Sober thinking: The rise of functional drinks

Lucy Britner

Lucy Britner

04 November 2019

Everyone wants to be faster, smarter, more relaxed… and the flood of drinks hitting the market claiming to help consumers achieve such effects are certainly taking full advantage. Lucy Britner reports on the high-achieving trend


Move over Red Bull, there is a new generation of functional drinks in town. And as consumer thirst for more sophisticated soft drinks continues, these mindful mixers and natural pick-me-ups are slowly infiltrating the back bar.

If we take a step back and look at how we got here, then stats and studies show that younger people are not as bothered about booze as older generations.

A recent report from UK creative agency Red Brick Road and research firm Opinium, for example, suggests that both mental and physical health are important factors for Generation Z when it comes to deciding whether or not to drink. The study also mentions ‘Insta-anxiety’ as young people avoid too much alcohol in order to preserve their online image.

At the same time, the wider health and wellness trend continues apace, with Euromonitor International suggesting the global health and wellness industry could be worth US$815bn by 2021. And interest in this area is coming from all age groups – not just Gen Z.

Meanwhile, events such as Club Soda’s Mindful Drinking Festival continue to grow, with research from Club Soda suggesting that consumers want to see more choice in bars and pubs when it comes to ‘new and unusual’ flavour options.

All natural

While the notion of health and wellness in the bar usually centres around cutting down alcohol intake, the burgeoning trend is also paving the way for more sophisticated, functional drinks.

From natural energy drinks to products to help consumers feel relaxed, there is premium potential for bars.

Laura Willoughby, co-founder of Club Soda, says recent non-alcoholic beer research revealed that people want to know about calories, ingredients and sugar levels.

‘That interest expands to different types of drinks,’ she says, highlighting a raft of functional drinks.

‘Club-Mate is made from a South American plant’, she explains, adding that it’s a natural stimulant. ‘Kombucha is another category that is really taking off.’

She says herbal mixes as well as natural alternatives to caffeine are also proving popular.

And while energy brand Red Bull is the bastion of the bar, as consumers begin to pay more attention to what’s in a product, the drink’s 80mg of caffeine per 250ml can may no longer appeal. Instead, natural alternatives could capture the attention of drinkers. Recently re-launched Drgn’s Turmeric Superdrink, for example, boasts ‘natural energy, no caffeine’.

Vishal Sodha, Drgn CEO says the brand is listed in Mayfair’s Novikov, with growing interest from nearby bars.

‘Drgn is designed to be a standalone, premium functional drink as well as a component for cocktails,’ Sodha says, describing the product as a ‘smart mixer’.

‘It contains botanicals and citrusy flavours so it blends well with vodka, tequila and certain gins.’

According to Sodha, who was inspired to create the drink when he lived in Hong Kong, the growth in adult soft drinks is being driven by functional ingredients.

‘In Asia, functional ingredients have been used for thousands of years,’ he adds. ‘There is a growing demand for natural beverages which are not packed with caffeine or sugar, that appeal to different occasions.’

Sans alcohol, avec purpose

Elsewhere, the world of alcohol-free spirits and wines is also turning functional, according to Club Soda’s Willoughby.

She highlights Senser – a range of alcohol-free spirits set to launch this autumn. Senser creator Vanessa Jacoby ditched her job in a city bank to study plants and create the three-strong range. Power, Love and Joy each have their own functional qualities. For example, Power contains bitter orange, cacao and smoked caramel, ‘activated by wormwood, sage, Siberian ginseng and gotu kola’. The drink claims to bring confidence, presence and surety of self.

Meanwhile, Joy, which contains citrus zest, exuberant berry and bitter aloe is ‘activated by damiana, cardamon, gingko and schisandra’, resulting in a ‘party starter and spirit raiser’.

Willoughby also points to ‘bubbles with benefits’ brand Wild Life Botanicals.

Having launched earlier this autumn, the sparkling ‘wines’ come in Blush and Nude. Wild Life Botanicals is described as an ‘uplifting infusion that includes five wellness and mood-boosting botanicals and eight active vitamins and minerals... including zinc to support your body’s natural immune system, niacin to reduce tiredness and fatigue, vitamin B6 to bolster your mood and thiamine to support your heart’.

Away from alcohol alternatives, Willoughby and Sodha also see a bright future for CBD in the world of functional drinking.

‘Young people are interested in CBD oil,’ Willoughby says. ‘CBD reduces social anxiety without drinking alcohol.’ She says CBD drinks at the start of an evening can have a relaxing quality.

Sodha agrees, adding that CBD will be used in cocktails – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. And though he isn’t planning to develop a CBD Drgn variant in the near term, it is on the company’s new product development radar.

Overall, the world of health and wellness will continue to drive consumer interest in ingredients and functionality. Looks like the answer to ‘what’s in my cocktail’ is set to get a whole lot longer.

Read more about alternative energy drink brands here.

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