Cheer up, the sober-curious – we've got another proof that alcohol is not required to find yourself in good spirits. We had a chat with Milan Martin, the founder and visionary behind Free Spirits – a company that crafts non-alcoholic spirit alternatives including Bourbon, Gin, and Tequila. Milan shared his thoughts on what gives him inspiration on the journey to normalize NA options, how the 'bro culture' shapes our drinking habits, and what makes a great cocktail (spoiler: not alcohol).
What was your original inspiration to create Free Spirits?
I spent 20+ years in the ad business. It's a truly work hard, drink harder business. New York, London, SF. All big drinking cities, too. And after 20+ years of waking up countless times after having had WAY too many cocktails, it occurred to me that it wasn't the alcohol I was after. It was all the goodness, the excitement and the fun of a great cocktail; the promise of more conversations, of "yeah I'll have another round!", the feeling of having an awesome bartender mix-up something special just for you. And, historically, when we say "no, I'll just have a seltzer water" that meant the night was over; all the good stuff was behind us. When in reality, there was plenty of potential ahead - we just tied the cutting off of alcohol to the cutting off of the night. So the seed of an idea was 'hey why does alcohol have to be the 'star player' of every great cocktail?'
Free Spirits is such a great name for a nonalcoholic company. Did that come to you quickly or is there a story behind its inception?
Thanks! Really born from the idea that, for hundreds of years, "big alcohol" has spent billions of dollars per year training us, convincing us, that, in order to have a good time, we need to put alcohol in our bodies. So being a free spirit is being someone who breaks convention and shows the world a new view of things, a new way of living felt right.
We find it so interesting that your background is in the advertising business, which can be notorious for its drinking culture. Do you see products like Free Spirits being disruptive in environments like that in the near future?
Yes, in fact, one of the biggest issues we hope to address is the 'bro culture' in which I grew up (20's/30's) and how not drinking alcohol was a sign of weakness. When you really think about it, that's absurd and deciding to take control of your alcohol intake - whether that be abstaining or simply reducing - is a trait of the strong, of the confident, of the independent thinker.
We know you put a lot of time into sourcing natural ingredients and perfecting the distillation process for your spirits. Can you tell us more about that process to get the flavor profiles and mouthfeel just right?
Gosh, that's by far the most challenging part of this whole experience. Alcoholic spirits are so wildly unique in every way. And the role that ethanol plays in the liquid and on the pallet can't be measured. So when we set out to do this thing, we committed to each other that our liquid needed to deliver the kind of deep, fully-sensorial experience that an alcoholic beverage does. Do yes, quality whole foods as the source of our flavor profile but, the warming sensation that alcohol delivers to make a slow drinking cocktail was critical as was the functional piece - there should be a 'benefit' to drinking a cocktail in my opinion. All that said, we're running this company like a software company in that every few months, you'll notice something a bit better, smarter.
Your use of taurine and vitamins B as functional ingredients in your spirits makes you stand out from other NA producers. How did you come about adding them and how does it enhance the overall experience of Free Spirits?
Great question! There are so many new and interesting functional ingredients out there that we considered. And, long term, many of them will make their way into our liquid. But for now, we wanted to stick with what we knew was proven. As much as I love the idea of CBD and Ashwaghanda, for example, I think there's still more work to be done to prove they actually deliver what we all want to belive they deliver. So for us, using B-Vitamins and Amino Acids felt like we weren't selling snake oil and that we can confidently say "yes, having a Free Spirits cocktail will deliver a positive effect to your health and wellbeing".
With Spirit of Gin, Tequila, and Bourbon in existence, you have your major bases covered. However, are there any ideas for additional spirit types on the horizon?
Absolutely. JD Dornell, a PhD food chemist, just joined our team at Head of Innovation. He's a rad guy and we're looking at expanding our portfolio, so people can make all their favorite cocktails using Free Spirits, if that's how they want to roll. We're also looking at some interesting new delivery and packaging options.
What's your go-to Free Spirits recipe right now?
The Spirit of Tequila is my personal fave and I absolutely love the Tangerine Thyme. It's one of our original cocktails dreamed up by Steve Turner (@thebritbehindbars) who leads our mixology program. A great balance of smoky, sweet, and tart.
What has made you most proud on this journey of bringing Free Spirits into the world?
Oh man, sitting at a table of the people who've joined our team back in November. Looking around at the brilliant, creative, dedicated people who've joined me on this journey is BY FAR the most stunning piece so far. Like, how did this happen and how do these people believe in this thing so passionately? It's really cool to see the people from inside the industry and from WAY outside the industry who've come, locked arms, and said "Let's change the world of drinking!"
Our motto at Boisson is seeing the Glass Half-Full. How do you think alcohol-free alternatives like Free Spirits allow people to see the glass half-full?
I love it. We have a very similar notion that drives us – that, eerily, aligns perfectly with that. "People who argue whether the glass is half full or half empty need not worry. The glass is refillable." :-)