It may sound strange at first: what’s the point of sipping on an alcohol-free tipple? But despite humankind’s long-running tendency to indulge – and often overindulge – in alcohol, there is a steady and growing movement of people who no longer want to feel the less desirable effects of it.
An increasing level of health consciousness around the mental and physical effects of alcohol are being credited to a growing consumer taste for alcohol-free beverages. According to Beverage Daily, 84 percent of people who drink alcohol are looking to drink less, and a recent article in Business Insider noted that Generation Z (those born in the late 1990s to early 2000s) are planning on consuming a lot less alcohol than previous generations because of health and hangover-related concerns.
Meanwhile, online supermarket Ocado has reported that sales of non-alcoholic wine have increased by 42 percent so far this year, with sales of no-alcohol and low-alcohol spirits and beers soaring by 87 percent.
And perhaps no better representation of this movement hitting the mainstream is that brewing giant Heineken released 0.0, a beer with zero alcohol content, into the New Zealand market earlier this year, with NZ Alcohol Beverages Council executive director Nick Leggett applauding the move.
“Such good-tasting options will support the fact that fewer Kiwis, particularly young people, are choosing to drink and choosing to drink to harm. However, we are all social creatures at the end of the day and you can’t remove millennia of cultural history where we want to get together and enjoy company over a drink,” Leggett said.
But what about those who drink spirits? Enter Ecology & Co. The idea struck founder Diana Miller one day when her and husband Will wanted to continue having some more glasses of gin, but were out at lunch and had to drive an hour or so to get back home.
“I said to Will, ‘I really wish I could have more than just one gin’,” Miller says. “Will started tinkering about in the kitchen for a few days and eventually presented me with an alcohol-free gin he had made himself. Will was a hobby distiller, and had learned the basics of the craft and then done an advanced distilling course in Scotland.
“We fed it to as many friends as we could, then took it to a consumer show for feedback. It soon became clear the product could be commercial winner, and so Ecology & Co was born earlier this year.”
Miller says there’s a growing body of evidence that people’s drinking habits are changing – in particular, the younger generations. But she says it’s the feedback the company is getting directly through tastings and consumer shows that shows they’re onto something good.
“Seemingly, people are listening to their bodies more than ever, don’t have time for hangovers, and genuinely want to drink less alcohol. However, they still enjoy the ritual of a lovely drink, with a mature flavour profile that’s not packed with sugar.”
One particularly insightful experience was conducting some market research at the Go Green Expo in Auckland earlier this year. The company trialled several gin blends in colour-coded cups, with drinkers asked to vote via which rubbish bin they put their cup in: the one marked ‘hell yeah’ or the one marked ‘no way’.
“If there were enough positives, we’d know we had a business and which flavour profiles to focus on. However, the feedback was so resounding we knew we had to give it a shot. We didn’t even have product to sell, yet people signed up and paid for pre-order bottles.”
But the process hasn’t been without its challenges. The methodology of creating the drinks is a lot more intensive than a regular distilling of a spirit, she says, as alcohol is an efficient flavour stripper. Flavours are extracted from botanicals in an intensive, lengthy process, and carefully blended together to ensure the taste is right, but Miller says it’s a “labour of love”.
Ecology & Co is now a few months old and has launched with two distilled alcohol-free spirits: a London dry and Asian spice gin, hot on the heels of the release of Seedlip, the world’s first non-alcohol spirit. Seedlip sold out within a week of its release in in New Zealand in March.
Tapping into another growing trend of the business-for-good movement, Ecology & Co is also a social enterprise, with a portion of its earnings going towards projects supporting the UN’s sustainable development goals, and helping women in the developing world grow their businesses.
On the business front, Miller says Ecology & Co has a few large stockists already and has had to ramp up its production to meet demand, while the hospitality industry are excited by the thought of a new crop of alcohol-free alternative drinks – or “something other than lemon, lime and bitters”.
As well as selling direct on its website, it counts Moore Wilson’s Wellington, Smith & Caughey’s Auckland and Ballatynes’ South Island stores among its retailers, while hospitality joints such as Matakana Market Kitchen, Alberts Post and Vic Road have also got on board.
But perhaps the best signal that the alcohol-free spirit market is one to watch is Ecology & Co recently signed a deal with Lion, New Zealand’s largest alcohol company.
“We’re very excited that Lion will shortly be distributing us too, which will mean that there are 3000 more bars and restaurants out there who can easily stock our products, as well as being retailed at Liquor King outlets,” Miller says.
The plan from here on out for the young company is to take its product to the world. Miller says Ecology & Co is already fielding requests from around the globe for its products, which in turn creates inspiration for new product ideas, as there’s the opportunity to tailor botanical blends to specific regional tastes.
And as for how the company wants to influence social change in our drinking habits, Miller says seeing how culture is evolving through how people experience Ecology & Co’s drinks has been really rewarding.
“I still get a great deal of delight when I watch someone taste our products for the first time,” she says.
“There is always the initial moment of hesitation with the decision, to ‘Okay, let’s try this”, followed by ‘Wow, this actually tastes good”, to the realisation which shows on their face, as well as what they say next, when you can see they have discovered something that will fulfil a part of their life better than anything before.
“If you think about how human being beings most often celebrate and reward themselves, it’s through eating and drinking. Our product seems to speak to that, with so many people buying us as something special for themselves that has no untoward consequences or regrets.”
We’ll drink to that.
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