Co-founder of Three Spirit, Dash Lilley, joins us to talk about innovating rather than imitating, prioritising environmentally-friendly methods and why low-to-no alcohol brands are here to stay.
You might have noticed that low-and-no alcohol has been making quite a mark in the last couple of years. Sales are up year on year, it was the star of Imbibe 2019 and there is no shortage of companies ready to take advantage of consumer’s increasingly mindful approach to how and when we consume alcohol. In 2014, there were no brands in the category, five years later there were 70. This looks like a good time to be a producer of low-and-no alcohol.
Three Spirit knows that as well as anyone. With three expressions, The Livener, Social Elixir and The Nightcap, it has established itself as one of the most intriguing new forces in this category, creating plant-based drinks that can’t easily be compared to any alcoholic equivalent and, fundamentally, taste really good. The brand was founded in 2018 by Tatiana Mercer, the co-founder of the wonderful BarChick, Dash Lilley, who previously launched wellness-focused beverage brands like CocoFace and Champatea, and Meeta Gournay, who ran several startups before joining Three Spirit.
Lilley, who spoke to me via Zoom last month as part of our Sober October coverage, says that he and his fellow founders were intrigued by the new category and felt there was room to do something different. “So often no-alcohol options are presented from a negative point of view and are about the removal of alcohol. The eureka moment was when we realised we could utilise the amazing ingredients and trends going on in the health or wellness space and insert them into the world of alcohol” he says. “We’re not against alcohol. We love it and celebrate its amazing properties: its history, its characteristics, its complexity and how it can make you feel. We tried to aim at those moments which are associated with alcohol and create drinks that could make you feel something using a combination of really interesting ingredients that have effects. We wanted to innovate, rather than imitate”.
During the development process, the trio put together a team of plant scientists, phytochemists, herbalists and some of the best bartenders in London, namely Tristan Stephenson and Thomas Aske of Black Rock fame. “What we do really well is bring together different areas of expertise and put great people in the same room. We found people that could help us build flavour through a combination of natural ingredients and compounds,” says Lilley.
For months the founders experimented with hundreds of different ingredients, many of which have been used historically as health tonics and remedies. “We wanted to create an uplifting, energising drink, which became The Livener. So we worked with Guayusa, a beautiful naturally caffeinated leaf from Ecuador, and Schisandra berries, these bizarre and beautiful little berries from Siberia which are an adaptogenic herb, which means they reduce cortisol levels (a stress hormone) in the body,” Lilley explains. “If you look at The Nightcap, that’s got really nice calming, functional ingredients like lemon balm and valerian, which are very popular and effective natural remedies for stress and sleep”.
Regardless of whether you feel any of these effects when you drink Three Spirit’s expressions, they do replicate the mouthfeel booze has better than any non-alcoholic bottling I’ve tried. “The first wave of non-alc spirits underestimated the importance of mouthfeel. You can introduce similar flavours, botanicals, or methods even, but you need to be creative with how you create your own viscosity,” Lilley explains. “For example, we play with different heat drivers, like green chilli and cayenne pepper, so the heat and spice add texture. Ingredients like Szechuan pepper also coat the mouth, while others like maple create a luxurious long mouthfeel”.
Inspiration for the brand’s ingredients is as diverse as the ingredients itself, with Three Spirit looking to alternative medicine and ayurvedic traditions from China and South America. The variety creates a sense of intrigue, mostly because I guarantee you won’t have heard of at least one of the 60-or-so key ingredients in the Three Spirit range, but also because they provide the drinks with a sense of history and place. “In my view, non-alc doesn’t really have any heritage to draw from. Most spirit brands rely on heritage, tradition and history, but our category is brand new. That’s a wonderful opportunity to tell a story, rather than pretend that it comes from a long tradition because it doesn’t, it’s very innovative,” Lilley explains. “So we like talking a lot about the heritage of the ingredients and how some of these ingredients have been used traditionally where they originate from. Take cacao, it’s such an amazing plant with a long and interesting history. It’s an ingredient that tells stories by itself”.
There is no singular production process for converting this staggering range of ingredients into the drinks that make up the Three Spirit range. Lilley says the brand avoided going solely down the distillation route as that would limit their ability to produce interesting liquids. “There’s only so much that you can do with any one process, so we utilise multiple processes. We try and keep the scope wide open so that we can put as much into that as possible, rather than focussing on what we remove from the bottle, alcohol,” he explains. “Seedlip has gone down that route and nailed it by talking about a ‘distilled non-alcoholic spirit’ because that word conjures up romance, value and alcohol. But, while distillation is great at extracting flavour, it basically takes nothing else”.
