Ben Belgrad: Many of you know that I gave up alcohol a few years ago, and today it is rare that I indulge in an alcoholic drink. One of the biggest obstacles for me in abstention has been replacing alcoholic drinks with something else when I'm out with friends. Sometimes I’ll end up at a bar that offers mocktails and sometimes they’re actually decent, but usually the options for me are soda or seltzer water. Thanks to our cocktail correspondent in the field, David, I have discovered a new option that I am excited to share with all of you!
David Thomas Tao: Melanie Masarin founded a “non-alcoholic spirits” brand, but she doesn’t like that term, and it’s for good reason. Ghia — the product of over a year of formulation, with flavors inspired by Masarin’s upbringing — isn’t trying to be a substitute for existing liquors. Instead, Masarin and her team set out to create a new flavor in an accessible, ready-to-drink or mix product — one that just so happens to fit in with her choices as someone who doesn’t drink alcohol.
I caught up with Masarin to talk about the emerging category of zero proof spirits, launching a drinks brand during a global pandemic, and why it took so long to get Ghia’s unique flavor just right.
David: So the first thing I have to ask is what inspired you to create a non-alcoholic spirit?
Melanie Masarin: Well actually it's because I don't drink. So it really came from personal experience and really wanting these moments of connection without the alcohol. So we actually don't really call it a non-alcoholic spirit, because I think it makes it sound like it's a lesser version of a drink. And I think the interesting thing for us as a company is to create original flavors that will not make you feel like you're missing out on something.
David: The flavor profiles at your disposal are basically infinite. How did you develop the product initially? Where were your starting points?
Melanie: Well, my starting point is always my grandmother's recipe book. She used to make these incredible beverages and she used to make this incredible food. She was just a really great hostess. Not that she was any sort of very special cook, although she did cook really well, but she just wasn't intimidated by the kitchen. She made jugs of limoncello, and they would act almost like an hourglass through the summer because it would just go down and go down until it was time to go back to school for me. That was the first source of inspiration. And oddly enough, with Ghia, I sort of knew exactly what I wanted it to taste like, because it was a flavor that I was craving.
I was always really frustrated when I was going to a restaurant and wanting to order a drink before dinner, that moment of transition after work and maybe you dropped off your stuff at home, you change, you are going to meet some friends for dinner. It's very much kind of a New York City lifestyle. I would say not wanting to drink and then being offered Coca-Cola, you know, and I just felt like that was there needed to be something better. And I craved these bitter flavors, the kind of amaros of my childhood and something that would feel like a real drink, but wouldn't be completely packed with sugar. Mocktails are usually very juice based and very sweet and it feels like you're being served dessert before dinner.
David: Where do you get Ghia made now? And how did you scale up that initial production before you went to market?
Melanie: We did a number of test batches with one factory, and now we have three that we work with to be able to keep up with production and also being able to reduce our food miles. So I'm producing it from different parts of the country. When we hired a food scientist, it was really helpful in the process. It took 55 weeks to finalize the formula. And as we were getting closer, there were some ingredients we knew were going to stay. So we started researching those specific ingredients and making our extracts custom so that they could truly be easier to bring to zero-percent alcohol, which is also pretty uncommon.
David: I also want to ask a little bit about the color as far as the production of the product. It's an interesting color and I've tried it in a few different glasses. I like exploring different spirits or drinks in different glassware to see how the light refracts and reflects. Is the color a by-product of the formulation, or did you have a specific visual and color in mind?
Melanie: I think when we started mood boarding, we definitely had a color in mind. I think we would've wanted it to be like a spritz color, an orange color, but I really didn't want to use any coloring. So we add a tiny bit of raspberry powder. That's all natural. And it just makes it a little bit more red than brown. And it gives it this very specific color.
David: Let's talk about going to market with this. What channels did you start with when you launched the product? How have those panned out, especially launching during COVID-19 in 2020?
Melanie: We really want people to be able to try the product and we really wanted to create a drink that would be respected by the culinary industry. I think that was the thing that was really important to me as I was trying the options on the market. And so the challenge was, could you create a drink that actually, yes, I can have at home. But I never feel the same social pressure to drink when I'm at home.
And so the idea was to launch Ghia in restaurants only with 50 select establishments on April 1st, 2020. And obviously we've had to completely pivot that because two weeks before then all the restaurants in the world shut down. So we adopted a digital first approach and it's worked, I wouldn't want to say it's worked completely in our favor, but I think there were some positives for sure. The pandemic has sort of forced people to maybe renegotiate their relationship to alcohol.Once we realized we were in this for the long haul, there was a bit more of a shift in focus in terms of self care. And without the social pressure, you know, drinking alcohol in the outside world, I think a lot of people have been wanting that nightly ritual without having the booze and without having the sugar.
I think it's probably been able to reach a much more diverse audience because we were on the internet and we also really love that people were sharing it. In our early days, about 10% of Ghia was gifted, which I thought was so special. When I needed a pick me up, I would read the gift notes that would go out for the evening because it felt like it's such a good intention and gift to offer this kind of moment to someone without the alcohol.There were some really sweet notes that were going out, sort of kept us going throughout the early difficult months. The biggest hurdle from a marketing standpoint is that people don't know what it tastes like. And it's very hard to describe because we're not marketing a functional promise.
There's functional benefits to having a functional dose of lemon balm, to having rosemary extract, but that's not what we're putting forward. We're not putting it forward as a low calorie drink. We're not putting it forward as a healthy drink. And we're also not putting it forward as a gin alternative or as an analog to some other alcohol. And so when you're trying to sell an original flavor -- can people try it -- that's sort of the biggest issue.
David: Are there any new formulations or other products that you can talk about that are in process right now?
Melanie: Yes. We'll be launching a single serve version of Ghia.
A special thanks to Melanie Masarin for sharing her story, from Ghia’s origins to building a brand in the zero-proof space. We’ll work to bring more coverage of beverage entrepreneurs expanding offerings for drinkers and non-drinkers alike!
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