Once, there were hobbies—jigsaw puzzles, stamp collecting, folk dance nights down at the Y. Now, many of us share the same lone pastime: fighting anxiety and depression. Or, at least, stress and melancholy. We work out, we meditate, we fight exhaustion in the day and insomnia at night. We stare at our phones because it feels good, and regret it later, hungover from bingeing on content. We eat clean, we fast, we slow down, we stay present.
We need a drink.
Enter a new crop of wellness drinks and tonics—a new beverage trend touting an appealing escape from the endless rat race of trying to relax. The sorbet-colored bottles with an Instagram aesthetic started out packing the refrigerators of boutique grocery stores and luxury fitness studios. But now, they’re making their way into mainstream supermarkets and coffee shops just in time for your 2021 wellness goals. “Drink your meditation,” offers one such beverage company, Moment. “We canned a feeling,” adds another, Recess—“calm, cool, collected.”
This is the rare wellness trend that feels suitable for me, a person who has never gone past the seven day free trial of a running, meditation, or sleep-tracking app. I don’t want a steady workout plan, or a gratitude journal, or statistics about the erosion of my mental health via social media. I want a pilates aesthetic with a Netflix lifestyle. I want a wellness product that grants relief even though I’m the kind of person who puts on athleisure to eat cookie dough. I just want to feel good. That’s just what these drinks promise, a bigger offer than your frothing green juices or your gritty charcoal lemonades. Some of the new wellness drinks claim to affect feelings, even to deliver experiences: Calm. Euphoria. Focus. Things that you can usually only increase in yourself with discipline, or controlled substances.
The swanky meditative drinks trend offers “an evolved state of wellness,” says Kara Nielsen, the director of food and drink at trend forecasting company WGSN. But there are potential health benefits too, she adds. “There are adaptogens that have been used for centuries and are part of this world of traditional medicine and ancient wisdom.” Essentially, wellness tonics have combined two beloved things—the sleekness of an Apple product, and the ancient belief in the goodness of things that come from the earth.
Is it a surprise that one might prefer to drink one’s way to calm than to 7-day-silent-retreat one’s way to it? Especially this year, we want goodness to go down easy. “We have a whole culture around using drinks to modify our mood and our mind space—coffee and tea, beer, even milk in the evening,” says Nielsen. And as an increasing number of Millennials jump on that sober-curious bandwagon, the low and no-alcohol drinks market is exploding, she adds.
Rather than alcohol, some of the key ingredients in this new wave of mood-altering beverages are giant wellness buzzwords: adaptogens—certain kinds of medicinal herbs, like ashwagandha and ginseng; CBD, or cannabidiol—a compound of the cannabis plant which does not produce a high, but is associated with calm; and nootropics—a category of chemicals that are cognitive enhancers, or “smart drugs” like caffeine and L-Theanine. They are touted by some as cure-alls, and ridiculed by others as over-hyped.
The research here is still emerging. Take adaptogens, which have been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic healing. “Adaptogens help regulate the neuroendocrine system so that, hopefully, the cortisol levels are dampened,” says Jerome Sarris, a professor at NICM Health Research Institute in Sydney whose research has focused on adaptogens. The effect could be “a tendency to be less potentially emotionally reactive to stress, or potentially you’d find stressors less fatiguing, maybe an improved immune system response, as well as potential benefits for the sleep cycle and help regulating anxiety and mood.”
But these claims haven’t reached a consensus among the western scientific community. CBD, and popular nootropics like L-theanine and GABA have a similar status—they’re believed to have certain effects, but they need further research to be fully understood. That may be why consuming $34 of CBD products and then feeling the same as you did before seems to be a new right of passage for people born after 1980. In the meantime, these substances aren’t federally regulated, raising questions about sourcing and accusations about efficacy.
And there’s another caveat: some of these drinks aren’t likely to have an instantaneous effect. Adaptogens can take “days or weeks” to regulate your stress response, says Sarris. So think of an adaptogen-enhanced drink more like a vitamin than a cold brew.
