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Alcohol-free beverages belly up to the bar as consumers practice mindful drinking.

Reinvented new concoctions are doing more than just hydrating. Fueled by millennials and Gen Z, adult sparkling sodas with sophisticated and cocktail-inspired flavors, aromatic drinks made with bitters and kombucha that aid in digestion, and waters that taste like wine, are becoming the center of attention at parties, selling out at retail stores, and headlining at mocktail bars around the country with their flavor-forward makeups.

Motivated by health and wellbeing, imbibing consumers looking to curb their alcohol intake are paving the way for innovation in an underserved, alcohol-free beverage segment.

According to a study by London’s International Wine and Spirits Record, 52 percent of U.S. consumers surveyed say they’re trying to reduce their alcohol intake, opening opportunity for low- and no-alcohol products that currently account for only 0.5 percent of the total alcoholic beverage market in the U.S.

According to IWSR’s study, the largest category gainer in the low/no-alcohol sector in the U.S. is ready-to-drink beverages (38.8 percent CAGR increase from 2018 to 2022). That’s followed by wine at 17.7 percent, and spirits at 7.1 percent. Low/no-alcohol beer, which currently accounts for the lion’s share of the low/no-alcohol beverage market in the U.S., is predicted to grow 5.6 percent.

“The broader trend that points to consumers’ increased interest in physical and mental health is creating an interesting shift in consumer preference for low- and no-alcohol beverages, outside of soft drinks,” says IWSR CEO Mark Meek.

Leading the charge in mindful drinking are millennials and members of Gen Z, who are re-evaluating their alcohol intake in part based on a heightened awareness as to who might be surveilling their social media.

“There is a new level of thoughtfulness as to what we put in our bodies,” says Lorelei Bandrovschi, founder of Listen Bar in NYC, whose menu is entirely alcohol-free and serves high-end crafted mocktails and alcohol-free beer. Bandrovschi sources fan-favorite, alcohol-free brands like Seedlip, Kin Euphoric, Thomas Henry Slim Tonic, and Pilot Kombucha. “People are taking a longer look at things that used to be the norm and applying them to a new wave of social situations where people just don’t want to be intoxicated,” she says.

Even the big dogs are jumping on the booze-free bandwagon. In January, Coca-Cola launched Bar None, an alcohol-free line of adult premium sparkling drinks that include a dry aged cider, Ginger Mule, Sangria, and Bellini. Additionally, the SFA Trendspotter Panel named cocktail mixers and garnishes—many of which work in mocktails—as a prevalent trend at the recent Summer Fancy Food Show.

Here are some socially acceptable alcohol-free beverage trends to keep a look out for.

The Bitter End

Named one of SPINS’ Top 10 Trends of 2019, bitters are having a big year and gaining traction quickly in the alcohol-free space. Bitters’ low-sugar makeup and complex herbal flavor profile are attractive to those with sophisticated palates and those seeking herbal remedies with functional properties that aid in digestion.

The botanical extracts market was valued at $3.6 billion in 2016 and is projected to grow at a CAGR of 9 percent from 2017, to reach a value of $6.03 billion by 2022, according to a report by Markets and Marketplace. The growth is being influenced by a significant shift of consumers who want the right balance between healthy and tasty drinks and those who seek beverages with added functional ingredients such as botanical extracts for taste and aroma, improved nutritional value, and an uncompromising and enhanced flavor profile.

“A new wave of alcohol-free mixology is definitely bringing in elements from the functional beverage category using herbs, botanicals, and adaptogens for some natural mood boosting,” says Listen Bar’s Bandrovschi.

While bitters are well established in the world of mixology, ready-to-drink beverages with a similar profile are quickly gaining traction.

According to SPINS, a few RTD beverages have the potential to expand bitters’ consumer base with their functional and better-for-you ingredient combinations and natural sweetener profiles. Examples include Bitter Love’s line of Sparkling Drinking Bitters that bring together a blend of ashwagandha, artichoke, gentian, ginger, and artemisia with fruit juice and no added sugar, and Fruitbelt Sparkling Fruit Tonic, a company that sources tart apples and cherries regionally and uses organic honey and monk fruit as sweeteners.

“Thanks to the popularity of Aperol, the Italian aperitif made of gentian, and other citrusy herbs and roots, and the low-alcohol Aperol Spritz, bitters already have name recognition with plenty of consumers,” says Eddie Simeon, co-founder of Hella Cocktail Co., which recently debuted an RTD alcohol-free line of bitters and sparkling soda to complement its proprietary line of bitters.

