‘Bigger than kombucha’: New Zealand’s AF Drinks eyes Asia with alcohol-free RTD spirits

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

New Zealand alcohol-free ready-to-drink (RTD) spirits firm AF Drinks has its eye on the Asian market. ©AF Drinks
New Zealand alcohol-free ready-to-drink (RTD) spirits firm AF Drinks has its eye on the Asian market. ©AF Drinks

Related tags New zealand alcohol-free RTD spirits

New Zealand alcohol-free ready-to-drink (RTD) spirits firm AF Drinks has its eye on the Asian market after securing significant domestic retail success within a year of launch.

AF Drinks launched its first drinks, a range of gin and tonics, into the New Zealand market in December 2020, and holds the proud distinction of being the first non-alcoholic RTD spirits brand to be listed in local supermarkets.

“We’re now in some 350 stores nationwide, mainly supermarkets, including Countdown, New World, Pak’nSave and so on, and Air New Zealand also serves our spirits on their flights,”​ AF Drinks Founder Lisa King told FoodNavigator-Asia​.

“We started out with just half a shelf in the supermarket initially – now six to seven months on, we’re on four shelves so retailers are aware that this alcohol-free spirits trend is here to stay. As it is, New Zealand is a bit behind on the trend - there’s already mass growth in places like Europe and the US.

“Everyone knows that kombucha has seen some roaring success in the country since bursting onto the scene a while back – we predict that this will be even bigger than kombucha [and] all indications are that in five to 10 years the category will be just as big as alcohol.”

At present, the firm is producing 10,000 to 15,000 litres of each flavour they have per run at their co-manufacturing factory, a testament to the huge demand they are seeing having launched less than a year ago, but King is looking beyond New Zealand to target Asia as AF Drinks’ next big market.

“New Zealand has really been a test market to prove our concept, which has been proven, and now we’re going overseas too – in August, we’re sending our first shipment to Fairprice supermarkets in Singapore,”​ she said.

“South East Asia in particular is a very good market for a product like ours as many consumers there are sensitive to alcohol – research has shown that 35% of the population is missing an enzyme (aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 or ALDH2) which causes them to experience the Asian flush when drinking.

“At the same time, there is a growing propensity in the region towards Western drinks, spirits and that form of socialising – so this 35% of the population needs something they can process which tastes like the real thing and is also a sophisticated fit for the occasion, which is what we can provide.

“Beyond that we’re also gathering data on markets including Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and even the Middle East, all of which [have market potential for such beverages].”

King also told us about the ‘Afterglow’, a botanical that the firm is using to give their products that ‘alcohol-like’ feel.

“One of the reasons we’ve been so successful is a natural botanical heat extract we’ve patented as our trade secret called the Afterglow – adding this to the drinks gives drinkers a kick in the back of the throat and the more you drink, the warmer you get, very much like real alcohol so it feels like regular drinking. We’ve done blind tests and participants always believe our drinks contain alcohol,”​ she said.

AF Drinks has currently launched a G&T range with three flavours – Classic, Cucumber and Pink Grapefruit – as well as a Dark & Stormy and a Cuba Libre to hit demands for a warmer option for winter. The retail prices for the drinks are either NZ$38 (US$26.86) for a case of 10 250ml cans, NZ$19.99 (US$14.13) for a 4-pack of 300ml bottles or larger iterations.

Ticking all the boxes

In order to ensure that AF Drinks’ products meet all the demands that consumers are currently making, King said that the team has made every effort to tick all the boxes.

“Each serving is just 55 calories, there are no artificial additives, all the ingredients are locally sourced in New Zealand which also helps with the New Zealand branding – we’ve tried to meet all the modern consumer trend demands,” ​she said.

“In terms of sugar, we’re at just 4% sugar which is about half that of a normal cocktail – we didn’t want to go completely zero-sugar as it would taste a bit artificial, and the low amount of sugar we use helps to provide the depth and that lingering flavour so it’s not just like flavoured water.”

Moving forward, in addition to identifying its new target markets in Asia, the firm is also preparing to launch new flavours for summer in New Zealand, considering options such as mojitos, margaritas and negronis.

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