Legend has it that Alex Carlton started Funkin Cocktails in 1999, selling fruit smoothies out of a Smart car. The next 15 years were, by his own assessment, ‘a complete learning curve’ – but in that time, he built a company that had a major impact on the cocktail category through its pre-batched mixers and fruit purées.
After handing Funkin over to Irn Bru manufacturer AG Barr in 2015, Carlton was ready to pursue new horizons – and now he’s set his sights on the burgeoning market of non-alcoholic spirits, which is quickly gaining momentum through launches from pioneer Seedlip and newcomer Ceder’s.
Carlton’s new project is called Stryyk (like ‘strike’, but hipper), a range of booze-less spirits that he’s classifying as ‘zero-proof’.
‘Zero-proof sounds more modern [than non-alcoholic],’ he said. ‘You’re not taking something away, you’re giving.’
This is certainly a sentiment that is at the forefront of the industry at present: bartender and wellness advocate Guiseppe Gonzalez has gone on record slamming the concept of mocktails for ‘adding stigma’ to forgoing alcohol; more and more restaurants and bars are re-orienting their non-alcoholic drinks offerings to deliver an experience that’s just as complex as any cocktail list.
With Stryyk, Carlton has set out to develop drinks that provide a comparable experience to two of the most popular spirits, gin and rum.
The appropriately-named Stryyk Not Gin is a blend of juniper, rosemary and basil, while Stryyk Not Rum combines clove, oakwood and grapefruit.
‘One [product] emulates gin to a degree, and one emulates rum to a degree, but we’re not trying to say “this is gin, this is rum”,’ Carlton explained.
In a tasting of the new products at London bar Nine Lives, Imbibe found that the Not Gin benefited from the addition of tonic to bring its zippy flavours to the forefront, with botanical intensity building after a few sips.
But the Not Rum was the standout. The pairing of clove and grapefruit brought robust flavour without making the liquid smack of Christmas, and a clever addition of chilli extract lent a pleasant heat on the end for a drink that could very well be enjoyed neat.
Of course, Carlton created Stryyk with the drinker’s experience in mind – but his experiences with Funkin have given him insight into how to shape the brand to work for the on trade, as well.
‘A mocktail menu is typically quite sweet, which is not sessionable,’ he said. ‘One idea we are working with to help support bars and venues is that, where our products work with your cocktails, put a little “S” next to the item to say “Stryyk this cocktail” in the same way a “V” on the menu denotes “vegetarian”. So now bars can continue serving drinks for up to £11 instead of serving an orange juice for £3. The bar’s happy, the customer’s happy, the industry’s happy – and we’re happy!’
In order to help facilitate Stryyk’s introduction to the on-trade, Carlton has called upon Nine Lives owner Tom Soden to serve as brand ambassador. Soden worked with Carlton to give feedback on product development and to create signature serves for the brand.
Stryyk has already found a home in a number of London venues, including those of the Caravan Group, Bounce, Clos Maggiore, The Office Group, The Ministry Creative Workspace and, of course, Nine Lives.
Still, Carlton and his business partner Jack Horner are not resting on their laurels with the launch of Stryyk. They have plans to roll out other Not spirits in the near future.
‘There is a Not Vodka in the works,’ revealed Carlton. ‘It’s the toughest – vodka’s got no smell or taste, it’s about mimicking or mirroring a “dirty alcohol” flavour. But we’re quite far down the line in developing a product that, when mixed with tonic, has that proper burn that you think of with vodka.’