Kelly Morris of Omaha isn’t imbibing this month, but not because it’s “Dry January,” when millions of Americans turn the page on holiday excess and put their drinking on ice.
Morris, 42, gave up alcohol this summer, when she was sometimes drinking four bottles of wine a week. “My drinking was escalating,” Morris said, a shift seen in Nebraska and across the country during COVID-19.
Morris works at a non-profit focused on mental health, and knows that pulling a cork isn’t a healthy way to cope. She decided to renegotiate her relationship with alcohol.
An entrepreneurial midtown Omaha couple had people like Morris in mind as they worked in their kitchen and garage, labeling and shipping sparkling bottles of a new – alcohol-free – beverage.
Andrew Wassinger, a food scientist, and Erica Wassinger, a venture capital investor, combined their skills and their own desire for an alcohol alternative to conjure Sandhills Elixir, a “zero-proof spirit.”
It’s a liquor substitute made by blending ingredients and know-how from across Nebraska, right down to the Ogallala Aquifer water they use from the heart of the Sandhills.
The creation is a product of time the Wassingers spent in Summer 2020 with their young sons along Long Pine Creek, east of Valentine.
In his career at ConAgra Brands, Andrew Wassinger has developed and improved products such as frozen vegetables and microwave popcorn. He understands the science behind taste, texture and processing methods.
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In Long Pine, he got to thinking about how he might develop a beverage with the same attention to flavor, ingredients and changing consumer desires – something special like a cocktail, but without alcohol’s drawbacks.
“We’d wake up every morning and see this beautiful creek flowing by the cabin,” he said. “We were sitting there and thinking, how can we relive this, and have this restorative effect all the time?”
He tinkered with flavors and extracts made from plants and fruits, especially those found in Nebraska: sage, chokecherries, elderberries. He looked to create a layered taste, with a bit of alcohol’s warmth.
When he had some recipes, the Wassingers approached someone surprised by their request to cook up a non-alcoholic drink: Valentine Bolo Beer brewer Chris Hernstrom.
Hernstrom didn’t get it. “The first thing I asked Erica, was: ‘Why?’”
Why would anyone want to spend money on alcohol that … wasn’t?
Wassinger explained a social shift taking place.
In 2019, market researcher Nielsen found that more people were cutting back on alcohol, with millennials driving the “mindful drinking” movement. Two-thirds of that generation said they were trying to cut back, with health the main motivator.
That shift overlapped with the rise of cocktail culture. Alcohol-free spirits jumped by more than 32 percent between 2019 and 2020, said beverage market research firm IWSR.
Now, Hernstrom said, he gets the “why.” “We laugh about it because now we have a half a dozen bottles in our house.”
The Valentine brewer has so far produced some 2,000 bottles of Sandhills Elixir, steeping the ingredients and bottling by hand. The Wassingers pick up the bottles, label them at their kitchen table, then ship them, carefully nestled in paper padding. Most sales come in online at sandhillselixir.com. Bottles have been shipped to 32 states.
As interest grows, Hernstrom and his Bolo Beer partners, part-owners of Sandhills Elixir with the Wassingers, are looking to expand. They may invest in additional brewing and bottling equipment to ramp up production.
With Sandhills Elixir, Erica Wassinger is putting her background in branding, marketing and start-up business development to work.
She’s calling shops, asking them to put bottles on their shelves. Those receptive include The Merc boutique in Lincoln, Spirit World in Omaha, the Heirloom Market in Bayard and The Cup coffee shop and bar in Kearney.
“What’s been really gratifying is how much our home state has adopted it,” she said.
The business sees strong interest from customers like Morris in Omaha: women in professional roles, who want to consume less or no alcohol while still enjoying a special beverage while socializing.
Part of the marketing strategy is teaching customers how to use Sandhills Elixir. Morris recently signed up for a class at Spirit World, so she could learn how to mix different non-alcoholic cocktails.
One of Sandhills Elixir’s most frequent buyers is Sharon Carleton, 49, an executive coach in Omaha.
She drinks, but has cut back to manage autoimmune issues. When drinking less alcohol, “I just felt better.”
Drinking and serving Sandhills Elixir was a way to enjoy the holidays with a special drink but no regret. Carleton shipped several bottles as Christmas gifts to friends and family in Baltimore, San Francisco and Kansas City. She set out more on the buffet at her holiday party.
“The bottle is so beautiful,” she said. “I did get a lot of questions…People are familiar with the Sandhills and wondered, ‘What’s this about?’”
She now pours a splash of Elixir in the evening the way others have a glass of wine.
“You do form a positive habit of reaching for it if you want something healthy.”
Sandhills Elixir is taking off at the same time Nebraska rang up a record year of alcohol sales, Nebraska Liquor Control Commission data show.
Beer sales, which slowed during the 2019 hard-seltzer craze, reversed course and climbed in 2020 and 2021. Wine sales jumped. The biggest gainer: Hard liquor. Spirits volume shot up 16 percent in the past two years.
During COVID-19, consumers became their own bartenders, stocking home bar carts, building basement bourbon bunkers and trading commutes for work-from-home kitchen cocktails.
“They drank at home, and they drank more,” said Hobert Rupe, the Liquor Commission’s director.
The rapid flow of alcohol has concerned health experts. Early in the pandemic, the World Health Organization warned that alcohol compromises the immune system and ups the risk of myriad complications.
At the same time, Nebraska – already the nation’s fifth-ranked binge drinking state, according to the CDC – has made it easier to get alcohol. A May 2021 law legalized buying cocktails to-go from bars and restaurants, increased the volume that craft distilleries can produce and lowered taxes on canned cocktails.
In this ocean of booze, can non-alcoholic spirits catch a wave? The jury’s out, bar owners say.
A year ago, non-alcohol spirits “wasn’t even a category,” said Laurie Hellbusch, owner of Spirit World. “Then all of a sudden, it just hit.”
She met the idea with some skepticism – would people pay $29 for a bottle without the buzz?
Hellbusch said she now carries Sandhills Elixir because it’s an interesting product, locally made. Even if they’re cutting back on alcohol, “People still want that experience. We still want to give them the same experience.”
Dry January itself is attracting more temporary teetotalers this year. A Morning Consult poll found that nearly 1 in 5 adults who drink, and more than a quarter of drinking Millennials, planned to participate in some way this month.
That opens an opportunity for products like Sandhills Elixir.
“As the movement picks up momentum…there is opportunity for the growing nonalcoholic beverage market to gain awareness and potentially year-round attention,” Morning Consult’s Emily Moquin wrote.
There are signs the alternatives have staying power. Clark Ross, owner of downtown Omaha bar Mercury, known for its themed cocktail menu, said that he’s gone from having one or two people a week interested in a “mocktail,” to now 10 to 20.
Ross was shocked when Mercury sold out two events where, for $45, diners eat a multi-course meal and sip Sandhills Elixir drinks.
He plans to keep Sandhills Elixir on the shelf. Not just for his customers.
“With my own cutting down on drinking,” he said, “I for one appreciate having it around.”
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