If you walk into Brønnum, one of Copenhagen’s swankiest cocktail parlours, and order the cheapest thing on the menu, you’ll be given a spicy, floral mix of wormwood, apple juice, thyme syrup and ginger beer known as the Prohibition Cup. It’s so mind-blowingly delicious that you might take a few sips before you notice something’s strange: you’re drinking a non-alcoholic cocktail.
“People don’t even realise,” says Gnista’s co-founder Erika Ollen. “And what’s really amazing is that, when the customer does realise they’ve bought a non-alcoholic drink, they’re not even upset, they don’t feel cheated. Brønnum goes through about three bottles of Gnista each week.”
In a way, this is the ultimate test for a non-alcoholic spirit brand, like Gnista. Can you fool the traditional, everyday cocktail drinker?
“It means that people will go to a bar, not for the booze and the drunkenness, but just to get a delicious drink,” says Erika. “That’s our mission: to give bars something they can actually charge money for.”
Gnista began a couple of years ago, when Erika and her business partner, Thomas, discovered the world of non-alcoholic spirits—particularly UK giant, Seedlip. Although Seedlip was pushing non-alcoholic booze into the mainstream, Erika and Thomas believed there was still room for experimentation. “I just thought it was…nothing,” says Erika. “More like nice tasting water.”
The team hatched a plan for something more challenging: a non-alcoholic spirit that captured the complexity, mouth-feel and subtlety of an award-winning, top-shelf spirit. And in 2019, they launched their first expression, Floral Wormwood.
“We started by asking the best bartenders in Scandinavia, what kind of characteristics are we talking about,” says Erika. “It needed bitterness, and tannins, and it needed to have some body, starting with the nose and then doing interesting things around the mouth. So we got to work with some of Europe’s best mixologists and product developers.”
Floral Wormwood has the same peppery, liquorice, aniseed-y zing that you find in absinthe. David Glickman, the man behind Baileys, called it the “most impressive non-alco spirit” he’s ever tried. And pretty, soon Gnista was being stocked in cocktails bars all over Scandinavia. The UK market followed in November 2019, and Erika says there are plans to expand to China and the U.S. (once COVID dies down).
This year, right in the teeth of a global pandemic, the brand launched their second expression, Barrelled Oak (thanks to some help on Kickstarter). Smoked over birch and coffee wood, Barrelled Oak has zesty notes of cinnamon, pepper, ginger and chocolate rye. Like its Wormwood older brother, it’s designed to hold its own in a cocktail, or be drunk over ice with some tonic water or ginger beer.
Gnista was aiming for 12,000 Euro on Kickstarter, but ended up smashing their fundraising goal. This might be down to a very successful PR campaign, where Erika and the team offered a crazy, all-expenses-paid trip to party in Stockholm…with one catch. You had to do it sober. “We had 25,000 applicants,” says Erika, “including many from Australia.”
Despite some early success, Erika says COVID has been difficult, for obvious reasons. The good news is that bars around Norway and Sweden are beginning to open up again, and when they do, drinkers are going to need alternatives. Delicious, non-alcoholic alternatives. Brands like Gnista aren’t really about abstinence, they’re about indulgence: exploring complex flavours, challenging yourself, finding weird and exciting combinations, pushing non-alcoholic drinks onto some higher, fancier plane.
“One of the things we want to be is no sugar, no syrup, nothing artificial,” says Erika. “For me it’s all about resembling a fine spirit, having something that, when you add it to a cocktail, you get a fantastic result.”