When Bacardi sent 7,000 of its employees to visit bartenders in 100 cities worldwide last month, the #1 trend the spirits marketer came away with was a surge in popularity of low- and no-alcohol drinks.
In the United States, novelist Marcus Sakey began to experiment with non-alcohol spirit alternatives nearly three years ago. His goal was to deliver the taste of drinks like gin and whiskey without the alcohol, calories and carbs.
The result of those efforts is Chicago-based Ritual Zero Proof, whose initial production run—aimed at meeting six months of demand—sold out in six weeks.
In January, spirits giant Diageo made “a very significant investment” in the company, Ritual co-founder Sakey explains in this interview.
CPG FYI: How did your quest for no-alcohol liquor alternatives begin?
Sakey: Ritual Zero Proof began because I love alcohol cocktails and realized that, as I’ve gotten older, I wanted to be a little more conscious with that choice.
So I took a period of time away from spirits—and what I realized is that far more than the alcohol, I missed the way of marking the moment of making a beautiful drink and sitting down with a book. I missed the ritual of things.
CPG FYI: What happened next?
Sakey: I went into my kitchen and started playing. When I had a rough version—and it was indeed pretty rough, compared to where we’ve landed—I shared it with my best friend David Crooch, who is a serial entrepreneur and a natural foods expert, rather conveniently.
He loved it and saw immediate potential. So along with him and my wife GG, who has a background in advertising and marketing as well as a master’s in psychology, we moved forward.
CPG FYI: How did you come up with the taste?
Sakey: We teamed up with the best flavorists and distillers in the world and went through more than 500 iterations of these recipes over more than a year, to get them as close as possible to their alcohol counterparts.
It’s not alcohol with the alcohol removed. It’s more like cooking. We take the notes that you expect from a whiskey or a gin, and we add the purest and most distilled forms of them.
CPG FYI: When and where did you launch?
Sakey: In September of 2019, on our website and on Amazon. At the same time, our salespeople went out in Chicago to bars and restaurants, with a big focus on the largest players. Very early on, we got into Binny’s Beverage Depot—a major liquor mart in Illinois. Them taking us on was enormous, and we’ve had incredible success there.
Since then, we’ve continued our push nationally. We’ll soon be appearing in all 210 Total Wine stores. In our initial conversations, they were a little bit skeptical, but said they’d try us in first five, and then 10, and then 50 stores before deciding this really was a movement.
CPG FYI: What do you mean by a movement?
Sakey: It’s not something we created. It’s something people wanted and were crying out for. According to Google Trends, searches for the benefits of quitting drinking have increased by 70% in the last five years.
There was a market there already. Also, it’s not some new, made-up flavor. You use it the same way you use gin. You use it the same way you use whiskey.
CPG FYI: How did Diageo get involved?
Sakey: We approached Distill Ventures, which is Diageo’s accelerator and brand support company. They were very early on in the nonalcoholic movement by partnering with Seedlip, which was one of the first companies to do anything like this.
Early on, they said “We’ve tasted probably 40 of these in the last two months, and yours is head and shoulders above.”
Once we had their full support, we went and pitched the Diageo investment board, which was receptive immediately.
They started us with a small investment that was enough to do our initial production run and get branding and marketing under way. They’ve come in since with a very significant investment that’s allowing us to build explosively on a national scale.
CPG FYI: Please let us know when you come up with a tequila alternative.
Sakey: Nice timing. As part of our new production run, we just finished our first large-scale batch of tequila. It’s going to be launching before the summer, and will definitely be available in D2C—and hopefully through both of our retail partners—very quickly thereafter.