The Future of Social Connection Isn’t Fueled by Alcohol
When Tom and Lisa Johnstone started talking about their plans to create a non-alcoholic spirit back in 2019, they were met with…
When Tom and Lisa Johnstone started talking about their plans to create a non-alcoholic spirit back in 2019, they were met with head-scratching. Fast forward to 2022, and nearly 1 in 5 adults reported that they participated in Dry January. Sales across the category reached $3.1 billion last year (up from $291 million) and a growing number of young people (30% of college-age Americans) are choosing to abstain from alcohol entirely.
Noticing the dearth of quality non-alcoholic options, even in their wellness-centric hometown of Los Angeles, Tom and Lisa set out to create a botanical spirit that would bring people together in the same spirit of celebration and connection as alcohol and support their well-being. After over a year of exploring and perfecting their flavor profiles with a local master distiller, Optimist Drinks was born.
We recently sat down with co-founder Lisa to talk about Optimist’s mission, how the pandemic impacted the non-alc market, and how a global brand strategist and non-profit consultant created their mission-driven dream company.
What inspired you to start Optimist?
Tom and I were very driven by social innovation and bringing about social change. The last 4–5 years have been pretty turbulent, and we had a growing awareness of the levels of anxiety people were experiencing. We started noticing the impact of a strained and anxious zeitgeist on our family, and we realized alcohol wasn’t helping us deal with the situation. So we who have always enjoyed hosting, eating, and drinking, found ourselves wanting to drink a little less for our physical and mental wellbeing.
We bounced back and forth to the UK and noticed increasingly that there were fantastic non-alcoholic options in the retail spaces, bars, and restaurants there. When we came back to Los Angeles, which we consider to be the center of health and wellness trends, there were very few options. It was still trapped in the 1980s sugary mocktail style. There were some brilliant writers at the vanguard of the non-alc movement, like Ruby Warrington, Julia Bainbridge, and Holly Whitaker, but unless you got lucky in a bar, there were few options out there for people to actually sip on. It was a great moment to create a non-alc option in the US.
Your mission isn’t just to create a delicious beverage, it’s to strengthen human connection, combat isolation and loneliness, and promote mental health. Why have you chosen this path to do that?
Tom and I are very sociable creatures. We love dining out, hosting people at home, we love cooking. Tom is a fantastic mixologist. Since time immemorial, humans have gathered together for food and drink and celebration and that’s how bonds have been built in society. We started noticing that people were trying to drink less and younger generations, particularly younger millennials and Gen Z, were rejecting alcohol outright. In that same group, there was also an increase in loneliness, a sense of disconnection, and mental health issues. We have young children who will be that age in the blink of an eye, and we wanted to be part of changing that landscape.
Most of us have tried on occasion to avoid alcohol. You feel a sense of isolation immediately because you are less inclined to go out. If you are out, you don’t feel part of the party because you’re sitting there drinking a club soda with a squeeze of lime or something super sugary and quite revolting. There is a strange sense that you are dampening the evening for others by staying sober. There is history here — I read in Edward Slinger’s book, Drunk, that in ancient Rome, a great insult was to call someone a “water drinker,” which meant they were not to be trusted, that they were not part of the social gathering. In a way, that still happens now.
There was a really obvious need to make not drinking alcohol socially acceptable, and to help people realize that the social connection and buzz often comes from the company we’re keeping and the energy of the event, and not necessarily from ethanol.
Consumer interest in non-alcoholic beverages has been spiking. How has the pandemic impacted the market?
The pandemic brought with it particular business challenges, like production and supply chain, but more broadly it accelerated the changes we were seeing. When we shared what we were planning on doing in 2019, we were met with people scratching their heads and saying, “What’s the point of that?” A lot of our PR revolved around justifying the category before we could even talk about our product or brand. This year, there’s much less of a need to do that.
People got very excited about having cocktails at five o’clock in the first month or two of the pandemic. It became a ritual of shutting down your workday if you were working from home. It doesn’t take long to recognize that you can’t really function as your best self and drink cocktails from five o’clock every day. People became increasingly aware of their mental and physical well-being.
We often talk about mindful consumption. People are increasingly concerned with what they’re ingesting, what they’re choosing to eat and drink, where they’re sourcing things, and sustainability. We’re starting to interrogate more and recognize the impact that we have on our society and our planet.
Who are your customers and what drives them?
