The Zero Proof spent some time with Curious Elixirs' founder, John Wiseman and his mission to change non-alcoholic cocktail culture
We've tried the majority of booze free, ready-to-drink cocktails, and most are indistinguishable from fancy soft drinks. Often loaded with refined sugar and artificial tasting ingredients, more often than not they're still rather bland. It's not easy to build complex, delicious, grown-up drinks without alcohol.
Which is what makes Curious Elixirs extraordinary in the category. Not only has founder John Wiseman made pre-made non-alcoholic cocktails that taste fantastic (read our full review here), but his elixirs are designed with functional ingredients to make you feel that way, too. At the beginning of a recent conversation with The Zero Proof, when I asked him why he chose to go functional as well as flavorful, he replied, "'Why not go further?' is really the question."
Wiseman has a tendency to respond to questions with questions of his own; Curious Elixirs are aptly named given their founder's charming and infectious curiosity. The experiments that would lead to Curious Elixirs started with Wiseman "toying around in the kitchen back in 2012 when I was on my own sober journey, which resulted in me trying to find the most interesting ingredients around the world."
"When I came across herbal remedies and adaptogens as part of my learning and my research, the question inevitably came up 'Why shouldn't something that is non-alcoholic also make your body function better, or make you feel subtly better, but without a buzz?' It's the same thing as Hippocrates: 'Let food be thy medicine.'"
Wieseman is not just quoting what he's read in books; his obsessive research led him to an island in the Mediterranean off of the coast of Turkey, where he sat under a millennia old tree where the classical physician taught.
The role of adaptogens in Curious Elixirs
Though Curious Elixirs are infused with adaptogens and functional botanicals, Wiseman emphasized that these ingredients in Curious Elixirs are not at supplement levels, and while some people may enjoy the subtle mood lifting or energizing effects, others may not, or may only experience the sensory pleasure of drinking a well crafted cocktail. "Experientially, these different plants, for many people, are highly beneficial, but everyone needs to be curious about how it works for them. It's not a pharmaceutical; these are things they have to figure out. Some people swear by ashwagandha and they take 1,000 mg every day; in Curious [the amount of ashwagandha] is much lower than that. For some people it's great and for some people it's like, 'Nah, this doesn't really work for me.' That's ok! But let's start the inquiry, let's find out for ourselves, along with the insights from our doctors and healthcare professionals- who really need to know more about these things, as well." One of the long-term missions for Curious Elixirs is to be able to support continued research into functional plants. While many of these plants have been used for centuries in indigenous cultures, non-Western medicine practices, and have even been scientifically researched, "a lot of the studies on something like rhodiola, for example, are in Chinese and in Russian," making the literature inaccessible not just to consumers but healthcare providers in much of the Western world. "We need more inquiry."
Curious Elixirs' Mission
Funding research is a long-term goal, "but the real mission for Curious is to transform how we drink socially. That is the mission- always has been- to transform how we drink socially. It's not that alcohol is bad, it's that too much alcohol is bad, and we need better options. And when we started this, there weren't any."
While he recognizes that non-drinkers are in the minority, he's of course done the research and has discovered that there are a lot more than one might think. "Between 1 in 3 and 1 in 4 adult Americans don't drink. It's a staggeringly large number. That's a number from 2015 [when Curious Elixirs launched], before a lot of this really started catching the media's attention, so it's only accelerated from there. Seventy-five million Americans don't drink any alcohol, and another ninety million Americans drink two or fewer alcoholic drinks a week."
When I expressed shock at those numbers, he wasn't surprised. "It's just that a lot of people have been silent about it. And that's why our mission has always been 'Let's make drinking less more fun, more rewarding, more whimsical, more weird, that's what makes life fun. It isn't the alcohol itself, it's the experience of being with friends, of being entertained, or dancing, or seeing a show, or what have you. All of these things can be enriched by something that makes you feel good, and just the simple replacement of alcohol with something fun, complex, and festive, can be a reward unto itself and to add to those other experiences."
So how does Curious plan to drive this transformation of social drinking? "One restaurant at a time, one theatre venue at a time, one nightclub at a time, one person at a time." When I tell him how frustrating it is to me when excellent restaurants don't have a single intentionally non-alcoholic cocktail on their otherwise thoughtfully crafted list, he sympathizes. "Restaurateurs and venue operators think, 'That's not my clientele.' And the reality is, that is your clientele, they're sitting in front of you being served water or club soda. You're missing an opportunity to serve your people better, and make more money. There isn't any excuse, and that's why we've been working more on that, because it's so core to our mission." Of course, the pandemic has meant improvising new ways to do that kind of outreach to restaurants. "I mean, during COVID we're not going out to a bunch of restaurants, but we're gifting them cases of Curious for their staff. Here's a way to unwind without a ton of booze, just have some, you deserve a night off."
Even in the midst of the pandemic, however, Wiseman has been busy working to "infiltrate nightlife culture, with interesting drinks that just happen to not be boozy" by opening Club Curious, a sober speakeasy he says is "somewhere in Brooklyn" (attendees for events will get the address when they RSVP, but in true speakeasy style, he likes to keep the exact location a semi-secret).
Club Curious has been agile in reacting to the pandemic: when cases were down and public health guidance suggested gathering in person was safer, they hosted tastings and in person entertainment for up to 50 people, while streaming to three to four thousand non-New Yorker Curious fans around the world. For now, Club Curious is going all virtual, but Wiseman sees this not as a pop-up, but a permanent new fixture of NYC nightlife.
"It's a way for us to change the conversation around what sober nightlife can be." Club Curious has hosted "everything from Grammy nominated musicians to award winning modern dancers to we this mind-blowing mentalist we had come and do a show. We have different talk-shows and podcasts that record there."
He hopes that the space will become a "home to broadcast what sober-curious culture can be about. Our hope is that 20 years from now, that can be something that helps inform every party, every restaurant, every wedding, every theatre venue, every comedy club, to have a better-for-you, interesting alcohol alternative."
And how he plans to do that is with a precisely and carefully crafted selection of drinks that taste great. "How Curious came to exist is by asking questions: What does life look like with less alcohol? Can it be more delicious? Can it make my body even feel better? And the answer is yes, it can, and that's why we went functional in addition," he emphasizes, "but it's got to be flavor first. If it doesn't taste amazing, and if it doesn't taste different from everything else out there, then we shouldn't be creating anything at all."
About the author: Suzan Eraslan is a non-alcoholic mixologist, DJ, and audio editor in New York City, creating and sharing zero proof cocktails every week on her newsletter 5PM Eternal (https://5pmeternal.substack.com). When she isn't experimenting with non-alcoholic spirits (and sometimes when she is), Suzan is watching every movie ever nominated for Best Picture for the Screen Test of Time podcast.