To many of us, going dry for a full month might sound like a lot. To someone like today’s guest Morten Sørensen, such commitments shorter than a 100 days are out of the question. The founder of the award-winning brand ISH, whose stoic Nordic character and inner yearning for challenges paved the way to sobriety for those of us a little weaker, carved out some time to answer our questions and talk about mindful drinking, what little tricks like catering to the nervous system might help us make it through a sober month alive, and how the bar scene will evolve towards inclusivity in the next five years (dw, espresso martinis are still on the menu).
First off, tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from, what was the inspiration behind ISH, and how did the 100 days of sobriety come about?
Hi. My name is Morten and I'm a mindful drinker. That’s how I've viewed myself since the inception of ISH. A mindful drinker is not a teetotaler, it’s a person who’s mindful about their drinking, just like I’m mindful about what I eat and how I live my life in general. It all started with a 100-day alcohol-free challenge, this was before I viewed myself as a mindful drinker. I was drinking like many others back in 2017, when I realized that alcohol was slowing me down. I didn't want to be slowed down, so I quit drinking and made it a challenge because I guess I’m wired that way. I realized that not drinking was the easy part, the hard part was finding satisfying alternatives. That became the start of ISH. Being a digital nomad at the time, working on creative projects all over the world, trekking Everest Base Camp, living in Los Angeles, Cape Town and various other places, I came back to Copenhagen, my home town, to start ISH and expand from there.
How did you come to the name "ISH"? Does it mean anything in Danish or did you target the US market primarily?
You know those brainstorming sessions where a million names go on a whiteboard, some are axed, others make it on to a shortlist, are tested, and one comes out as the winner? ISH was not like that. It’s just always been the name. It was just so obvious to me, to make something that tasted like a Gin, without being a full-on Gin, it’s a Gin-ish, you know? Plus I feel, it reflects our international vibe, and if we can put a little smile on someone's face, we're doing something right.
Your products have won multiple medals and awards, which is really impressive. What was essential to your process to get to that achievement?
Thanks for mentioning those... Well, when you’re putting your neck out and offering a non-alcoholic Rum for example, you will be met with some skepticism. Rightfully so. I think the same goes for “sugar-free” and “meat-free”. We're all smart consumers and want to make sure we spend our cash wisely. All the international taste awards we've been fortunate to win, is a way to show mindful consumers that we have created a product that has been judged by others, besides ourselves (and our mothers), and come out on top. It’s in our DNA to create superior products that blow people’s minds and with over 40 international taste awards we now have some evidence to back that claim.
You say that your business approach lies in mimicking familiar, traditional beverages that we all love as closely as possible. What are the challenges when translating alcoholic variations into their no- or low-alc counterparts?
We speak to consumers that, similar to myself, enjoy the taste of a G&T, Daiquiri, Margarita, Spritz, Sparkling wine etc., but at the same time have the desire to consume less alcohol. Basically we wish to bridge playfulness with mindfulness, and we believe the most effective way to do so is by offering drinks that the brain believes contains alcohol, due to the same taste experience, so that you will feel equal satisfaction. That is the benchmark in everything we do, and it’s not easy. Where others can create a new product in a few weeks, it takes us over a year. That is of course challenging in itself, but we have accepted that and have accepted that we probably won’t be the largest brand in the industry but we will be known for the one with the most authentic tasting liquids.
How's the European beverage scene different from the US one, and where is it more challenging to make it as a non-alcoholic beverages brand?
I’ve traveled the world quite a bit and what I usually experience is that we’re all pretty similar. We like to be social, hang out with friends, meet new people and enjoy ourselves with all the good things life has to offer. The global beverage scene fits this narrative and although the experiences vary depending on where we are in the world, the fundamentals are the same.
What should consumers look for when purchasing NA drinks nutrition-wise? Do you see any popular ingredients in the space that should be avoided?
Overall, I encourage skepticism. Set high standards for the products you buy and pay attention to what goes in them. Being from Europe, we are by default Non-GMO and adhere to EU regulation, which is notoriously strict. Also if you’re a vegan and enjoy wine, make sure you go with the vegan versions as non-vegan wines may use a gelatin filter made from skin and ligaments usually obtained from pigs.
For those of our readers who missed Dry Jan but still want to do a dry month, could you share some of the tips you developed during your 100 day sober Odyssey?
Visit Boisson! Not even kidding, I wish I had a Boisson close by back when I did my 100-days. (Morten, if only we knew you back then…) So when you’ve found your nearest Boisson, you should think about what you find satisfying, because it’s essentially about satisfying the brain. Did you love a nice Italian Spritz when you were drinking? Then the ISH Spritz will save your day. Are you a sparkling wine fan? Then our Château del ISH sparkling wines will be your best friend. If you’re not into the alcohol analogs, then there are many other options where you just need to decide if you like sweet, or bitter, or herbaceous, etc. and find the product that you feel happy about when it hits your tastebuds. You are entering a whole new world of experiences, which is exciting, and remember, it’s never been easier to be a mindful drinker.
What do you see as the future for the bar & restaurant space? How do you think nightlife and socializing will change over the next 5 or 10 years?
Gen Z’s are leading the way, and they are not consuming alcohol in the same way as the generations before them. That will have a massive effect on what you see on menus in 5-10 years. Socializing, on the other hand, is not going anywhere, as it’s in our DNA to be social, it’s an important elixir for the soul and our evolution as humans. In 5 years, you can’t go into a bar or restaurant that does not have a serious NA program, and if you do, leave. Venues will understand the importance of inclusivity, the hospitality element of offering what the consumer needs. That doesn't mean that nobody will be drinking alcohol in 5-10 years, not at all, it just means that there are more options. Satisfying options so we can all celebrate together.
Our motto at Boisson is seeing the Glass Half Full. How do you think alcohol-free alternatives like yours allow people to see the glass half full?
Our motto at ISH is that everyone deserves a drink. It’s not about limiting, it’s about choice. Choice is having options. Choice is a ‘possibility’. Choice is empowering. At ISH, we believe that choice equals freedom. Freedom to choose your drink and to keep those glasses full, whatever you choose to drink.