When we launched in January 2020 we were exclusively an e-commerce brand — everything was closed! Our early customers were often people who didn’t drink at all, for any number of reasons: personal taste, physical health, pregnancy, medical conditions, but there was an equal number who were exploring the newly emerging category — the “sober curious” (a term Ruby Warrington coined). That tended to skew slightly female, in their 30s and 40s, often looking for something to drink midweek as a first step to cutting back. Now, though, our customer base has broadened out by age and gender. Did you know 40% of American adults don’t drink alcohol?
Our other customers of course are the mixologists and beverage directors. Really, we want people to discover Optimist on bar and restaurant menus, when they are out socializing and connecting, and not just in the privacy of their own home.
How did you think about crafting the Optimist Brand?
We were determined to create a company that had a mission at its center, and we were obviously cognizant of the power of branding in communicating our message.
When we talk about optimism, it is active and grittily determined. We don’t mean rose-tinted positivity. We are talking about looking at the world with absolute clarity, recognizing the flaws and problems, and doing something about it. We create tools for optimists, be that our drinks, or the content we create in the form of the podcast and our journal pieces. As we designed the brand, we wanted to make sure we got that tension between active optimism and imperfection.
The shape of the bottle was very considered — slightly broader shoulders, so the spirit of optimism was imbued within the glass. The base is deliberately offset, because we wanted to create a stunning bottle that had its own imperfections. The idea being, although we might present perfectly, all of us are imperfect, we are all in progress (our podcast is actually called Optimist In Progress). The illustrations on the inside back label are laid out like a Rorschach test, which is a nod to the mental wellbeing mission we have at our core.
We knew from the beginning that we were going to be an environmentally positive brand. We are B Corp pending, and determined to operate ethically and regeneratively.
It was also really important to us that Optimist Botanicals didn’t feel like a downgrade or the less exciting option. It had to be something you’d actively want to choose, instead of being slightly embarrassed by. We wanted to position it as a premium drink that would stand very comfortably on the back bar of legendary cocktail bars, and on the menu at Michelin-starred restaurants.
How about actually making your botanicals? What goes into them?
We weren’t interested in making alcohol mimics. Through steam distillation and CO2, we wanted to capture the essence — the spirit — of the botanical ingredients and create clear, clean, sugar-free drinks to be mixed simply with club soda or tonic, or used in more complex cocktails. They had to have backbone, a considered taste profile, and be full of flavor.
We wanted to keep production local and found a master distiller we were really excited to work with. For over a year, we talked through the three flavor areas we were interested in exploring––where we wanted a sip to take you.
Having spent a few years in a grey London, when you land in Los Angeles, you see things with very wide, clear eyes and you fall madly in love with the beautifully diverse environments that we’re fortunate to live in. We live a two-minute cycle from the gorgeous beaches, can be up in the canyons in 25 minutes, and then it’s an hour and a half out to the high desert. These locales, and the diverse community that makes up this city, provided the inspiration for our drinks.
As an example, Bright takes you to the end of a hot day in Venice. You’ve got salty skin after being on the beach. The sun is lowering in the sky and you’re having an outdoor shower. There’s a lemon tree nearby and you can smell jasmine in the summer air. Then it’s grounded with myrrh — it’s not all lightness and lemons in Venice, there are many other textures.
We taste-tested all of the flavors with sparkling water because we recognize that some people don’t want to drink sugar or tonic — we wanted them to stand alone and be absolutely delicious. They were not designed to be sipped, but we’ve discovered that a lot of people do enjoy sipping them.
What impact does Dry January have on your business?
Dry January is a really significant month because that’s when people are very open to the idea of not drinking and more likely to explore the growing non-alc category. Even since last year, we’re seeing a significant step change. Bars and restaurants are increasingly interested in creating cocktails they can offer to their non-drinking clientele.
It also brings a big spike in media interest as well, making more people aware of the category and open to the idea that drinking alcohol doesn’t have to be a binary decision. Over 75% of alcohol drinkers want to drink less and are actively looking for non-alc alternatives. And half of younger folks between the ages of 18–25 have zero interest in drinking booze at all.
The world has been waking up. We’re at a tipping point now, and it’s amazing.
Who inspires you?
I am inspired by anyone who recognizes the problems we face as a society and as a species, and who works to create a better future. Personally, I am deeply motivated by social justice and equity, and that has only been compounded by our time in the US. Bryan Stevenson’s selfless and unrelenting dedication to challenging bias in the criminal justice system leaves me in awe.
I am also deeply inspired by the people in our communities who dedicate themselves to helping those underserved and overlooked by society. The brilliant people at non-profit Safe Place for Youth (to whom we give a percentage of our sales revenue) are dedicated to getting young people off the streets and providing the mental wellness services they need to find some stability and take back control of their lives.