October 7, 2022 | By Gabriel Fore, Sr. Account Manager, IMI, Certified Sommelier, National Beverage Strategist
Free-Spirited Fall, Feature Series: Part III
15 Alcohol-Free Products Every National Account Should be Paying Attention to
And how I came to that conclusion
If you have been following this series of articles, this is likely the one you have been waiting for – it’s all about the products. Thanks for staying with me, as I mentioned in my last article, I truly believe that before you get in too deep with the product options in the market (of which there are many!) you must understand the people — the culture — that is driving the proliferation of the products and what menu placement/programming should look like.
In addition to abstaining from alcohol for the summer, I conducted an RFP (really a request for information) on this category over the past couple of months. To determine who to send it to, I asked colleagues, combed the internet, and went shopping online and in retail to discover as many alcohol-free brands as I could. I then asked those suppliers to report on the following, seeking the answers to many of the same questions we get from national account buyers on other categories:
- Current mix of On- and Off-Premise customers (e.g. – 60/40)
- Type of accounts a given brand/company is targeting for growth
- Competitive differentiators within the category
- Training capabilities
- Capability of providing promotional thought starters and/or POS collateral
- Whether or not they are owned by minorities or women
- Relevant trends data, as it applies to their product as well as the segment
- National Average Price, plus market-specific pricing in TX, CA, NYC, Chicago, and FL
- Confirmation of national distribution as of today
- List of national distributors by state
- List of type of accounts seeing success in, with links to examples
- And more, category-specific information
So, as you continue reading below, please trust me when I say, I have done my homework! (If you’re interested in seeing the results of the RFP in granularity, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you a copy of all the results in spreadsheet format, ready to slice and dice.)
Evaluating the Products
As you take a deeper dive into all these products, it can be overwhelming. There are several options within each spirit style from tequila to whiskey, to rum and gin, even cordials and vermouth-style products. There are enough alcohol-free craft beer brands to fill up three full sections on an aisle at Total Wine (at least, at my local store). And while wine is probably the segment that needs the most development, there are options from Europe, New Zealand, California, and more – even “alt-wines” and “proxies” which are at somm-geek level. All of this in a relatively new category can result in a tendency to want to over-simplify or go with whichever brand or product seems to check more boxes. I took a different approach, and I encourage you to consider something similar.
I feel there are two main questions to answer when evaluating these products:
- How does the product compare to the “real thing”?
- How does the product compare to its competitive set?
If you’re like me, you are probably most curious about which products come closest to the real thing. And I do think that’s an important question to answer. But the further I got into this I realized the second question is equally important: how the products rank against their competitive set, irrespective of the full proof version.
In addition to the fact that our opinion of what’s closest to the real thing is built on personal bias, not everyone who is interested in a spirit-free cocktail has the frame of reference that an alcohol drinker does. As I was abstaining from alcohol over the summer, I found that the farther along I got the less I compared alcohol-free beverages to their spirited counterparts. They weren’t in my recent memory for quick access. If a guest is not someone who regularly consumes alcohol, then they are likely comparing the product to the last alcohol-free product they enjoyed (maybe even the soda they had planned to order), not the full-proof version they had however long ago, if ever. My point is, it’s cool to offer a free-spirited version of something that tastes like the real thing, but if it still leaves you wanting that doesn’t mean someone else won’t find it enjoyable.
Lastly, maybe the biggest thing to keep in mind, especially when it comes to alcohol-free spirits and cocktails, is that there isn’t one cure-all alcohol-free gin or whiskey or whatever – it entirely depends on the cocktail and application of the product. I’m sure some would like to simplify by saying “oh just make it with Lyre’s” and call it a day, but in my experience, while a Lyre’s Dry London Spirit is delicious in a spirit-free Negroni, it gets totally lost in a spirit-free Gin & Tonic. This is no dig on Lyre’s or any other brand, though – the same could be said for full-proof spirits. A reposado tequila is better in a Paloma than a blanco, a G&T is better with Hendrick’s gin but not so much in a Negroni, and the list goes on and on. That’s why back bars are full of so many brands within each spirits category. The same is true for alcohol-free spirits. While considering how these brands compare to the real thing and their competitive set, also consider (and test) which do best in the cocktail recipe you plan to use them in (using Spirits as the primary example).
The Products, At Last – 15 That Should Be on Your Radar
Let’s start with Spirits and go by category. I honestly feel that Spirits is the most exciting product category (no disrespect to the others!) and probably the lowest hanging fruit for programming opportunities.