For this reason, Lilley says the most important of the Three Spirit process is extraction. “A hell of a lot of the work goes into the extraction. That’s where a lot of the magic takes place. So some of our ingredients are distilled. Some are infused. Some are dehydrated and extracted into a dried powder form. Some are tapped straight out of a tree, whether it’s maple or birch. So the end process is a careful process of blending these individual components,” he explains. “In The Nightcap, for example, we actually dry-hop the hops, making a hop infusion at scale, which needs to be done before we blend all of the other ingredients. Then we put them all together before filling. It’s all about maceration and blending at the final stage.”
The range kicks off with The Livener, which the brand describes as the “perfect party pick-me-up”. It’s made with ingredients like guava leaf, Siberian Ginseng, Panax Ginseng, apple cider vinegar, green tea, cayenne chilli, Schisandra berries and The Guayusa, an Ecuadorian tribal stimulant. “It’s bold, vibrant and best served at the beginning of the night in a spritz style,” says Lilley. Next is the brand’s first expression, the delightful Social Elixir, a drink made with ingredients such as cacao, lion’s mane mushroom, damiana, tulsi herb, coconut vinegar, green tea, caraway seed and molasses. “This our session drink, the one you keep going back to. We wanted to create something versatile and that had a slightly sweet, slightly sour, slightly bitter and slightly savoury profile. It’s great with soda or ginger ale, but can also be consumed the same way you would drink beer,” Lilley explains.
The final bottling is The Nightcap, designed to be a luxurious, indulgent drink perfect for the end of the evening. The ingredients in this one include valerian root, melon hüll hops, lemon balm, turmeric, ashwagandha (an evergreen shrub grown in India, the Middle East, and parts of Africa), birch water, Sichuan pepper and black pepper. “You can imagine having this one sitting in a hotel bar at the end of the night. The ingredients have these amazing relaxing properties that are meant to calm the mind but also soothe the body. It makes an amazing Old Fashioned and as a drink to pair with dessert when you’re out for dinner,” Lilley says.
However you decide to enjoy your bottles of Three Spirit, it’s worth pointing out they come with a disclaimer: you don’t get profiles as individual and intriguing as this brand creates without making something divisive. Which is exactly how Lilley likes it. “I feel quite strongly that non-alc spirits should be challenging and polarising. You shouldn’t really know if you like it or not. Because that’s how alcohol makes you feel the first time you try it! I’d be surprised if the first time you tried whisky or beer you thought it was delicious,” he explains. “Alcohol comes with a warning built-in. It’s to be taken seriously. Like with coffee, you have to develop a taste for functional liquids. I don’t want everyone to love them; if everyone loved them then they’d be a soft drink”.
Three Spirit may be unconventional in much of what it does, but one thing it has in common with many new brands is that it prioritises environmentally-friendly methods, from zero-plastic recyclable packaging to ensuring its drinks are vegan. “If you can create a wonderful product without animal products in it, that’s a massive bonus and a lot of our customers really appreciate that. We try to be responsible and be aware of how we affect the planet and the welfare of animals. These are very important trends and any new brand or company has to take these things very seriously because it’s what the consumer expects,” Lilley explains. “We’re constantly scrutinising every aspect of the business, the supply chain, the packaging, how we treat our staff, how we treat our customers, to be as progressive as possible. These things are important to us now and they will become even more important in the future”.
The brand will need as many points of difference as it can get because with rising demand comes the aforementioned influx of new companies all vying for a share of an inflated market. Lilley understands the difficulties this poses, particularly in this economy, but is optimistic for the category. “There can’t be room for everyone to survive, but there’s a really good selection of people out there, with lots of variation. People are reframing old, existing and wonderful traditions to fit a new consumer and a new demand. You see that with some of the more interesting kombucha brands and I think we’re going to see more and more interesting innovation,” he says. “What’s happened, or happening, in the low-and-no beer space in the last couple of years is a really cool indicator for what’s possible in a short space of time. I can’t imagine really going to many bars or pubs or restaurants that now wouldn’t offer a non-alc beer. A couple of years ago there would be very few. This category is here to stay”.
