Husband and wife duo Tommy Johnstone and Lisa Farr Johnstone believe the US will quickly catch up with the UK and Europe and has the potential to become the epicentre of non-alcoholic innovation in the future.
Their drinks use botanicals to offer a sensory journey around the culture, landscapes and mindsets of the city, and are created using a range of botanical extraction methods – including those drawn from the cannabis industry.
Optimist Drinks has launched with its collection of distilled botanical spirits made without alcohol, sugar or additives: seeking to offer a ‘crafted, complex and clean’ product.
Tommy and Lisa - two Brits who now call the vibrant city of Los Angeles home – distil the drinks in LA using a blend of ingredients to pay tribute to the city and region. The craft spirits come in three variants designed to offer a sensory journey around the city: to salt-sprayed coastlines (‘bright’), verdant canyons (‘fresh’) and arid desert (‘smokey’).
The duo believe the time is right to launch a non-alcoholic brand in the US: following the success of the category across the Atlantic. And with Los Angeles a leader in setting health and wellness trends, outdoor active lifestyles, and a thriving foodie scene, it offers the perfect place to develop a such a product.
“The non-alcoholic spirits movement definitely started in the UK and Europe, which makes sense given the rich history of distillation and drinks making," Tommy told BeverageDaily.
"These markets are the most mature, and they’re most familiar with the non-alcoholic offerings. The US is probably a couple of years behind Europe in terms of familiarity and even creation of shelf space in bars, restaurants and grocery channels.
"But when people realize that you can reduce alcohol without compromising on flavor and sense of occasion, the change in habit can move quickly - this is already happening in Australia and New Zealand.
“So, as good products come to market in the US, we expect to see the US catch up and even become a center of non-alcoholic innovation.”
'Getting the process right became an obsession'
It took the duo around 18 months to come up with a drink they were happy with. The complex botanical drinks are created using a range of extraction methods – some more conventional than others. There’s steam, vacuum, and CO2 extraction – as could be expected for a high-end craft spirit - but the drink also uses techniques drawn from the perfume making and cannabis industry.
“We wanted to take the craft of distilling that is usually applied to spirits that contain alcohol, and apply it to non-alcoholic drinks," continued Tommy.
“We wanted to create original flavor profiles which could stand up themselves without depending on tonic water for taste, mix well into cocktails as well as pair with food. We worked hard to be ‘clean label’, contain no sugar and to be clear in appearance. Our drinks are technically complex to make and employ traditional distillation processes (used in spirit making, and perfumery) as well as modern extraction techniques used in the weed industry. We then had to work out how to scale the process and preserve the quality of the blends.
"All of these things posed challenges along the way, but getting the process right became an obsession.”
Bright is inspired by Venice Beach with notes of citrus, sherbert and salty sunshine featuring lemon, jasmine, green mandarin, lavender, turmeric, cornmint, orange, tangerine, fennel, myrrh and cinnamon leaf.
Fresh takes its cue from the verdant Topanga canyons after a late spring rain with notes of wild herbs, wet leaves and earthy pine from juniper berries, cilantro, lime peel, fennel, lovage, basil, angelica root, red thyme, tarragon, jasmine, habanero, oregano and tangerine.
Smokey takes its inspiration from the High Desert at sunset with warming and intense notes of bonfire, bittersweetness and spice from lapsang souchong, bitter red orange, clove, ginger, sage, turmeric, bergamot, cinnamon leaf, habanero, geranium, valencia orange, and jasmine.
Becoming a beverage entrepreneur
Tommy and Lisa became beverage entrepreneurs after working in beverage advertising: but their experience also encompasses a number of other areas (after a stint as a full time athlete, Tommy worked on the LA 2028 Olympic bid; while Lisa has worked across advertising, PR and the non-profit sector).
But across their careers, they’ve been connoisseurs of what they drink.
“We’ve been fascinated by the beverage industry for a long time: I’m a keen amateur mixologist, and Lisa, having grown up in East Africa has had a long running obsession with ‘sundowner cocktails’ and the perfect G&T," said Tommy. "On a professional level, we have both worked on big drinks brands in the advertising world.
“We had a very clear idea of the distinct flavors we wanted to create and the quality we were looking to achieve. We also knew that we wanted to create a brand that could make a positive impact on the mental wellness epidemic that is affecting everyone, especially young people - even before the pandemic.
“So we had a clear idea of what we want to do, and we knew from research and some small tests in our kitchen at home, that creating these drinks would be technically very difficult. So we sought to find the best technical partners we could, all in the spirit of experimenting.
"Along the way there have been moments where our lack of experience has actually led to some technical breakthroughs; our naive questions reframed some of the perceived problems. There have also been a few massive dead ends which we hit a full pelt. It’s an industry where there are many great makers and creators, and we have met and worked with some excellent, generous people along the way.”
'2020 was quite a year: but it made us even more determined we were doing the right thing'
Launching a new product – let alone carving out a new category - during turbulent times may not be an easy feat: but the duo carry the spirit of optimism that embodies their brand.
“Starting a drinks brand from scratch, in a category that most people outside of the industry still don’t know about, creating an original process to bring them to life, these things already presented quite a challenge,” said Tommy. “To then be working on it during a pandemic, amidst political and social upheaval, at the beginning of a sharp recession while home-schooling your kids made it even more significant. The pandemic shut down facilities, slowed down production across the board, we finalised flavors and held tastings via Zoom, wildfires almost destroyed one of our distilling partners’ spaces, restaurant partners were forced to close, and people were staying home.
“2020 was quite a year for everyone, but it made us even more determined that we were doing the right thing, and creating a product that people need. We are excited to get Optimist out there for 2021, a fresh start across the board, it is the year of optimism. We expect many more challenges along the way, but we’re excited to be part of an industry we’ve admired for so long.”
Optimist Drinks is availabe in the US. It is B Corp pending and directs 2% of sales to provide mental health support to underserved young people: starting with Safe Place for Youth in Venice, CA.