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Free Spirits “Spirit of Bourbon” – the only spirit-free bourbon that gets the “burn” right! Attractive bottle as well, and a full 750mL format.
Spiritless “Kentucky 74” Alcohol-Free Bourbon – the brand that comes closest to the complexity and depth of whiskey. Plus, a cork-finished bottle in a great package / label.
ISH Spirits “Gin-ISH” – the best juniper-forward alcohol-free gin, best for spirit-free G&T’s.
Lyre’s Dry London Spirit – a lovely citrus-forward alcohol-free gin which is perfect in a spirit-free Negroni.
Wilfred’s Aperitif – a fantastic red bitter, perfect substitute for Campari in spirit-free cocktails (and even in spirited cocktails!)
Lyre’s Amaretti – as the name suggests, an alcohol-free replacement for Amaretto and it does not disappoint!
Lyre’s Aperitif Rosso – the complexity and richness of sweet vermouth is hard to mimic, but this aperitif from Lyre’s does the job nicely.
Three Spirit “Nightcap” – the best description for this cordial-like product is taken straight from their website: “This indulgent elixir is made with tree saps, aromatic plants and ancient remedies used to relax and unwind.”
Clean Co. Apple – this vodka alternative has warm baking spices on the nose, with clean apple flavors on the palate.
Athletic Brewing Co. “Run Wild” IPA – refreshing, hop-forward, and pours a good head. What else can you ask for in a beer?
Athletic Brewing Co. “Upside Dawn” Golden Ale – if IPA isn’t your thing, this Golden Ale is perfectly balanced, light and summery.
Bravus Blood Orange IPA – a different take on the IPA category with great blood orange flavors.
ISH Spirits “Chateau del-ISH” Sparkling rosé – fresh, fruity, with great bubbles and a hint of yeasty aromas, this is quite quaffable!
Giesen Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand – very reminiscent of the New Zealand Sauv Blanc you know so well, and it should be – Giesen is a fully-functioning winery growing their own grapes and making both alcohol and alcohol-removed wines.
Three Spirit “Sharp” Alt-Wine – the Somm in me had to include this in the round-up. Quite possibly one of the most intriguing beverages I have tried in recent memory, this is its own thing, in the best way.
As you can hopefully tell by now, I’m super excited about this category in general. I said to someone just yesterday, I am as excited about the alcohol-free product category as I am about the wine category, and that’s coming from a Certified Somm! It’s truly new, they’re exploring flavors, production methods, techniques, and ingredients in ways no one has ever done before. Combine that with consumer interest and a greater ability to find beverage satisfaction while living a healthier lifestyle and I think it’s a winning category that’s here to stay. Maybe you do too.
No matter what your opinion currently, I hope you take the time to really understand the category, give the products a strong chance, and find something you like. Experiment with different spirit-free brands in the same cocktail, try more than one IPA, find a new favorite go-to for those days when alcohol isn’t really what you need.
REMINDER: as mentioned above, if you’re interested in seeing the results of the RFP in granularity, please email me at email@example.com and I will send you a copy of all the results. No charge or strings attached.
Disclaimer: I do not claim to have tasted every alcohol-free product on the market, or even every item that was submitted to my RFP. I have, however, spent an extensive amount of time testing cocktail recipes, researching products, reviewing reports, and generally enjoying alcohol-free products as I have found them in the wild – including everything listed in this article. Some of the products mentioned in this article I purchased with my own money and others I received as samples from the manufacturer. My opinions are my own and I hope your takeaway is that I evaluated the products as objectively as possible, using a systematic and research-informed approach.
Gabe is a 23-year hospitality industry veteran who, prior to joining IMI in 2016, spent the first 17 years of his career in restaurant and hotel operations, including corporate beverage program development, multi-unit restaurant oversight, fine dining general management, and Sommelier. For the past 6 years, Gabe has worked as Account Manager at IMI Agency leading the Hilton Worldwide business and helping drive several internal strategic initiatives. As Senior Account Manager, Gabe now leads a team at IMI focused on program development, marketing strategy, and building supplier partnerships. He is a Certified Food & Beverage Executive and Certified Sommelier (Level 2) with the Court of Master Sommeliers. He is passionate about all things beverage, coaching and training, and finding new ways to overcome challenges. A North Carolina native, Gabe lives just outside of Charlotte with his wife, Allyson, two boys, Truman & Ollie, and dog, Foxy. When not working on beverage-related projects or carting the kids to soccer practice, you’ll likely find him at a local car or watch enthusiast meetup or enjoying an F1 race.