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Interview with Gnista’s Erika Ollén

The first bottles of Gnista have finally arrived in the US!

We recently launched pre-sales for this limited batch. So if you want to be one of the first people in the US to get your hands on Gnista, head over to our non-alc bottle shop.

To celebrate the arrival of one of our favorite non-alcoholic spirits in the world (here's our full review), we're sharing a conversation we had with Gnista's founder, Erika Ollén.

She shares the inspiration behind Gnista, how she crafts these complex and delicious spirits and update us on how things are going...

The Zero Proof: How did you decide to start making non-alcoholic spirits? What in your background led you here? 

Erika Ollén: My main drive has always been to improve and break new ground, but also to conceptualize ideas and to communicate "the full picture". Food and cooking have been my main interests since early days, so this was a natural field of work.

As a person I am creative, determined and restless. In 2015, I teamed up with an intelligent man named Thomas Adner. He had just launched a non-alc drink brand for adults. Since then, I've very much experienced first-hand how the now and low trend has been exploding!

Our brand was highly praised and won a number of awards, so there was huge interest. But shipping heavy glass bottles filled mainly with water wasn't in line with our environmental beliefs. Not to mention, the margins were too small.

And right in the middle of our discussions of creating a concentrate that could be shipped and filled on site in India, UAE, etc. - Seedlip launched.

When we ordered and tasted the first non-alcoholic spirit, our plans drastically changed. We saw a number of "me-too" brands follow Seedlip offering "distilled, non-alcoholic gins." And the taste, in our opinion, varied between "quite nice" and "nasty." They did, however, have one thing in common...

None of them resembled a spirit as we know - a liquid that is challenging, with bite, complexity and an intense roundness from the nose to the lingering sensation long after you swallow the drink.

Then it dawned no us that non-alcoholic gins weren't meant to resemble fine spirits or alcohol. They are brands conveying freshness, catering to the wellness crowd. Botanical, soft on the palate and, of course, free from calories. A little bit like "non-alc spirit for beginners" who put health first and who finally found a good reason to opt out of alcohol and still be socially acceptable.

TZP: What inspired Gnista's creation and how did you approach formulating the liquid?  

EO: We knew there was a big, and growing, crowd who cared about the drink experience above all else. These are people who love to celebrate and hang out with friends over cocktails, but may want to skip alcohol (for the night or forever). There are so many reasons to opt out of alcohol beyond just pregnancy and religion...

You may not have time for hangovers, there's social media shaming, health, or just a mindset that booziness isn't that cool anyway.

At the very centre of the group, caring about the quality of the no/low cocktail, we find bartenders and mixologists. They keep the drinking experience central at all times, but are too affected by the no/low trend, at least professionally, as requests for great tasting mocktails continues to grow.

Gnista was born out of the sense that this group deserved something better. And out of my urge to challenge the status quo (in this case, what defines a "real spirit" and me not agreeing with what "non-alcoholic spirit" was turning into).

Throughout this process, presenting a great liquid and keeping the brand promise of "a non-alcoholic spirit truly resembling a fine spirit" is what matters to me most. A natural approach to creating the liquid was thus to gather some of Scandinavia's best bartenders and ask them: "If we were to develop a non-alc spirit that could actually substitute a real one, what characteristics should it have?"

TZP: How did you arrive at your two expressions - Floral Wormwood and Barreled Oak?  And how would you describe each?

EO: Our market research clearly showed the need for two very different (and complementing) liquids. 1) A bitter one, with lots of tannins and a floral-herbal character (to substitute an amaro/vermouth), and 2) a smoky and dry one, where oak and warm spices are prominent (to substitute a whiskey/rum).

We didn't want to set taste expectations by calling Gnista a "non-alcoholic whiskey," so we decided to name them Floral Wormwood and Barreled Oak. Both are dark, intense and complex, and can be consumed neat. But you can also use them in no/low ABV cocktails, finally making it possible to shake non-alcoholic cocktails that taste and look just like alcoholic ones - for real!

TZP: Tell us a bit about how Gnista is made

EO: Having spent as many hours in the kitchen (and none in distilleries, I should probably add), the kitchen was a natural place for me to start. I found taste inspiration in classic and modern spirits. And certain spirit-making techniques like distillation, brewing and barrel aging are central to our process.

But in principle, Gnista is built and balanced the same way you'd cook a delicious meal. It's made by hand in in small batches, always using the best produce, treated carefully, to bring out the best flavors.  

TZP: Tell us about some feedback you've received about the drinks.

EO: Since we launched in late 2019, the feedback from the industry, bartenders and consumers has been overwhelming.

One surprising insight we found is that Gnista is working as a positive catalyst for a big group of younger people who regularly drink alcohol. We're the first true challenger brand, and at our core is the idea that you don't need alcohol to have good times with your friends. Gnista appealed to this group and the support has been fantastic!

TZP: Where are some of the places you can find Gnista around the world?

EO: We had some incredible interest from bars and restaurants around the world pre-Corona lockdowns. We found the sales pitch was as easy as opening a bottle and pouring a taste.

As things return to normal, several world famous bars like The American Bar, Donovan Bar and The Nomad (London) will serve Gnista. We're also in Australia and, of course, Sweden.

In the U.S., we've already had requests from cool shops like Spirited Away in Manhattan... and tons of interest from high-end bars and restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and throughout the Southeast.

TZP: How was it getting the first bottles of Gnista to the US?

EO: Sean Goldsmith from The Zero Proof and Julia Bainbridge were two of the first people in the US to reach out asking for samples. And, thankfully, both of them loved the product! 

I kept in touch with both Sean and Julia. And about a year later, Sean contacted me about importing Gnista to the US. We had been having lots of conversations with potential importers. But I didn't find one I thought was a great fit for Gnista - our drink is special, and it requires a passionate team who can educate the consumer - both bars/restaurants and individuals - about non-alcoholic spirits and what's happening in this space. 

So we worked for many months to prepare Gnista for the U.S. market. And I'm so thrilled the product is finally on its way! 

You can pick up Gnista here. They do sell out!