When Morgan McLachlan became a parent, she found herself reevaluating what she drank.
“I’m really interested in celebratory beverages,” says McLachlan, a Los Angeles filmmaker-turned-distiller, but “it doesn’t have to be alcohol, it can be adaptogens, it can be cannabis. A lot of people are starting to explore other ways to relax or connect.”
This led her to include adaptogens, certain herbs and mushrooms that some say help the body respond to stress, in DeSoi, the line of non-alcoholic sparkling drinks she co-created with singer Katy Perry. Its Purple Lune mixes tart cherry with ashwagandha. Holy basil, another adaptogen, appears in McLachlan’s fruity Amass hard seltzers, and reishi mushroom is utilized in her Amass gin.
McLachlan is not alone. A range of zero-proof beverages now feature the sort of herbs and botanicals once primarily found in health food stores. They target many of the same consumers who shop for organic groceries, buy herbal supplements and drink natural wine.
“We’re looking at the earth for ingredients and there’s an emphasis on better-for-you products,” says Sol Broady, founder of Leilo, a line of soft drinks that feature L-theanine, an amino acid in green tea, and kava, a South Pacific root used in spiritual ceremonies and for relaxation.
After trying kava on a family vacation to Fiji, Broady wanted to bring a piece of the island’s culture home. “The relaxed, calm, community, friendship…all those qualities are conspicuously missing in the caffeinated, overdrive American culture,” he says. Dubbed “calm in a can,” Leilo is a brisk seller at spas and airports where people want to relax before a flight, says Broady. Next, he plans to launch Leilo Luna, a bedtime kava with added melatonin.
“People have pill fatigue, so this is an alternative delivery method.” —Dr. Crystal Gossard, DCN
In a stressful world, everyone’s looking for new ways to relax, says Dr. Crystal Gossard, DCN, a doctor of clinical nutrition based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
“I think it’s amazing because now you’re using the power of nature to help you to relax,” says Gossard. “People have pill fatigue, so this is an alternative delivery method.”
Since ancient times, alcohol has been used to support health. Ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Greeks used wine as a medicine. Doctors invented aromatic bitters, high-proof infusions of herbs and roots, to treat stomach ailments. Most spirits, including absinthe, whiskey and gin, have had turns as medicines for everything from settling the stomach to disinfecting wounds.
While many drinks are historically made using botanical compounds, making sure the active ingredients wind up in the final product isn’t as easy as it sounds. Distillation captures the flavors in botanicals, but the heat destroys any active ingredients. This means the ashwagandha, reishi and lion’s mane mushrooms in Amass gin are just there for flavor, says McLachlan.
Plus, there’s the matter of taste. Kava means bitter in Tongan, and the traditional drink’s flavor doesn’t appeal to everyone. Broady spent two years developing Leilo’s low-sugar flavors like Coconut Pineapple Mango and Tango Berry.
Guayacura Damiana, a Mexican liqueur, utilizes a neutral grain spirit base that’s infused with with the damiana (turnera diffusa) plant, says importer James McCartney. Other brands add extracts or use maceration or fermentation.
As a practicing herbalist, Aaliyah Nitoto made a low-alcohol wine with a high concentration of lavender to help her clients sleep. “I’m obsessed with lavender,” says Nitoto, the founder of Free Range Flower Winery. “I use it constantly.”
As a winemaker, she’s focused on presenting a full sensory experience with flowers like marigold, rose, and lavender, which she ferments into wine. “I wanted to create a balance so people could have pleasure and enjoy it as a recreational beverage,” says Nitoto. Her lavender wine is savory and herbal, and she says fans note they feel less anxious after a glass or two.
The team at Three Spirit, a line of zero-proof “spirits” based on botanicals, use a range of methods including fermentation and maceration to tease both flavor and active ingredients out of herbs. They partnered with plant scientists to find effective nutraceuticals from around the world, and flavor experts to make sure the final products tasted appealing.
“We don’t believe that people drink just for the flavor,” says Dash Lilley, cofounder of Three Spirit. “And I don’t believe people just drink just to get intoxicated. It’s a little of both. We were really interested in exploring active compounds that could provide a shift in feeling.”
Their latest is Blurred Vines, a range of non-alcoholic wine analogues launched in Britain this spring. Sharp is like an herbal Sauvignon Blanc spiked with clary sage and B vitamins, while Spark is reminiscent of sparkling rosé mixed with L-theanine and schisandra, an adaptogenic berry from China. Historically used in traditional Chinese medicine, Lilley says schisandra can help balance the body. “It’s something that can regulate your cortisol stress hormone,” he says. “It can energize us.”
While none of these brands make concrete health claims, it’s worth noting that most herbs take a while to start working, so a drink or two on the weekend won’t do much. But there’s plenty of evidence that botanicals can create a sense of calm or energy, says Gossard, an education specialist for Life Extension, a supplement and health testing company.
A Guide to Adaptogens and Botanicals
Here’s what science says about some botanicals showing up in drinks:
Lavender (lavandula angustifolia)
Prized for its ability to create a sense of calm, a 2019 meta-analysis found that lavender reduced anxiety.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
A small woody plant, ashwagandha is an adaptogen revered in Ayurvedic medicine. A 2012 randomized controlled trial found ashwagandha reduced cortisol levels and feelings of stress after 60 days.
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)
This adaptogenic berry is said to either calm or enhance energy depending on what the body needs. Studies have found schisandra lignans protect the brain and improve cognitive function. Gossard says it also supports liver health.
A constituent of green tea (camellia sinensis), Gossard says L-theanine is great for calm and focus throughout the day. A 2021 randomized controlled trial found L-theanine improved attention.
Published: May 23, 2022