The story of India’s gin revolution, which came into being in Goa and is now flourishing, is popular. I have tasted almost every gin that’s made in my home state, yet, this one was different. It was gin minus the alcohol. The zero-sugar, low-calorie GinISH had familiar notes of juniper berries, some citrus, and coriander. This is my first taste of zero-proof alcoholic beverages, and it piqued my interest.
Zero-proof alcoholic beverages (also called no-proof, spirit-free or non-alcoholic) are alternatives that attempt to mimic the flavours and complexity of an alcoholic drink. I had my first taste of it at Loci and Toot, a European bar in Khar, Mumbai, that has a dry bar serving Svami’s Gin & Tonic, RumISH and GinISH from the Danish brand ISH Spirits, Seedlip (which calls itself the world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirit), Budweiser 0.0, and Coast Beer. These feature in six cocktails, which play around with citrus, berries, and even coffee.
“Low alcohol and dry bars are a big thing in Europe. In the Indian context, we’ve always felt that there is a large segment of restaurant-goers who don’t drink alcohol, looking for a sophisticated zero-alcohol experience,” says Mohit Balachandran, CEO Acapella Hospitality, which runs Loci & Toot.
Further research on this topic introduced me to a new word: sober-curious. This defines a growing group of people who are cutting down their alcohol intake and getting curious about non-alcoholic options that go beyond fruit, syrupy mocktails, and juices. The Indian market has a few options for the sober-curious. The first non-alcoholic beverages in the mainstream market were Coolberg’s non-alcoholic beers—made with barley malt and partially fermented and filtered—in mint, ginger, peach, cranberry, and strawberry flavours. The mainstream market also has Kingfisher’s non-alcoholic malt drink 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 has non-alcoholic ready-to-drink sparkling cocktails—Not Gin and Tonic, Not Cosmopolitan, and Not Old-Fashioned. The online marketplace, Zero Percent, offers a range of zero-proof beers, ciders, sparkling wine, spirits and pre-mixed cocktails. Alcobev startup 7ink brews will soon launch Zer0.0 Beers, a non-alcoholic brand of beer with natural fruit pulp in two flavours: Cherry and Chokeberry.
“There is a growing market and it will evolve fairly quickly in the next four years,” says Shantanu Upadhyay, co-founder and CEO, Kati Patang. A well-crafted zero-proof cocktail or zero-proof beverage could appeal to people in recovery, mothers-to-be, those seeking to cut down on their alcoholic consumption, teetotallers who don’t want to feel left out of celebrations, or the sober-curious. Social drinking could have a new horizon, where drinks don’t have alcohol but are still complex, and flavourful. As with vegan or gluten-free food, zero-proof alcoholic beverages are about the absence of an ingredient. Broadly classified into fermented beverages like wine and beer, spirits and aperitifs, and ready-to-drink (RTD), they are made in a few different ways. One technique is ‘alcohol removed’: using alcohol to create the beverage, and then removing it by 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 involves using distillates, natural essences, and extracts, to mimic the flavours of the beverage. And for the burn, some use a mix of botanicals; the ISH spirits use a distillate made with the shells from chilli seeds. Sober Gin distills flavours from herbs and botanicals including juniper berries, tulsi, and ashwagandha to create their gin alternative. Svami’s zero-proof Gin & Tonics use all the main botanicals that go into a gin: a juniper base, layered with citrus, bitterness from quinine, and in the case of pink G&T, strawberries and raspberries.
For the zero-proof Rum & Cola, they break down the taste elements of a dark rum and add that to the cola; the drink is flavoured with vanilla, caramel, and cinnamon. “When it comes to non-alcoholic drinks, the norm has also been ‘mocktails,’ which are cocktails sans the alcohol. Our aim was to create something complex and great tasting, which can be enjoyed by a wide range of consumers in social gatherings,” says Aneesh Bhasin, co-founder, Svami. Just removing the alcohol from a drink isn’t enough, though. The final product has to be appealing, and able to stand up to any wine, beer, or other alcoholic beverage.
“These are not simple beverages. There is a lot of innovation and skill that has gone into making sure the drink tastes exactly like an alcoholic beverage,” says Akash Devaraju, founder, Local Ferment Co. The Bengaluru based microbrewery and kitchen sell zero-proof cocktail kits containing Zero Percent’s RumISH/GinISH/IPA or Chardonnay paired with their homemade shrubs and ferments like Jun. “This gives some choice to the person who isn’t drinking.” Devaraju is also working on starting India’s first non-alcoholic bar, focusing on creating a drinking culture that is fun, and interactive.
Zero Percent works with 40 restaurants across the country, and are in talks with international hotel chains to stock their products. The company began in 2020, and their alcohol section has zero-proof rum, sparkling wine, beer, and gin “We saw an increase in mindful consumers looking for products with high quality ingredients, which were tasty, enjoyable, and contributed to their wellbeing,” says Ganesh Iyer, managing partner for India and Indian subcontinent, Zero Percent.
These zero-proof options are marketed using many buzz words: sugar-free,vegan, low calorie, zero carbs, and more. But, while the ingredients may be healthy, they aren’t a health drink, and many may contain artificial flavours or additives and rely heavily on sugar for flavour. Some of the zero-proof alcoholic beverages (especially imported ones) also cost about the same as their alcoholic counterpart, begging the question: if you drink alcohol, what would make you pick an equally expensive alternative? “It’s mostly people who don’t drink tend to have zero-proof drinks. But at times, it’s also customers who have alcohol but not on a weekday and will try this as an alternative to alcohol,” says Balachandran. “We foresee that a lot of people would switch from alcohol to low alcohol/zero alcohol options, and the ones who don’t drink alcohol will experiment with these instead of sugary mocktails.”
Svami’s zero-proof range contributes to 25 percent of their revenues, and picked up awards at International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC) 2021, and Drinks Business Awards in London. Abroad, zero-proof spirits are on the rise, aided by sober/zero-proof cocktail bars, and zero-proof non-alcoholic stores. Last December, Hyatt Hotels launched a Zero Proof, Zero Judgment cocktail program across the US, with no alcohol cocktail menus; Hilton Hotels also has zero-proof cocktail menus at certain outlets in the country. “Internationally, it is a nine-billion- dollar business, and in the next four years, it will be $1.4 trillion. The movement [in India] has just started,” says Iyer. Upadhyay too believes that India has just scratched the surface when it comes to zero-proof alcoholic beverages. “What is critical is to create the right products, understand consumer demand, and make a good adult drink.”