The internationally renowned bartender has collaborated with an independent startup to create two liquids, Botanical Dry and Spiced Oak. Millie Milliken got an exclusive taste with Caporale – and his Vespa
Thursday morning, 11am. Simone Caporale has arrived at my doorstep to deliver an ice-cold Martini-style serve of Zeo Botanical Dry, complete with a lemon peel-garnished glass on his baby blue Vespa. It's one of the two new non-alcoholic spirits that Caporale has launched in collaboration with an independent startup, led by Nish Kukadia and Tom Miller, set to arrive in the UK this November.
'Three years ago, I was called by a group of specialists about [creating] a non-alcoholic product,' Caporale explains to me during our Zoom tasting later that day (hi, tier 2 Covid restrictions). 'The pillar then was Seedlip, and I was paying a lot of attention to the consumers' point of view of this young category.'
Instead of taking the components of a gin and thinking how to make it non-alcoholic, Caporale started with a glass of water and thought instead of what to add to it
His starting method for creating the new products was unconventional. Instead of taking the components of a gin and thinking how to make it non-alcoholic, Caporale started with a glass of water and thought instead of what to add to it. Some of the other people working on the liquid development were less than convinced: 'Some people in the group walked out and left the project. So we got some new experts in. I’m the only one [in the liquid development team] still involved in this project from the original band.' Three years later and he's created Zeo Botanical Dry and Zeo Spiced Oak.
The clear Botanical Dry comprises nine botanicals (caraway seed, cubeb berries, coriander, grains of paradise, liquorice root, meadowsweet, orris root, peppermint, and vanilla) and is designed to be used alongside tonic, in cocktails such as a Collins, or frozen and served by itself as a Martini alternative.
Spiced Oak, on the other hand, is amber coloured and uses cacao husk, cassia bark, cubeb berries, heather, nutmeg, orris root, woodruff and vanilla. As you'd expect, this expression works best alongside Coke, ginger ale or in classic cocktails like an Old Fashioned.
They're both made using a complex five-step process. Traceable sourcing of natural botanicals; cold brew infusion, using pure water to extract the botanical essences; vapour infusion distillation, a traditional technique to produce batches of extractions using state-of-the-art stills; sequential blending of distillates and infusions in precise doses with filtered and demineralised water; and finally complex diffusion, homogenising the liquid at high pressure.
Perhaps the most surprising of the two is the Botanical Dry (pictured above). Why? For the unexpected sensation of feeling slightly inebriated while drinking it, or as the brand describes it, it 'realistically mimics the flavour and mouthfeel of alcohol'. Alongside aromas of lemon, sweet liquorice, vanilla and coriander is a 'volatile' Grappa-like quality, created by using fermented rye extract. After picking this scent up on the nose, the cubeb peppers on the palate create a warming effect, while the peppermint then subtly cools it. Finally, a natural caffeine extract gives you an instant boost, familiar to that of drinking, say, a Martini.
Without alcohol you have to find something that is still volatile. You need carriers of flavour, so you have to use botanicals that give you the same perception of flavours
The Spiced Oak has been inspired by the aromas of angel share. 'Spiced Oak came from an empty glass of whisky. After you have this spirit you have these amazing atoms in the glass – wood, oak, leather, tobacco – and when I visited whisky houses the aromas of angel share [ thought] I could capture this angel share, and put it inside of a bottle.'
With a similar fundamental structure of the Botanical Dry, there is also extract from charred oak wood, and those whisky-esque notes of vanilla and nutmeg, along with a touch of cacao husks. It's smooth in texture too, thanks to the addition of glycerol (but without being sickly sweet).
Unsurprisingly, making a successful no-abv spirit comes with many challenges. For Caporale, there are three elements of an alcoholic spirit that are hard to match in no-abvs: 'Aroma, mouthfeel and overall sensation. Alcohol is a very important carrier because it brings things [aroma and mouthfeel] into your nose and mouth. Without alcohol you have to find something that is still volatile. You need carriers of flavour, so you have to use botanicals that give you the same perception of flavours.'
He's not the only one taking on the challenge either, as more and more startups (and big names) rush to create products to satisfy the 8.6m people in the UK looking to cut down on alcohol*. And while Caporale isn't overly effusive of the competitors on the market, he does recognise the importance of creating awareness in the non-alc space. 'Some people reacted [to the demand] without the creativity... Now, every player no matter if it is good or not, has generated bigger awareness of the category.'
And Zeo, come November, will be included in that generation of awareness. Caporale hints of there being more expressions already in the pipeline, but for now, his focus is getting Botanical Dry and Spiced Oak in the hands of bartenders. And it's fair to say that he is confident in his creations: 'Without alcohol you cannot make miracles, but you can make magic.'
(*Mintel, Alcoholic Drinks Review Inc Impact of COVID-19 – UK April 2020)
Botanical Dry, RRP £25/700ml; Spiced Oak, RRP £27/700ml, Feel Zeo, feelzeo.com