There’s no stopping the non-alcoholic category. The IWSR noted that the no- and low-alcohol category surpassed $11 billion in value in 2022. By 2026, the research firm further predicts that no- and low-alcohol consumption will increase by a third.
In line with the category’s rapid growth, New Zealand-based non-alcoholic brand AF Drinks Ltd. just announced a major investment from Convivialité Ventures, Pernod Ricard’s venture arm. This backing will help the brand dig further into the US beverage scene after entering the market a few months ago.
In its home country New Zealand, AF Drinks offers 11 SKUs — Palomas, apero dpritzes, Cuba Libres and more; all zero-proof iterations of regular-proof classics — at 300 different grocery liquor outlets. Though the brand only launched in December of 2020, AF now commands 35% of market share within the New Zealand non-alcoholic spirits and ready-to-drink (RTD) category. You can even sip AF Drinks products on Air New Zealand flights.
After two years in New Zealand, the brand expanded to the United States last February with four SKUs: a zero-proof, zero-sugar vodka spritz, apero spritz, Paloma, and Cuba Libre. AF Drinks is known as Free AF in the US market.
What sets the brand apart from the rush of new products in the non-alcoholic space? “Their unique branding, high-quality taste across multiple SKUs, and early consumer traction in the New Zealand market made AF stand out,” says Brandon Yahn, a partner in Convivialité Ventures. There’s also the creative but familiar recipes, plus an added natural extract that founder Lisa King dubs ‘Afterglow.’ Supposedly, it imbues a warm feeling to each sip; a buzz similar to the effects of booze.
“Our brand aesthetic and positioning is also an important differentiator, especially in this category,” says King. “We wanted to create a brand that consumers are proud to be seen drinking, and to stand out with beautiful packaging and cheeky messaging.”
With the investment, AF Drinks will continue infiltrating the US market. “Having Convivialité Ventures on board provides the resources to fuel our US expansion of the AF brand and mission, both financially and in terms of human capital,” says King. “Beyond the United States and with Pernod Ricard’s global reach, we hope to tap into those networks to expand AF into as many markets as we can.”
She continues, “we are using this support to grow three key areas of the business – the first being bullish distribution plans with national retailers and on-premise partners, which will expand upon our existing nationwide Sprouts distribution,” The second, optimization of manufacturing capabilities and bolstering production efforts. Lastly, the financial backing will fund global expansion. “We’re well underway with some of those plans now,” says King.
While the alcohol-free market has been growing at a rapid clip over the last few years, it’s struggled in one major way — education. Beyond bar-made cocktails and simple serves, home drinkers reportedly struggle with how to use a non-alcoholic spirit at home. “The fact that [AF Drinks makes] ready to drink cocktails makes it very convenient and accessible for new consumers to try alcohol free drinks,” says Yahn.
“The NA category in the US is still emerging and I think right now there is still a lot of confusion,” continues King. “Where do these products sit? Should they be price-equivalent to alcohol? What is truly an alternative to alcohol versus just a non-alcoholic beverage?”
King finds that to move the category forward, a clear line needs to be drawn between adult soft drinks and functional, all-day beverages. She defines the former as drinks consumed at the same time and place as alcoholic drinks. The latter are more versatile — nice drinks for morning, noon, evening, or anytime you want to crack something thirst-quenching. That consumer clarity will help a broader range of drinkers understand the range of the non-alcoholic market, which is crucial as the non-alcoholic market gains staying power.
“Since day one, the mission of AF has been to give people a delicious, sophisticated, adult option when they’re not drinking alcohol, and by creating a conversation and community for the sober curious and to normalize the choice of an alcohol-free lifestyle,” King says. “Our intention is to become the leading premium non-alcoholic brand globally.”