Have you ever wondered what makes a cocktail a modern classic? ‘To qualify as a modern classic, each drink must have traveled beyond the bar where it was invented; it must be popular with the public, so much so that they ask for it by name; and it must be regarded in high esteem by the bartending community,” says Robert Simonson, the NYT journalist and historian who writes about cocktails, spirits, bars and bartenders, both past and present.
Today, we would add another bullet point to this definition: a modern classic is a cocktail that’s so popular with the public that they not only ask for it by name but also ask for its non-alcoholic alternative.
We had a chat with someone who can vouch for that. Meet John Enghauser, co-founder of the somewhat ‘eponymous’ brand jeng — the premium non-alcoholic cocktail company that reimagined such cocktail staples as Moscow mule, Paloma, and Gin & Tonic, carefully adapting them for the sobercurious world. Read on to learn how John’s passion for quality drinks evolved into a business venture and what little 'rituals' became his secret ingredient in the recipe for success.
First off, tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from and what was the inspiration behind jeng?
I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan but spent the past 22 years in California and New York City, where I currently reside. I'm an award winning singer-songwriter and an accomplished sales professional. jeng Co-founder, Christopher Lackner, is an accomplished public affairs professional and hemp expert. He and I were in a college band together at Indiana University and have remained good friends ever since. We were chatting one day right before the pandemic and discussing the state of the canned cocktail industry. White Claw had emerged and many other ready-to-drink cocktails were following suit, as were CBD beverages. As foodies and cocktail snobs, we felt that mixologist-inspired, full-flavored options were missing. So we looked at the data and found that more adults were looking for a way to relax with an adult beverage, but without the intoxicating effects of alcohol and the impending hangover. Using a Moscow mule recipe that I concocted in my Montauk home and had been serving to friends and family to acclaim, jeng hit the shelves in early 2021.
John Enghauser, jeng Co-founder
When you start off as a brand, you want every facet of it to be perfect — the logo, name, packaging, let alone the product itself. We love how simple the story behind your brand name is, can you share with our readers how that came about? What's your advice for someone who’s scared to get their product out there because it’s not perfect yet?
I think that many brands actually launch too quickly and should spend more time honing their product before going to market. From day one it was important for us to be a flavor-first brand and capture the complexities and sophistication of a well crafted cocktail. A cocktail is more than a delivery device for alcohol, it’s an experience to be shared just like a fine wine or a well-crafted beer. With jeng, you get that elevated cocktail flavor, feeling, and connection. What you don’t get is the hangover. We wanted to create a product that we love and are proud to share with friends and family. A brand that would become a part of our lifestyle. I'm a perfectionist and it was important to me that we get it right the first time, but you have to strike a balance. In this business, the window of opportunity can close quickly so it's important to develop your product efficiently so you can enter the market in a reasonable amount of time. Imperfections are a part of business (and life), and with jeng, we're always striving to be better.
We read your take on the importance of small wins vs big wins, where you say that it’s the small ones that actually keep one going. Why do you think this is so and was there a moment in your 'jeng journey' when the feedback encouraged you to keep on?
It's imperative to celebrate small wins. A series of small wins leads to bigger wins. If you only celebrate big wins, the journey can feel daunting and the beverage business can beat you up in a hurry. I try to identify and celebrate little wins every day. It's not as hard as it might sound and it makes a difference.
The cocktails jeng’s offering now are the classics we’re very familiar with, meaning that customers already have expectations when trying them. Do you feel like catering to certain standards of a well-known cocktail put additional pressure on you as a manufacturer and what were some of the biggest challenges in translating the traditional alcohol-based recipe into the NA language?
Initially, we just wanted to craft a delicious cocktail elevated by fresh and exotic ingredients, which I think we accomplished. The first Moscow mule wasn't called a Moscow mule. We named it jeng and listed the main ingredients because we felt that we'd made something that was completely original and deserved its own name. But given that the recipe was inspired by the Moscow mule, consumers identified the flavor profile as such, so we later gave it its appropriate name and discovered that no one was really replicating classic cocktails in our category. So we began taking inspiration from the classics like the paloma and gin & tonic (aka jeng & tonic). There's an element of familiarity and comfort that a consumer has when they recognize a cocktail name on our can. jeng is "The Classic Cocktail Reimagined". We already put a lot of pressure on ourselves to create the best product that we can, so I don't think that by retooling the classics, we added to that pressure.
You started off as a CBD company, but we hear that you’re launching a CBD-free line later this year. Would you say that even though the cannabis industry is flourishing, the CBD beverages market is still relatively limited? Who is the customer you’d like to attract with this new line?
First and foremost, we identify as an alcohol-free cocktail company. CBD is just one of many ingredients in our flavor profiles. We developed our CBD-free line for consumers who drink jeng because it's the alcohol-free alternative they've been looking for, but the CBD benefits may be less important for some.
Despite the rate at which the cannabis space is expanding, legally it’s still in its infancy with a lot of gray area to cover, e.g. synthetic cannabinoids, which are notoriously hard to trace. We had to ask — what is a trusted CBD supplier and how do you ensure that jeng cocktails are not only ready-to-drink but also safe-to-drink?
My business partner, Christopher, is a cannabis expert and has crafted testimony for the FDA. He's familiar with the best CBD manufacturers in the space and we only use the highest quality water-dispersible broad spectrum hemp available through Caliper who has a great reputation, and we've been very pleased with results. Not all CBD is created equally, so we highly recommend that start-ups do their research before choosing a partner.
Christopher Lackner, jeng Co-founder
Could you share a little on why juniper is such a perfect pairing for a gin & tonic cocktail?
Juniper is a natural botanical that's found in gin so it's the perfect ingredient for our non-alcoholic gin & tonic that we call jeng & tonic. Juniper gives our jeng & tonic the piney and resinous flavor and effervescence that you'd expect from a more traditional gin and tonic. It's a beautiful thing.
You mentioned somewhere that rapid change is the nature of the beverage industry, and its future is alcohol-free. What are the main trends and changes you observe now, and are there any of them we might see you tapping into in the future?
When we started this business, we identified three industry categories that were growing quickly: ready-to-drink, hemp-infused and alcohol-free. jeng is one of only a few brands that check all of these boxes. Additional industry trends include using adaptogens, nootropics and THC. We are exploring all options as we expand our lines. Direction will be based on consumer demand and what best complements our brand.
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?
We love Boisson's motto. The desire for alcohol-free alternatives isn't new, but until now, options have been limited. jeng satisfies this desire in moments when adults want a premium cocktail, but without the alcohol. We hear customers tell us every day that jeng is what they've been looking for all this time.