The story of India’s gin revolution, which started in Goa and is now flourishing, is popular. I have tasted almost every gin made in my home country, but this one was different. It was gin minus the booze. The sugar-free, low-calorie GinISH had familiar notes of juniper berries, citrus, and coriander. This is my first taste of zero-proof liquor, and it piqued my curiosity.
Non-alcoholic alcoholic beverages (also called non-alcoholic, spiritless, or non-alcoholic) are alternatives that attempt to mimic the flavors and complexity of an alcoholic beverage. I first tasted it at Loci and Toot, a European bar in Khar, Mumbai, which has a dry bar serving Gin & Tonic from Svami, RumISH and GinISH from Danish brand ISH Spirits, Seedlip ( which calls itself the world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirits), Budweiser 0.0 and Coast Beer. These feature in six cocktails, which play with citrus, berries and even coffee.
“Dry and low-alcohol bars are very popular in Europe. In the Indian context, we have always believed that there is a large segment of non-alcoholic customers who are looking for a sophisticated non-alcoholic experience” , says Mohit Balachandran, CEO of Acapella Hospitality, which manages Loci & Toot.
Further research on this subject made me discover a new word: sober-curious. This defines a growing group of people who are reducing their alcohol consumption and are interested in non-alcoholic options that go beyond fruit, syrupy mocktails and juices. The Indian market has a few options for the sober-curious. The first soft drinks in the mainstream market were Coolberg’s non-alcoholic beers – made with barley malt and partially fermented and filtered – in flavors of mint, ginger, peach, cranberry and strawberry. The mainstream market also offers non-alcoholic malt beverage from Kingfisher, Radler, Heineken 0.0, Hoegaarden 0.0 and 3Sisters. Svami has Pink Gin & Tonic, Rum & Cola and a classic Gin & Tonic.
Kati Patang’s NOT range offers sparkling cocktails ready to drink without alcohol – Not Gin and Tonic, Not Cosmopolitan and Not Old-Fashioned. The online marketplace, Zero Percent, offers a range of zero-proof premixed beers, ciders, sparkling wines, spirits and cocktails. The startup Alcobev 7ink brews will soon launch Zer0.0 Beers, a brand of non-alcoholic beer with natural fruit pulp in two flavors: Cherry and Chokeberry.
“There is a growing market and it will grow quite rapidly over the next four years,” says Shantanu Upadhyay, co-founder and CEO of Kati Patang. A well-crafted zero-proof cocktail or drink might appeal to recovering individuals, expectant mothers, those looking to cut back on their alcohol intake, teetotalers who don’t want to feel left out of the celebrations, or sober-curious. Social consumption could have a new horizon, where the drinks have no alcohol but are still complex and tasty. As with vegan or gluten-free foods, zero-proof alcoholic beverages are about the absence of an ingredient. Broadly categorized into fermented beverages like wine and beer, spirits and aperitifs, and ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages, they are made in different ways. One of these is “alcohol removal”: using alcohol to create the drink, then removing it through distillation.
Seedlip’s non-alcoholic spirit begins with a maceration, which is then distilled in a copper pot (twice) to remove the alcohol, blended and filtered. Another method is to use distillates, natural essences and extracts to mimic the flavors of the drink. And for the burn, some use a mixture of plants; ISH spirits use a distillate made from chili seed shells. Sober Gin distills herbal and botanical flavors including juniper berries, tulsi and ashwagandha to create their gin alternative. Swami’s Zero-Proof Gin & Tonics use all the major botanicals that go into a gin: a juniper base, layered with citrus, the bitterness of quinine and, in the case of the G&T rose, strawberries. and raspberries.
For zero-proof Rum & Cola, they break down the taste elements of a dark rum and add it to cola; the drink is flavored with vanilla, caramel and cinnamon. “When it comes to non-alcoholic beverages, the norm is also ‘mocktails’, which are non-alcoholic cocktails. Our aim was to create something complex and tasteful, which could be enjoyed by a wide range of consumers at social gatherings,” says Aneesh Bhasin, co-founder of Svami. However, simply removing alcohol from a drink is not enough. The end product must be appealing and able to stand up to any wine, beer or other alcoholic beverage.
“These are not just drinks. There’s a lot of innovation and skill that went into making sure the drink tastes exactly like an alcoholic beverage,” says Akash Devaraju, founder of Local Ferment Co./GinISH/IPA or Chardonnay associated with their homemade shrubs and ferments like Jun. “It gives a bit of choice to the person who isn’t drinking.” Devaraju is also working on starting India’s first non-alcoholic bar, focusing on creating a fun and interactive drinking culture.
Zero Percent works with 40 restaurants across the country and is in talks with international hotel chains to stock their products. The company started in 2020 and its alcohol section has zero-proof rum, sparkling wine, beer and gin “We have seen an increase in conscious consumers looking for products containing high-quality ingredients that are tasty, enjoyable and supportive of their well-being,” says Ganesh Iyer, Managing Partner for India and the Indian Subcontinent, Zero Percent.
These zero-proof options are marketed using many buzzwords: sugar-free, vegan, low-calorie, no-carb, and more. But, while the ingredients may be healthy, they’re not a health drink, and many may contain artificial flavors or additives and rely heavily on sugar for flavor. Some of the zero-proof alcoholic beverages (especially the imported ones) also cost about the same as their alcoholic counterpart, which begs the question: if you drink alcohol, what do you encourage you to choose an equally expensive alternative? “It’s mostly people who don’t drink that tend to have zero-proof drinks. But sometimes it’s also customers who drink alcohol but not on a weekday and will try that as an alternative to alcohol,” says Balachandran. “We anticipate many people would switch from alcohol to low-alcohol/non-alcoholic options, and those who don’t drink alcohol will experiment with these instead of sugary mocktails.”
Svami’s zero-proof range contributes 25% of its revenue and has won awards at the International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC) 2021 and the Drinks Business Awards in London. Abroad, non-alcoholic spirits are on the rise, helped by sober/mocktail cocktail bars and non-alcoholic non-alcoholic stores. Last December, Hyatt Hotels launched a Zero Proof, Zero Judgment cocktail program across the United States, featuring mocktail menus; Hilton Hotels also offers foolproof cocktail menus at select outlets nationwide. “Internationally, it’s a nine billion dollar business, and over the next four years it will be $1.4 trillion. Movement [in India] just started,” says Iyer. Upadhyay also thinks that India is only scratching the surface when it comes to zero-proof alcoholic beverages. “What’s key is creating the right products, understanding consumer demand, and making a great drink for adults.”