As we emerge from the post-COVID-19 world, people are starting to understand their relationship with alcohol better. Drinking is in decline, particularly in young adults. They realize social functions and dating don’t need spirits to be fun. Still, some people want the experience of drinking with friends without intaking liquor.
New Zealand-based Free AF — known as AF Drinks in its home country — has developed a bespoke mocktail line that mimics the sensation of alcohol. They have an interesting origin story, as does the company’s founder, Lisa King.
Free AF is a rapidly-growing mocktail brand. The beverages are made with a natural botanical called Afterglow. According to the company, the extract replicates the warm feeling we get when drinking a cocktail. It’s 100% natural, but what it’s made from is a secret. The company produces drinks like Aperol Spritz, Paloma, Cuba Libre, and Vodka Spritz.
Founder Lisa King has been the driving force behind the mocktail revolution. Coming from a background in social enterprise, King started the food equity service, Eat My Lunch in 2015.
The business model is set up where people order a takeaway lunch, and the company provides a meal to a child in need.
According to the AF Drinks website, New Zealand has a 27% child poverty rate. To date, Eat My Lunch has served 1.8 million lunches to Kiwi children in need. That’s across 79 schools between Auckland, Wellington, and Hamilton. Schools also reported a 60% higher attendance rate and an 89% improvement in student health.
Eat My Lunch’s food security efforts earned King a Cartier Women’s Initiative Fellow honor. She was the first New Zealander to be selected. Consensus asked King what advice she would give to other social enterprise leaders.
“It is important to be clear on your purpose — this drives everything you do and the decisions you make,” she said. “While it’s equally important to ensure your business is financially sustainable to deliver on your mission, your purpose will be what delivers value for your team, your partners, and customers.”
Following the success of Eat My Lunch, King began her journey into the mocktail business. Suffering from bouts of vertigo, she stopped drinking for a bit. However, the lack of high-quality zero-alcohol alternatives made it difficult not to feel some social awkwardness around friends who were drinking.
She decided to start a better-tasting, less expensive mocktail. While King didn’t stop drinking entirely, she ordered fewer cocktails as she better understood her relationship with alcohol.
That’s the idea behind Free AF. “Our mission is to help make not drinking cool and to get people to become more mindful of their relationship with alcohol,” she told Consensus. “We deliberately chose to deliver classic cocktails without the alcohol so that people still feel like they are having an adult drink they know and love, without missing out.”
Free AF’s rise in popularity coincides with a new social movement: being sober-curious. A 2022 survey by the dating app Bumble found that “dry dating” is a fast-growing trend. Bumble U.K. reported 62% of users believed sober dating would help them form better connections. In the U.S., 25% of people said they drank less than in pre-pandemic times.
It’s explained by the lockdown restricting people’s access to bars and restaurants, turning to more outdoor, socially-distanced, sober activities.
“We wanted AF to be meaningful and make the world a little better by making not drinking cool,” King explained.
A Nielsen survey noted that non-alcoholic beverage sales grew by 33%. The sober-curious movement has people, especially young people, drinking less while continuing the sensation of meeting a date for drinks or having a park picnic with friends, all while without spirits. That’s where Free AF comes in. You can drink a Paloma or vodka spritz without getting tipsy or hungover.
King’s work in social enterprise and no-alcohol beverages has been getting good feedback. She told Consensus Free AF is creating positive conversations through platforms like the company’s Drunk AF podcast and partnering with media outlets to publish articles about the growth of the sober curious movement.
“AF is seen as the leading voice of the no/lo category in New Zealand, and we hope to replicate this in the U.S.,” King said.