Vodka martinis are the new cigarettes, Daniel Stiller said a few Mondays ago.
“In the old days, you’d go to work and the guy at the next desk would be smoking, with this big overflowing ashtray. Today, no one would think of smoking at work or putting up with someone who was.”
Stiller and his longtime friend Chris Becker saw similar attitudes toward drinking to get drunk. They founded Better Rhodes, a Scottsdale-based company that peddles 170 different nonalcoholic beers, wines, and spirits via the Internet.
Alcohol-free booze has a long history, noted Stiller, who’s from Toronto and lived in New Jersey and Chicago before settling in Scottsdale. “The Belgians have been doing it for hundreds of years. Here, we’ve had O’Doul’s no-alcohol beer and other things, but they’ve always seemed more like a punishment than a good thing to drink.”
He added: “Have you had an O’Doul’s? I don’t recommend it. It’s the penalty box of beers.”
Stiller, who worked in the automotive industry, and Becker, a one-time tech consultant, met playing hockey when they were kids.
“We had plans to make the NHL, but we lacked talent,” Stiller recalled. Eventually, non-alcoholic hooch came calling, and the pair launched Better Rhodes last April. Within a year, they’d banked six figures selling tequila that wasn’t quite tequila. They’ve since rolled out pretend whiskey from a company called SexyAF and “beer” manufactured by Gruvi.
Stiller wants to make the conversation about what people are drinking, instead of why they aren’t, he said. “The real innovation isn’t removing the alcohol so much as replacing it with something that tastes good.”
He talked about botanical distillates and creating flavor profiles and about whiskey that tasted like whiskey but wasn’t. He said the phrase “in the space” quite often, presumably to mean “in the industry of selling booze that won’t make you drunk.”
“We’re focused on the experience and taste of drinking, of taking out an addictive depressant and replacing it with a cognitive enhancer,” Stiller said, referring to things like sleep-inducing melatonin, anxiety-relieving L-theanine, and calming passionflower.
He claimed that 52 percent of adults who drink are trying to reduce their alcohol intake. Many of them were women and millennials.
Stiller was candid about the products Better Rhodes offers. “There are people who say every non-alcoholic beverage tastes just as good as the real thing, but I wouldn’t go that far. The beers are excellent, but I think wines have a way to go. You can find some really good red blends, and Noughty makes a great sparkling chardonnay.”
Stiller likes beer. “I think Guinness is one of God’s gifts,” he said. “My first two beers might be Guinness, but then I switch over to an alcohol-free stout.”
He said people enjoy the tradition of drinking an adult beverage.
“I want the sound of popping a can after a hockey game, of taking a beer in the shower with me,” he said. “The ritual and tradition and theatrics of making a great martini are still there. You can use the shaker, but you don’t have the headache from the alcohol.”
Inclusivity also factors in. “If you know people who are sober, you want to be able to include them at your party, to give them options,” he said. “If you’ve got a good alcohol-free gin, you can invite someone who’s not a drinker, and they’re not stuck drinking Diet Coke.”
But he said his company hasn’t targeted the Alcoholics Anonymous movement. “We don’t go after the sober community,” Stiller clarified. “We want to make alcohol-free available, in the space, and let people know it can taste as good as the real thing. To do anything more would create a slippery slope for people who, you know, have an actual problem with alcohol.”