Drink & Flavor-Worthy Properties

To be worthy of a mocktail or something that satisfies social drinking cravings, alcohol-free beverages should offer an elevated experience and be crafted with a certain palate in mind.

“A good mocktail or blended beverage should be crafted like and reminiscent of a cocktail without the alcohol,” says Kara Nielsen, VP, trends & marketing, CCD Innovation. Nielsen says flavor notes that are a combination of sour, bitter, and sweet and have fragrant or floral notes will be winners.

According to BevNet’s 2019 Flavor and Ingredient Trend report, consumers are more accepting of drinks containing herbs and botanicals especially those with spicy, bitter, and floral notes. “Juniper, lavender, rose, ginger, elderflower, and basil are flavors to watch,” Nielsen adds.

Drinks that are low in calories and sugar and are functional are also attractive to the alcohol-free crowd. “Brands building off wine grapes like O.Vine non-alcoholic wine essences water that is created from upcycled grape skins and seeds and touts polyphenols, speak to a consumer who feels like they might be missing out on something,” Nielsen notes.

“Its low-sugar and -calorie content and the fact that it looks good in a wine glass is also appealing,” she adds.

Kombucha, too, is coming up a winner.

“Unlike alcohol that acts as a diuretic and is dehydrating, mocktails and the like can hydrate; those made with probiotic-rich kombucha can promote healthy gut bacteria—what everyone is seeking these days,” notes Kylie Gearhart MS, RD-AP, CDN, CNSC, clinical nutrition manager, NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital.

At Lenny Boy Brewery in Charlotte, N.C., small batch, non-alcoholic kombucha on tap is emerging in the social alcohol-free drinking scene. “Everyday groups of friends come into our taproom and some order a beer and some order a kombucha,” says founder Townes Mozer. “Our kombucha is served in pints and carries that social beverage vibe.”

Mozer says the huge shift in health consciousness and fitness is helping kombucha, which is low in sugar and calories, emerge as a socially accepted beverage that is good for you.

Sparkling Waters, Hoppy Tea

Fancy sparkling mineral waters in eye-catching, sophisticated packaging along with sparkling teas from yerba mate to those flavored with hops, are piquing interest, especially in social settings.

“Customers—especially millennials—are looking for new beverages that not only offer health benefits and are low in sugar but also have eye-catching labels in environmentally friendly packaging,” says Dana Shemirani, vice president of purchasing at Southern California-based Barons Market.

According to Shemirani, Barons has seen huge growth in RTD sparkling waters like San Pellegrino Momenti that adds fresh fruit juice and comes in sophisticated cans, Topo Chico Grapefruit Sparkling Mineral Water, and Clean Cause Sparkling Yerba Mate. Customers are buying to drink alone or to use as mixers for alcohol-free drinks at parties.

At Hyde Park Gourmet Food & Wine in Cincinnati, Ohio, low-sugar sparkling waters and teas with hoppy notes are giving the alcohol-free category momentum. “There has been a huge increase in the variety and sales of non-alcoholic specialty drinks at our store,” says Evelyn Ignatow, owner of Hyde Park Gourmet. She adds that low-calorie, fruit-juice–sweetened Spindrift Sparkling Water has major traction right now as well as HopTea, “a sparkling beverage that is great for someone who wants the craft beer experience without the alcohol and calories.”

Looking Ahead

While there has always been a space for alcohol-free beverages, it’s definitely becoming more premium and socially accepted. “It’s chic to have something more than just water or alcohol-free beer to offer,” notes Nielsen.

And, with alcohol-free becoming more the norm, there will be a lot to look out for and room for the category to grow. “In the future, I’m sure we will see more CBD-fueled products, and hopefully ones that are both high-quality and affordable,” she continues.

“Part of making drinks is the ritual and camaraderie, so companies that have a customization element to them and make you feel like you are mixing a drink will surely stand out, as well as those with low-sugar elements and natural sugars.”

New Products

Element Shrub & Club Pineapple Turmeric. Organic apple cider vinegar combines with fresh pineapple, organic turmeric, and just the right amount of fizz to create a refreshing balance of sweet, tart, and savory. Ready to drink chilled, less than 20 calories per serving.