Lilley says the brand is developing a couple of extensions for The Livener and The Nightcap as well as several new products at the moment, which are in the prototype stage. He teases that a fourth expression in the very early stages of development by saying he’s been doing “a lot of research in Japanese heritage, history, ingredients and storytelling”, adding “innovation and product development is really important to us as a company, to keep on providing the drinker with new and novel liquids in this exciting space”. Outside of product development, building the brand in the United States is the next objective. “We planned to have launched in the US in Autumn but it’s been pushed back. It’s a major focus for us, though”.
As you can imagine, as a drinks writer low-to-no alcohol options don’t tend to be my regular order, but Three Spirit is of the few I’d happily indulge in. I’ll always have time for something with a unique and interesting profile and the brand demonstrates how much room there is for personality and innovation in this new category. You don’t have to buy-in to the functionality of the ingredients, but you should embrace the flavours. The tasting notes (which are below) were probably the most challenging I’ve done since I’ve been at Master of Malt because so many of the ingredients are new to me and there are no easy comparisons to make. Some further sampling may well be required (I’ll soldier on…). But I suggest you have a taste and draw your own conclusions.
All of the Three Spirit range is available from Master of Malt right here.
Nose: The nose is full and rich with a fiery backdrop. Vibrant citrus competes with an earthy, aromatic blend of spice and heat which rushes to the forefront of the nose. Juicy watermelon adds a beautiful contrast, as does the tart apple cider vinegar and a salty, umami quality that reminds me of miso paste.
Palate: Like biting into a fleshy red fruit that’s a hybrid of berries, chillies and more watermelon. There’s a honeyed sweetness here too and a slight grassiness in the backdrop along with a woody, earthy and warming element.
Finish: The cayenne chilli heat and flavour lingers with plenty of fruity sweetness,
Overall: A cold shower but in drink form, this is an expression that lives up its name. Its individual profile is really enjoyable and surprisingly mixable.
Suggested serve: Pla[n]tonic. Basically a G&T with a difference. Pop some ice in your glass, add 50ml of Livener and top with tonic water. Garnish with a grapefruit or watermelon slice. Swap the tonic for 25ml of pink grapefruit juice and top with kombucha or lemonade and you’ve got a delightful Spritz.
Nose: Chocolate, espresso and a rich, sweet hit of molasses leads in a dark, thick and creamy nose. There’s a hint of green tea, black pepper, damp earth and toffee.
Palate: Much more savoury and herbaceous than the nose, the palate also has a sweet floral element. The combination of coffee and dark chocolate returns but is more bitter this time, which is lifted by some of the brightness the vinegar brings, a salty, umami quality, caramel and more damp earthiness.
Finish: Slightly sweet and savoury and a tad salty and then a little bitter, this is a finish that lasts and laps around all the qualities of the palate and nose.
Overall: Intriguing with every sip, I found it really hard to stop myself pouring another glass and having one more exploration. I think this is the most divisive drink, which is strange or perhaps fitting given this was Three Spirit’s first foot forward. It’s almost got an IPA quality to it, although I’m not sure that’s enough to make it a session drink, to be honest. For that, it will need to be mixed. I really enjoyed this but it will be too bizarre for some.
Suggested serve: Herbal Stimulant. Based on the Espresso Martini, you can make this serve by adding 50ml of Social Elixir, 25ml of espresso strength coffee and 7.5ml (a teaspoon and a half) of maple syrup in an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake HARD until ice-cold and strain through a tea strainer into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with grated raw cocoa beans.
Nose: Overall the nose is thick, nutty and sweet with maple, vanilla and a touch of ginger at its core. There’s also a grassy note that you’d recognise from hops, the unmistakable numbing quality of Sichuan pepper, as well as a warm citrus glow, a metallic element and some sweet floral hints.
Palate: Much more sweet than the nose at first with cantaloupe, red grapes, baking spice and more vanilla. The birch water acts as a wonderful lengthener and lifts some of the more indulgent flavours with a hint of citrus, while some woodiness brings a different level of depth. It’s a very mellow, smooth palate.
Finish: Very much like the palate, the flavours layer over each other before fading slowly. There’s more of that nutty sweetness and some aromatic nutmeg.
Overall: Probably my favourite of the three, The Nightcap works perfectly in its role and seems tailor-made for an Old Fashioned. I really love how each flavour makes its own mark while still complementing the other elements.
Suggested serve: Nightcap Old Fashioned. Make this by combining 50ml of Nightcap and 5 dashes of Angostura Bitters in a tumbler and fill with ice. Stir until ice-cold, garnish with an orange slice, and top with a maraschino cherry.