Founded by creative couple Lisa Farr Johnstone and Tommy Johnstone, the brand uses botanicals to create a sensory journey around the culture, landscapes and mindsets of their city.
Coming from a background in advertising (including work with Guinness) and international development (including Bono's AID'S campaign (RED)), Lisa's focus is on educating people about the non-alcoholic category, mental wellness and the benefits of skipping alcohol ('quality sleep, dawn surfs and better skin, for starters').
Introduce us to OPTIMIST!
Our company is centered on great flavors, conscious connections and well-being. The signature non-alcoholic spirits are a liquid love letter to LA, the profiles draw inspiration from the varied landscapes of the city and its environs - salt-sprayed coastlines, verdant canyons, and arid deserts - as well as the diverse cultures that make Los Angeles so unique.
Launched in 2021, with Bright, Fresh, and Smokey profiles, our premium spirits set new standards in the then-fledgling non-alcoholic beverage category and were quickly adopted by consumers, retailers, and the hospitality industry.
In 2022, responding to the demands from the mixology community, we added the Cali Amaro to the collection, an ode to California sunshine, citrus, and the bitter taste of Los Angeles traffic.
This January, we dropped our first RTD canned cocktail, the Cali Spritz, opening the brand up to new occasions and consumers.
Leading with integrity, purpose, and genuine sustainability, we operate with the people and planet in mind as the first non-alcoholic drinks company in the US to achieve certification as a B Corp. Further, 2% of all sales are redirected to provide access to mental wellness services.
Where can we find your products?
Our focus has been to build presence in high end bars and restaurants in the US with people who seek out quality and flavors.
On-premise, we’re part of NA pairing menus at 2 Michelin starred restaurants - Providence LA and Commis, SF, as well as on the menu at the famed Felix in Venice, the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, the 1 Hotels group, the Proper Hotel Santa Monica, the Rustic Canyon group and many more.
In NYC at The Plaza Hotel is a keystone account. You can then find us across the country in a number of independent bars and restaurants.
Off-trade, you can find us in both high-end liquor stores and non-alc specialist retailers (The New Bar, Spirited Away (NYC), Minus Moonshine (NYC), Boisson (bi-coastal) and many other brilliant spots in between.
In California we are also sold at the Erewhon natural food grocery chain, Bristol Farms, Market Hall foods NorCal, and specialist independently curated grocery stores and lifestyle spaces. The list is growing rapidly!
We also sell direct to consumers via our website.
Tell us a bit about how you make your alcohol-free spirits
We set out to create mixology grade, premium spirits which happen not to contain booze.
Crafted using a complex blend of meticulously sourced and expertly distilled ingredients, each profile is made using a combination of 10-15 unique organic botanicals that have been sourced from around the world, keeping sustainable farming and supply practices in mind.
Artfully distilled and blended by hand, we use a range of extraction methods - some you’d expect from a high-end craft spirit, but others more commonly used in perfume making and the modern cannabis industry - to extract the best out of every ingredient for their layered profiles.
They are original flavors, future-facing, not mimics of more familiar alcoholic drinks. They are robust and designed to be mixed as simple serves, or in more complex cocktails. No sugar, no additives, full flavor.
You’ve just launched your first RTD, Cali Spritz. How does this complement your existing portfolio?
Whilst the industry and cocktail enthusiasts have embraced the spirits range, we wanted to create more inclusive products for people who didn’t have the time or desire to mix their own cocktails.
Many people don’t have that ritual, and others may not have time for it.
The cans allow OPTIMIST to step off the back bar and go wherever people want to sip. They are also perfect for on-trade locations that don’t have trained bartenders and mixologists.
What does January look like for your brand?
January is without doubt our busiest month, the category gets so much attention with Dry January being embraced more widely every year (44% of US consumers were planning to take part this year, compared to 29% last year, according to Nielson data).
Our calendar is packed with events, from mindful mixology classes with all the 1 Hotels across the US, to book launches, art parties, panel discussions, hotel openings, dating events, concerts, samplings across partners and more!
But the calendar across the year is also filling out nicely. We have fun activations with Autocamp coming up in February, and more big private members club and hotel launches in the spring (can’t give details yet!).
Retailers, and the hospitality industry are increasingly continuing to look for non-alc products throughout the year. This is a huge cultural shift away from default drinking as people reflect on their relationship with booze, and opt for elevated drinks that don’t come with physical and mental compromises. And now they really have meaningful options.
What’s on your radar for 2024?
We plan to have fun exploring more riffs to add to our canned NA cocktail range. Focusing on distribution is also key as we grow, something that proves challenging for all smaller independent brands in the NA category.
Education is a really important part of the growth story for our company and the category in general, so we need to identify partners who can work with us to really bring people along for the ride.
What does your job involve?
Ours is a start-up so the answer is EVERYTHING. We are a lean team, and we all do whatever needs to be done. There is never enough time in the day, days in the week! But it is an exciting journey, never dull.
What inspires you on your journey in alcohol-free spirits?
We created OPTIMIST out of a desire to rethink what it means to have a drink. We are living through wild times, there is a mental health crisis, an epidemic of loneliness and isolation, polarization, environmental catastrophe and political instability.
We need to come together, to get creative, to envisage a better future and then to work towards it. We need active optimism.
Social connection is key to our wellbeing and our future. That is what inspires us.
We are working to bring about a future where we don’t default to ethanol unthinkingly, but ask questions about what we’re putting into our glass, and who’s made it.
The same way we ask what’s on our plate, and where it’s come from.
We aren’t anti-alcohol but we are anti Big Alc, thoughtless boozing and all the problems that engenders.
Excited to walk into any bar or restaurant and have beautifully crafted options, with no feeling of embarrassment or shame for “not drinking”.
Younger generations are often not even thinking about alcohol as an option, they are exploring other ways to shift their perspective and not disassociate from everything and everyone. It’s easy to ‘look for numb’ but it feels worse after. There is a better way and we’re moving towards it.
Last week, Canadian craft brewer Philips Brewing & Malting Co. told us about its decision to move into alcohol-free with the launch of iOTA.
Its portfolio of alcohol-free drinks now spans across alcohol-free beer, mocktails and craft soda.