Alex Carlton has famously started Funkin Cocktails in 1999 but his innovative streak wasn't defined by fruit purées and cocktail ingredients. Since then he has worked on multiple ventures - most recently STRYKK non-alcoholic liqueur range. Here's what he has to say about reducing alcohol consumption and low/no movement, being movers & shakers and launching successful brands in the UK and far beyond.
Tell us how you came up with the idea of Strykk?
After I exited Funkin Cocktails in 2015, I was looking for my next challenge and was keen to stay in the drinks industry. It was what I knew and loved.
I started looking at some of my own drinking. I wanted to manage it better but not move away altogether. But I did not want to move to sugary soft drinks. I spoke with friends who felt the same way. They were becoming more health conscious and wanted to have a more balanced, health-aware approach to alcohol. It became clear that there was a gap in the market as there were no obvious choices of what to drink, no inclusive brands. I therefore decided to create zero proof spirits which accurately mimic the taste of alcoholic drinks, allowing people to enjoy the drinks they love and stay in the moment, without comprising on taste or experience.
So Strykk was born, the second non-alcohol spirit to hit the market, to satisfy the increasing demand for a quality, modern and stylish alternative to alcohol. It was launched into the on-trade in 2018 and the range now includes Not G*n and Not R*m, Not V*dka, Not Vanilla V*dka and Not Aperitivo.
Why the name?
We wanted something catchy, memorable, could double as a verb, sounds fresh, modern and young, timeless, engaging and curious. IP we could register and own. I think we achieved this.
Who makes the liquid for you?
All Strykk products are distilled and bottled in the UK. They all underwent a rigorous development process to ensure they deliver on flavour. There was a lot of tweaking and testing.
How did you choose the ingredients in each brand?
Strykk was developed over two years with the help of some top London bartenders to deconstruct the various elements and profiles of spiced rum, London dry gin and traditional vodka, to create our own interpretation of a premium 0% ABV alternative.
Strykk Not G*n combines spruce needle extract, mint, sage, coriander and cucumber. Strykk Not R*m includes hints of clove, oakwood, vanilla and raisin. Strykk Not V*dka features menthol and cucumber notes with a wheaty undertone. Strykk Not Vanilla V*dka is infused with Madagascan vanilla beans. Strykk Not Aperitivo blends sweeter Prosecco-like notes with the sharper flavours of quassia, wormwood and bitter orange.
All expressions are 100% natural with no sugar, no fat, no carbs and no artificial flavours. We’ve added some capsicum to our products which slow-releases and mimics the burn of alcohol.
How does that differ from other non-alcoholic spirits and how do you ensure the quality?
I couldn’t comment on how other non-alc spirits are made, but quality at Strykk has always been paramount and will remain our key priority. Consumers don’t want to compromise on taste. Nor do they want to compromise on ritual simply because they are choosing not to drink alcohol. Our products are designed to look, act and taste just like their alcoholic counterparts.
The non-alcoholic spirits sector is already highly competitive – what do you think gives Strykk the edge?
Our liquid for a start. We know we have the best liquid in the market, we have iterated and innovated constantly to push flavour boundaries and techniques to deliver the most remarkable non-alc spirit in the market today, one the consumer and professional can rely on each time to deliver against expectations of what a non-alc spirit should taste like and how it should mix to deliver a drink experience like no other.
You launched the brand in the on-trade – how did you do that and what success were you having before Covid?
To start with, it was all about pounding the pavements – personally introducing Strykk to friends and former customers, people I’d worked with for years with Funkin Cocktails. The brand was well received and we had great initial listings from top bars and this trend increased as pubs and bars built their knowledge and understanding and consumers became more switched on to the category. In 2019, AG Barr invested in Strykk and as a result we have been working with the Funkin Cocktails sales team ever since. We have a very strong relationship and they represent us across retail and the on-trade.
You call the brands “plug and play” – what do you mean by that?
By plug and play, I mean that Strykk products act just like their alcoholic counterparts. Customers can choose a Strykk version of their favourite drink made using the UK’s most popular spirits, whether that is a traditional long drink, ie a G&T, vodka and soda or rum and cola, or one of the UK’s top cocktails and enjoy it alcohol-free. Strykk Not Vanilla V*dka provides a non-alcoholic alternative to popular vanilla vodka serves such as Passionfruit and Espresso Martinis.
Not Aperitivo, a refreshing, vibrant and exciting new serve taps, into the Spritz occasion, a huge trend all about summer fun and people coming together for al fresco drinking. People love the bittersweet citrus and botanical taste of aperitivos and now everyone can join in, whether they’re drinking alcohol or not.
The ready to drink sector is growing fast and we recently launched a Strykk RTD range – Strykk G*n & Tonic and Strykk R*m & Cola.
You had to switch to retail during Covid – how did that go?
Having built the brand’s credibility in the drinks industry, 2021 was a great opportunity to seek out opportunities in retail. Now that Strykk is in Tesco, awareness for the brand is building quickly.
But it’s exciting to be working with the on-trade again, helping bars to optimise this opportunity. Strykk is at home there and minimal staff training is required. The landscape has changed considerably since Covid: interest from consumers in non-alc spirits has increased hugely and the category is forecast to continue growing strongly. Strykk’s unique flavour profile makes it a truly satisfying and credible spirit alternative and offers the trade not only non-alcoholic options on serves, but also higher margins than on traditional soft drinks.
It’s also great for bars as they can simply Strykk their menus by placing a Strykk asterisk next to any vodka, gin or rum cocktail and swapping in the relevant Strykk product, creating alcohol-free options. This eliminates the need for a separate space on the menu for alcohol free drinks and represents real inclusivity. We see mocktails as a thing of the past, laced with stigma. If a non-drinker can be truly included and catered for in the same way as alcohol drinkers, then that’s good for the consumer and even better for business.
How have you managed to stand out online and what digital skills have been most important in that?
Everybody is trying to stand out online and the space is getting very congested with many brands entering and some with too much funding, relying on their investment to make noise and target their competitors to little success. We have managed to stay true to our brand, cause and customer and focused on communicating directly with audiences we know will respond to our brand and love what we do. We have not spent time, money or energy targeting our competition – this is lame, weak and lazy and not sustainable. So our digital skill has been to stay true and confident in our product, proposition and customer.
Have you had to bring in new skills and people to help you go online and push retail sales?
Our collaboration with Funkin Cocktails is strong and together we will provide customers with the solutions they need to make the most of the non-alc opportunity. Internally we have built our digital expertise and are also building our overseas presence.
You also launched Funkin Cocktails – what do you think is the key to creating a successful drinks brand?
The ability to listen to your customer and tweak and improve product to ensure best in class and consistency. Building brand authority and authenticity, customers will tap into, get to know, love and trust. Persistence and hard work always pays too. Don’t get fazed by the competition, stay laser-focused on your own goals.
Has your background in cocktail ingredients and mixers helped in knowing what bartenders might want from a non-alcoholic spirit?
They want product they feel they can take ownership of and something they can be proud to serve that will deliver exceptional customer experience. This is reflected in everything they create. It’s their reputation and livelihood, so they want, need and demand the best ingredients to enable them. It’s their livelihood at stake at the end of the day.
What are your ambitions for the brand now?
Overall Strykk’s strategy for growth is to create high quality, non-alc spirits and liqueurs within reach of everyday shoppers, allowing everyone to moderate alcohol consumption. We make not drinking accessible, not just a privilege for the few. Our prices are therefore below the RRPs of most mainstream alcoholic spirits. After all, there’s no duty on non-alc spirits. The category is starting to respond, which is good for the image and growth of the low & no sector.