LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A last minute-emergency at an event started the idea. Lauren Chitwood, Abby Ferguson and Lexie Larsen needed to find something non-alcoholic but elevated beyond water or diet soda, to supply an event their company, Olio Event Group, was hosting. They couldn’t find it.
“The writing was on the wall that consumer habits were changing drastically,” Chitwood said of the request for a non-alcoholic option that wasn’t bland.
The request spurred a dedicated search for nonalcoholic spirits and the three women found mostly non-alcoholic beer, gin and vodka alternatives. It took some testing to realize what they really wanted was a non-alcoholic alternative to the drink Kentucky is known for most: bourbon.
They couldn’t find one, so they decided to make one themselves.
Enter Spiritless, the Louisville-based, female-led non-alcoholic drink company. Founded last year, Spiritless distillery is preparing to launch its first nonalcoholic spirit: Kentucky 74, a reverse-distilled drink that looks, feels and tastes just like bourbon.
Only it’s not.
“It’s our big, bold goal is to create a high-quality, truly delicious product line that allows people all over the world to order their favorite cocktail spiritless, or ‘halfsies,’ blending a spirit with a spiritless to cut the alcohol level and calories in half,” said Chitwood, the company’s CEO. “It enables you to have a premium experience at a bar that is highly customizable. Spiritless is about options, far more than it is about drinking or not drinking.”
Named for Spiritless being the 74th distillery in the state, Kentucky 74 is made with a grain-neutral spirit and select chars of oak for an extraction process to pull the oak flavors into the spirit. What results is an extremely high-proof and intensely flavored spirit that is then reverse distilled to evaporate all but 0.5% of the alcohol. The drink remaining retains the flavors from the oak extraction process and is pH-adjusted for shelf-stability before being bottled.
Because it’s made with grain-neutral spirits, Kentucky 74 can be made consistent with every batch, and the negligible alcohol content leaves it at the same ABV as kombucha.
Chitwood describes Kentucky 74′s flavor profile of more like “your second drink with an ice cube in it” — the easy-drinking phase. The nose feels familiar, with notes of oak, smoke, caramel and vanilla.It’s meant to be consumed in a cocktail, not necessarily sipped on its own like many traditional bourbons.
“Even though there’s no ethanol, we wanted the finish to be a bit warming, that Kentucky hug people talk about,” she said. “So there is a bit of warming at the back. The bourbon reviews talk about it like a ginger heat. It’s a nice experience.”
With Spiritless’ products, people out at dinners, cocktail parties or events can switch to Kentucky 74 or cut their drinks’ alcohol level in half with it, allowing them to continue to drink with fewer consequences.
The product particularly helps people like Chitwood, Ferguson and Larsen, who have eight children under the age of 8 between them.
“We realized we needed this nonalcoholic space,” Chitwood said. “It doesn’t mean we don’t consume alcohol occasionally, but it’s so hard to keep up with the demands of career and family and the myriad of challenges of being a woman. This was a wonderful tool for us to take the foot off the gas a little and also participate if we’re not drinking.”
The non-alcoholic drink space has been growing in recent years, with everything from Dry January to a fast-tracked development of mocktails. Even in Louisville, a city hitched to bourbon tourism, you can find non-alcoholic drinks if you look. Bars such as Decca, 812 E. Market St., ALEX&NDER, 1121 E. Washington St., Lola at Butchertown Grocery, 1076 E. Washington St., and more — even distilleries such as George’s Bar at Old Forester, 119 W. Main St. — serve up creative alcohol-free drinks with as much care and craft as those containing spirits.
Louisville native Jesse Hawkins founded The Mocktail Project nearly six years ago with the aim of making all spaces more inclusive to people regardless of whether they drink, never drink or just aren’t drinking right now. In 2019, Churchill Downs even served its first mocktail at the Kentucky Derby.
Spiritless is growing into that more inclusive beverage space in a state known for its booze-soaked tourism industry.
More than anything, Kentucky 74 was crafted to go into cocktails, not necessarily sipped on its own like many traditional bourbons. With taste testers, Chitwood said she’s had them make a drink with bourbon, then make one with Kentucky 74 and taste them side by side.
Typically, they have a light-bulb moment, she said. It’s almost indistinguishable.
“The big hurdle in most non-alcoholic experiences is you don’t get the mouthfeel and depth of flavor that holds up in the glass,” Chitwood said. “Some of the gin and vodka (alternatives), they use them as toppers to give a consumer something aromatic on there. The benchmark for us was to make something that has flavor and depth to last in the cocktail and be experienced all the way through.”
The spiritless bourbon is already taking off: thousands of bottles have been pre-ordered online in all 50 states. Spiritless hopes to have its product sold in restaurants and retail locations and Kentucky 74 will be released in about eight weeks.
The company is developing a non-alcoholic gin and tequila, which should finish by the end of the year and launch in early 2021. Spiritless is focusing on taking care of the “bar staples,” Chitwood said.
“We want you to be able to look at a cocktail menu and be able to order a margarita or a mojito,” she said. “I want to be able to say we have an extremely high-quality spiritless option for you.”
Pre-orders of Kentucky 74 are available at spiritless.com for $36.