.”

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