No one who has been following the beverage sector can have failed to notice the explosive growth in interest in no- and low-alcohol. Anybody who can create drinks with zero alcohol that genuinely taste as good as the wines, beers and spirits traditionally consumed throughout the world will have found a holy grail, and potentially made a lot of money.
But there is more than one grail. Taste is far from the only reason people choose to consume alcohol. They also want the buzz they get from these products. And, however flavoursome the best zero-alc beverage may be, at the moment, consuming it isn’t going to have any more effect on the human psyche than water or fruit juice, and rather less than caffeine-packed coffee or tea. In other words, the mood at the end of the evening will be very similar to the way it was at the beginning.
Serious conversations and flirtations won’t have been embarked upon and secrets will remain unshared.
Where's the buzz?
Unless someone can come up with a way of creating the buzz without using alcohol or other drugs. And there are alternatives. Among the more interesting is one called Alcarelle proposed in the Britain by David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. Nutt had a brief moment of fame in 2009 as government's chief drug adviser under prime minister Tony Blair, when he declared that alcohol was more dangerous than ecstasy or LSD. That comment cost him his job. Since, he has focused his efforts on trying to create a product that mimics the relaxing and socialising (‘tongue-loosening’) effect of alcohol or what one might call the ‘positive effects of drunkenness’, without harmful side effects, loss of control or hangover.
As Nutt and colleagues explain in a research paper published last year called Functional Alternatives to Alcohol, booze increases the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) a powerful inhibitory neurotransmitter to be found in all mammalian brains. GABA’s main role is to reduce neuronal excitability, anxiety and attention deficit disorder. A blood-alcohol concentration of 0.2 to 0.4 per thousand seems to be the ideal sweet spot. At above 0.5, the effect can lead to disinhibition (speaking loudly, gesticulating), coordination disorders and poorer eye focus. In addition, alcohol also influences other neurotransmitters such as dopamine and endorphins, which can lead to addiction.
When developing Alcarelle, Nutt and his colleagues had three goals:
- The new compound must react precisely with the desired receptors and not trigger any other receptors that could, for example, lead to addiction.
- There must be an upper limit to the effect to avoid overdoses.
- The compound must be based on proven compatible molecular structures to prevent physical counter-reactions.
The principle behind the product is far from new. It has long been used in medicine, for example in benzodiazepines, which are both used to treat anxiety and insomnia, and notoriously abused as drugs. A comparatively harmless muscle relaxant called baclofen is also based on the GABA receptor principle and is already approved in Italy and Austria to treat alcohol dependence. But not for use in beverages.
Nutt estimates that the “numerous short- and long-term tests" required by US and European authorities to authorise Alcarelle will take around five years. When it overcomes that hurdle, his product will come under the category of ‘functional beverage’ or ‘nootropics’ that, in 2020, had US sales worth $110m with some observers predicting annual growth of 5-10%.
Nootropic drinks and snacks first began to attract interest around a decade ago with the revelation that Silicon Valley and Wall Street high-flyers who might once have been fuelled by cocaine or legally-prescribed smart drugs such as Ritalin, were now relying on synthetic derivatives of GABA called racetams.
The first and most famous of these was Piracetem which was synthesised by a Romanian scientist called Corneliu Giurgea in 1964. It was Giurgea who also coined the term ‘nootropic’ from the Greek ‘nous’ and ‘trepein’ for ‘mind’ and ‘turn’.
Today, while some buy nootropic pills like Nootrobox “to Support Brain and Body Function”, others pop open a can of drink from Kin Euphorics, a startup launched in 2016 by former hospitality industry consultant Jen Batchelor.
In 2019, Batchelor told Forbes that in her former career, “hotel… guests were booking morning gym classes… [but] were too hungover to attend.” She noticed that “Everything about the hotel bar was geared towards attracting guests” and asked herself “What if there were a way to connect with others while out, yet remain sober?”
The answer she came up with was a range of drinks including High Rhode “a gently caffeinated, non-alcoholic, made-to-mix beverage infused with adaptogens, nootropics, and botanics like Rhodiola Rosea, 5-HTP, and GABA to conjure captivating conversation and release contagious energy that flows out to those around you and reverberates beyond.”
A supermodel gets involved...
Three years after launching Kin Euphorics, Batchelor was joined by supermodel Bella Hadid. As the 2016 model of the year told Vogue in 2021 she was suffering from the “lingering effects of Lyme disease”, “teetering on the brink of burnout” and struggling with the negative effects of drink on her social anxiety. When she came across Kin she wondered if “Maybe it could calm her—and allow her to responsibly let loose a little too.” Today, Hadid is co-founder and joint CEO of Kin Euphorics.
13 plants and their effects
Batchelor and Hadid may appear to have beaten David Nutt to the starting line but, while waiting for Alcarelle to get its official green light, he has launched a beautifully-packaged and premium-price competitor to their drinks called Sentia, based on 13 different plant extracts.
Journalists who have sampled Sentia have reported feeling the buzz. Tom Whipple, science editor of the London Times, for example, wrote that, after half an hour drinking three Sentias and tonic with Nutt, his cheeks felt flushed, the conversation felt easier and he stumbled over saying ‘neuropsychopharmacology’.
On the other hand, he could not dismiss the possibility of all these symptoms being explicable by the placebo effect.
The same might be said of High Rhode, which makes it interesting to read through some of the Amazon reviews it has received.
Several purchasers seemed to experience little buzz. One called Lisa ”tried it as a substitute for alcohol… Didn’t like the taste and didn’t feel any effects” and Claire Smith reported that “effects are minimal.”
Chris, however thought it “Excellent for anyone trying to cut down or eliminate alcoholic beverages, You can make a fine cocktail with this stuff, but the flavor is potent, almost like a Campari. And it does have a noticeable pleasant intoxicating effect.”
Emily Craft reported that it “Tastes like I’m drinking but it makes me feel good” while Meh noted “Made me feel somewhat relaxed and giggly but tastes like vomit and gave me heartburn”.
Meh was not the only person to dislike the flavour. There were also numerous complaints about the price - $45 for 50cl – and packaging that allowed the liquid to leak in transit.
Assuming the efficacy is proven, flavour, packaging and price are all issues that may be addressable, but other questions remain. Both Sentia and Kin Euphorics come with warnings against use before driving or consumption while pregnant. Doesn’t that make them too like alcohol to be worthy of much interest? And, even if self-drive cars makes this less of a problem, won’t potential consumers worry about drinking a new and unproven beverage that, quite literally, messes with their brain?
Time will tell. Perhaps non-alc drinks with buzz will be one of those short-lived, quirky products that are only ever remembered by people in the know. On the other hand, maybe Hadid will not be the only celebrity to take an interest in the concept and maybe some of those tech billionaires who’ve been popping smart drugs will throw some serious money at it.
After all, it’s not so long ago that we didn’t all happily jump into complete strangers’ cars rather than take registered taxis, or stay in their homes rather than hotels. And most people can recall the distant time when retail shelves were not full of fast-selling wines associated with actors, singers and sports stars, Michelin-starred restaurants weren’t touting cloudy natural wines and major wine trade fairs like ProWein didn’t have large areas devoted to low-and no-alcohol wines.
Watch this space...
Meininger's International will be hosting a conference on low and non-alcohol wine at ProWein, on Sunday at 11am. All readers will be welcome.