Hella Cocktail Co. Bitters & Soda Spritz Aromatic. Spritz Aromatic is a 70-calorie bittered, RTD cocktail or mixer that drinks like an effervescent non-alcoholic Negroni. Made with Gentian tincture and Hella aromatic bitters, this slightly sweet beverage aids in digestion. Also available in zero sugar Dry Aromatic.

HopLark HopTea, The Really Hoppy One. For those who love the flavor of hoppy IPAs, The Really Hoppy One is an alcohol-free brew of organic black tea that is hopped with Simcoe and Citra. Zero calories per can.

Mingle Mocktail Blood Orange Elderflower. An uplifting mocktail or mixer with only 40 calories per serving. Natural botanicals give this zero-proof, ready-to-drink sparkling beverage a sophisticated and floral vibe. Organic cane sugar, clean ingredients, gluten-free, vegan, kosher, no HFCS, non-GMO.

Navy Hill Soda + Tonic with Electrolytes. Crafted to drink alone or with your favorite spirit, this tonic stands out for its added electrolytes of potassium, magnesium, calcium, and sodium. Hydrating, all natural, and with no high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners. Available in Original, Ginger, and Juniper.

O.Vine Varietal Wine Essence Water. This all-natural, alcohol-free beverage is comprised of a unique mix of purified water and hidden nutritional benefits of upcycled wine grape residue. Its natural blush color and healthful ingredients are derived from the essence extracted from red or white wine grape skins and seeds. Available in cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay.

Render Weyla Sparkling Whey Drink. Collaborating with chefs and using the excess whey from cheese companies like Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co., these non-alcoholic blends are made with fruit, herbs, and spices to make a tart, fragrant, and naturally sweet drink. Fifty calories or less per 296-ml bottle. Available in Strawberry Fennel Tarragon, Cranberry Ginger Hibiscus, and Blueberry Juniper Orange.

Som Cane Vinegar Cordial Pineapple Szechuan Pepper. Created by James Beard Award-winning chef Andy Ricker of Portland, Ore., for customers looking to diversify their drink options without alcohol, this zero-proof tart and sweet mixer can be muddled with Thai Chiles and lime and topped with coconut water and a splash of pineapple juice for an alcohol-free drink.

TÖST. This dry sparkling beverage made of a blend of white tea, white cranberry, and ginger with hints of peach and citrus, is reminiscent of Champagne but without the buzz. It comes in a wine bottle and contains 45 calories per eight-ounce serving.

Better-for-You Booze

Getting your ‘drink on’ may have new meaning with the alcohol-free crowd, but for those customers who want their alcohol but with a little less buzz, low ABV (alcohol by volume) and gluten-free options touted for their better-for-you ingredients, low carbs, and low calories, are in demand.

According to SPINS, ‘new-school’ alcohol and better-for-you booze is stirring up the alcohol category with adult beverages such as hard seltzer, hard kombucha, canned wine, boozy waters, and RTD cocktails all between 4 and 7 percent ABV.

Brands to look out for include Briggs Hard Seltzer that is fruit juice sweetened, Owl’s Brew Boozy Tea with Botanicals, Oskar Blues Wild Basin Craft Hard Seltzer, Kyla Hard Kombucha, Social Sparkling Wine, and Joia Spirits, premium, sparkling cocktails in classic flavors like Moscow Mule and Cosmopolitan.

At Lenny Boy Brewery in North Carolina, hard kombucha is an attractive option for those who want a gluten-free and lighter alcohol option. “People are going to our hard kombucha more because it has a 4.4 percent ABV and it’s gluten-free,” says Brewery founder Townes Mozer whose Guava kombucha draft has become a local favorite.

Trending Flavor Favorites

Aside from global, floral, and herbal flavors and ingredients, vibrant colored concoctions that pop for Instagram appeal, are on the rise in the alcohol-free beverage scene. Flavors include:

  • Acai
  • Butterfly Pea Flower, which has a blue hue
  • Chinese Five Spice
  • Cucumber
  • Elderflower
  • Ginger
  • Habanero
  • Hops
  • Jackfruit
  • Juniper
  • Kumquat
  • Lavender
  • Lime
  • Rose
  • Sage
  • Shiso
  • Yuzu

Nicole Potenza Denis is a contributing editor to Specialty Food.

Photos: Mark Ferri; Food Styling: Leslie Orlandini; Props Styling: Francine Matalon-Degni


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