According to Forbes magazine, 6.5 million people globally are expected to take part in “Dry January” this year, up from an estimated 3.9 million in 2020. One of the problems for these neophytic teetotalers is how do you replace the pageantry, sophistication, and conviviality of a classic cocktail?
Tiburon’s Milan Martin, 46, is way ahead of the curve. His company, Free Spirits, has just launched three new products: The Spirit of Gin, The Spirit of Tequila and The Spirit of Bourbon, all deliciously alcohol free.
“This isn’t a brand about teetotaling,” says Martin, who is both the founder and CEO. “It’s for guys like me who still like to drink, but just want more options.”
Banking on the success of other non-alcoholic brands like the highly successful UK company Seedlip, Martin quickly realized that he didn’t want to reinvent the wheel.
“Cocktails have hundreds of years of equity in our culture,” he says. “So, I’m just going to try and fit in there, and give people what they want, something that pays homage to the taste and the flavor, but without the alcohol.”
A problem for many bartenders is trying to figure out what to do with many of these new nonalcoholic products because they don’t fit into preexisting categories. And if a bartender has trouble figuring that out, imagine what happens with the public at large?
“If you are a margarita drinker, make a margarita and replace the tequila with our Spirit of Tequila,” Martin says. “I have no interest in reeducating the world on what cocktails to drink.”
Martin spent 25 years in the advertising business, and still runs an online agency part time. He grew up in New Jersey and went to college in Pennsylvania before relocating first to New York, then to San Francisco and finally to Marin.
“I worked with Anheuser-Busch and Diageo, and a bunch of these guys. I was always a big fan of spirits marketing and adult beverage marketing in general,” he says. Along the way he learned that the brand that people drink often fills an emotional and cultural need for them.
Liquor companies are forecasting that perhaps up to 20 percent of their volume will be nonalcoholic by 2025. In fact, Molson/Coors Brewing just changed their name to Molson/Coors Beverage and Forbes also reports that as many as 52% of Americans are trying to drink less. Additionally, there have been 23 new nonalcoholic spirits brands entering the marketplace in just the last 3 years.
“I came up with the idea before there was a whole category building around it,” Martin says. “Then I thought, see, I’m not crazy, because there is a whole category building around it!”
Several things affect the appeal of these new nonalcoholic spirits, taste of course, but a big part is replacing the physical feel of the alcohol in your mouth (ethyl alcohol is both an analgesic and an antiseptic).
“One of the things that makes a cocktail a slow drinking ceremonial type of thing is the burn of ethyl alcohol,” Martin says. “The ingredients we use to recreate the burn, create a similar experience to drinking alcohol.”
One of those ingredients is capsicum, the heat agent in most hot peppers. That heat does add an unusual mouthfeel, it’s not exactly like liquor, but add in agave, juniper, or toasted oak and you are well on your way.
“Alcohol takes,” says Martin. “It takes away inhibitions, and sometimes it takes away mornings. What if a cocktail was a giver and not a taker?” he asks.
So, in that spirit, Free Spirits also adds the vitamins B3, B6 and taurine (an amino acid) to their products.
“At the end of the day, not only do I feel good,” says Martin “But there are also mood elevating qualities to it. And there’s only 5 calories too.”
Martin certainly doesn’t eschew drinking and even suggests that lower alcohol mixers, like sweet vermouth, can be incorporated into cocktails along with his products.
“This is not a brand that says alcohol sucks. I still drink,” he says. “What I wanted to do was control the amount of alcohol that I drink. I don’t drink fewer cocktails, I just drink less alcohol,” he says.
Marin County figures prominently on the Free Spirits label and Martin credits that to his move to California ten years ago.
“For the first 5 or 6 years I was a New Yorker, I just lived in California,” he says. “Now I guess I’m truly Californian.”
He goes on to say that Marin County is a really special place and is a really important part of the brand.
“Think about all the wonderful creative things that come from Marin County: mountain biking, the Grateful Dead, Star Wars, all the great rock and roll, all this stuff that is part of our culture, our world. A disproportionate amount of it comes from Marin County.”
Free Spirits’ three products: The Spirit of Tequila, The Spirit of Gin, and The Spirit of Bourbon all retail for $37 and are available online at drinkfreespirits.com.
“People can have the ritual. They can have the experience, and they can realize that they aren’t as beholden to alcohol as they thought. At the end of the day, it’s a taste experience,” says Martin.
Thanks to Free Spirits Dry January might just have gotten a little easier, a little more familiar, both for the bartenders dispensing nonalcoholic drinks and for the people consuming them.
Kentucky Sucker Punch*
3oz Spirit of Bourbon
3/4 oz fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/2 oz pineapple juice
1/2 oz simple syrup (50/50 mixture of water and sugar)
2 dashes aromatic bitters, preferably Angostura or King Floyd’s
1 pineapple slice
1 all natural maraschino cherry
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and then add first five ingredients. Shake and strain into an ice filled chimney glass. Garnish with the cherry and pineapple slice.
*recipe contributed by longtime Marin County bartender Steve Turner, who consults part-time for Free Spirits.