The term “non-alcoholic cocktail” may sound like the very definition of an oxymoron, but ask anyone in the Indian beverage industry today and they will tell you that interest in zero-alcohol cocktails, spirits, and liqueurs is at an all-time high globally—and in India. “The zero-alcohol drinking revolution is on fire right now,” says Naveen M.V., CEO and co-founder of Sakurafesh Beverage & Food, a Japan and India-based F&B company that makes a range of zero-alcohol bitters, liqueurs and syrups for bars as well as for the cocktail enthusiast at home. Sakurafresh’s Better Than Bitters range of non-alcoholic bitters, which includes its classic Aromatic XII Bitters with the distinctive flavour of ripe citrus fruits and hints of clove and cinnamon, recently won several awards at the London Spirits Competition, and the company is introducing several other variants—including daring flavours like sandalwood bitters and Mexican Mole bitters—to the Indian market.
Traditionally, bitters are concentrated spirits infused with aromatic and botanical elements like herbs, roots, peels and spices, used to enhance the flavours and aromas of alcoholic drinks, but several Indian beverage brands have been experimenting with techniques to make these cocktail essentials minus the alcohol. Market research has shown that while people are going out more than ever after two years of uncertainty over lockdowns and quarantines during the pandemic, many are also testing the sobriety waters, says Naveen. “Millennials and Gen Z are drinking more mindfully, and many other groups are paying more attention to their health after the pandemic,” he says.
Being “sober curious” is a verifiable global trend. At the same time, people who were used to the complex flavours of spirits and spirit-based cocktails cannot suddenly switch to guzzling only lemonade and Diet Coke. The need to fill the gap with drinks that are non-alcoholic but are every bit as complex as cocktails in terms of taste and flavours is a small and niche market, certainly, but a growing one, says Rishabh Bhatia, founder of Delhi-based beverage brand Bab Louie & Co., which makes a range of non-alcoholic bitters, garnishes and cocktail premixes using craft techniques. Its Classic Orange, Aromatic Spiced and Smoked Cherry bitters are especially popular.
“We were initially targeting the restaurant industry, and while we continue to work with some of the biggest F&B companies and hotel chains in India, there is genuine interest from retail consumers as well,” says Bhatia, revealing that in April 2021, when they started retailing after one and a half years of product research, they had 600 bottles of bitters in 100ml bottles ready to ship—but the second wave of the pandemic took hold, restaurants and pubs shut down, and orders were cancelled. “We took a chance and put the bitters up for retail on our website, and they were sold out in three days,” recalls Bhatia.
Both Sakurafresh and Bab Louie use the maceration technique to extract flavours from the chosen herbs, peels, spices and other ingredients that go into their bitters, soaking them in water at low temperatures (between 8-12 degrees Celsius) and following this up with distillation. Making non-alcoholic bitters is a longer and more complex process than extracting flavours using alcohol, claim both companies, not only because alcohol is a better solvent but also because you can’t use heat at any step of the process—as temperatures go up, yeast starts forming and the solution starts becoming alcoholic.
From hero to zero
Ajay Shetty, founder of Salud Beverages, a Bengaluru-based craft beverages company that started its journey in the ready-to-drink category with pre-mixed gin-and-tonics, has a slightly different take on the so-called sobriety revolution. “The world in general is moving towards low-alcohol beverages—I am not saying zero alcohol, but beverages which have low alcohol and sugar content, and are light and refreshing on the palate,” says Shetty. Salud’s range of low-alcohol bitters is also getting ready for the market and will include flavours like Tropical Dew, combining mangoes and grapefruit with rosemary, Summer Dust, with a pearpineapple flavour, and Citrus Twist, a citrusy bitter. “People want to drink but are not big fans of getting hammered, so the move is towards beverages that tick off all the requirements of convenience, not wanting to drink too much alcohol, and trying out new flavours,” says Shetty.
Along with premixed “zero-proof” cocktails like Svami's non-alcoholic Rum & Cola and Gin & Tonic (“the world is drinking zero-proof and who are we to deny them,” says the company, calling this a “burgeoning category”), another product that’s ticking off all these boxes is the hard seltzer, which has leapfrogged in popularity in Europe and the US over the past two years. A hard seltzer is basically flavoured, carbonated water mixed with low amounts of alcohol (typically 5% alcohol by volume or ABV)—and is becoming a cult favourite not just for its low alcohol content (lower than that of most beers) but also because of its low calorie count. Goa-based beverage brand India Standard Time (IST) recently launched hard seltzers in two flavours, Grapefruit Smash and Lime Smash, both with 5% ABV and containing 99 calories or 2g of sugar. Yet another Goa-based distillery, Mandovi Distilleries, launched a hard seltzer brand Pursue a few months ago in four variants: Mosambi and Mint, Strawberry and Rose, Peach and White Tea, and Mango and Chilli.
The low-to-no alcohol movement is kicking off in India, believes Rohit Kasare, India brand head at Zero Percent, a German-Indian e-commerce collaboration that acts as a marketplace for imported non-alcoholic (yet alcohol-adjacent) drinks, such as the Danish brand ISH, which has a range of beverages like Ginish and Rumish that mimic the taste of favoured tipples without the alcohol content.
“Our journey in India started at the beginning of this year, focusing on the 0% alcohol category, when we realised that people want to drink less but want something with familiar flavours, something fun and exciting, when they go out, and something that doesn’t have high sugar content like most mocktails,” says Kasare. Recently, Zero Percent worked on a collaboration with online gourmet pantry Urban Platter to create zero-alcohol cocktails using Rumish, including an exciting new drink called the ‘Daiquirish’. “Zero percent is a movement. It’s a way of life,” says Kasare.
That sounds... exciting-ish?
Not a fan of G&Ts? You can still use bitters:
The gin revolution may be contributing to the increased interest in bitters—after all, a dash of the concentrated flavours in bitters does elevate a gin and tonic substantially—but bitters are more versatile than that. You can add bitters to salads and marinades, splash a drop into your coffee, or use them in baking to get really complex flavours in your cakes and pie, besides, of course, using them in classic cocktails like your Old Fashioneds and Cosmopolitans.