The wellness drink and alcohol-free industry is projected to get even bigger in 2021. “There’s a market for something that looks lovely, tastes good, comes in a nice bottle, makes you feel good,” says Nielsen. And that market seems to be Millennial women—we tend to be more focused on healthy eating, willing to pay for better food quality, and we have higher rates of anxiety, stress, and depression, according to research from the American Marketing Association.
Maybe this explains why I’m in the habit of throwing my money not at vodka or vacation but Recess, which comes in pastel cans marked with neat cursive, and wrapped in a label that feels amazingly like the crushed black velvet material of a deluxe Lisa Frank coloring book. Women also seem to be the ideal audience for the fat “collagen”-flavored bottles of Dirty Lemon, the minimalist hipster CBD juice called Vybes, and Canna, the petal-colored baby cans of Gwyneth Paltrow-approved THC soda.
Interestingly, all of those companies have male founders. So I called some of the few women founders who are breaking through that lightly sparkling, low-sugar glass ceiling. I thought of their products as a relaxing, bougie treat. But the women all made the argument that they are part of something bigger—a women-led pocket of founders devoted to helping us find moments of calm and balance in a time of magnificent stress.
“Sparkling wellness tonics made super clean with super herbs.”
The vibe: Hydrate like a slightly witchy spa customer who knows how to keep plants alive.
Eliza Ganesh was using her research in herbal medicine to keep her stress low while dealing with an auto-immune disease. Jordan Schenck was the woman who convinced the world to try cows made out of soy—Impossible Burgers. Together they created Sunwink—glass bottles of sparkling plant tonic. “We have a kind of ruthless consideration that goes into these ingredients, who’s researching and vetting the ingredients, and ultimately what communities are brought into the narrative,” says Schenck.
In a very literal way, Sunwink puts their money where their mouth is: They work with women clinical herbalists to craft each drink, and have given to organizations promoting women’s leadership in indigenous communities. With sex educator Ericka Hart, they created a flavor of Sunwink for which 2% of net proceeds are donated to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute.
Selling things to women has long been a man’s job, and the beverage industry is no exception. “We’ve seen the industry talking about this notion of the pink tax, but what do you call something where all of the products are being created with women in mind, but the creators aren’t for the audience?” Schenck says. Whatever it’s called, Sunwink—herbal tonics with pink salt, inspired by sex educators—is proudly the opposite.
“Self-care in every sip.”
The vibe: Everything in your life is perfectly balanced, but not in a way that makes other women feel bad about themselves.
Celeste Perez was a millennial hustle success story…until she got so stressed that she was repeatedly hospitalized for heart palpitations. It was debilitating until Perez, a certified holistic nutritionist, started working with adaptogens. The problem is, when you include enough of an adaptogen in a drink to get the supposed benefits, “They taste like mud!” Perez laughs. “Really bitter.” She partnered with Adrienne Borlongan, the food scientist behind LA’s famed Wanderlust Creamery, known for creating flavors like sticky rice and mango ice cream. Together, they created adaptogen drinks that taste like adult soda, with fruit puree, coconut nectar, and pink sea-salt.
The name is inspired by the goddess of healing in Filipino culture, whose “tears,” or drops of dew, are said to be healing ingredients in folk medicine. Perez wanted their product to evoke that goddess. “These ingredients are really incredible for women and our cycles,” she says. “Adaptogen drinks are usually for men. I call it caps-lock marketing, where it’s like “PROTEIN! PERFORMANCE!” energy drink marketing.” That’s not Droplet.
Every drink on this list is pricy compared to soda, cheap compared to alcohol. Living through the pandemic, Borlongan predicts, is going to change most people’s understanding of the value of food—the real labor and materials that go into it. “We want people to want to invest in themselves,” Perez says. “I don’t want people to be like, ‘I only deserve cheap.’ I want them to be like, ‘I deserve the best.”
“Euphorics for humankind.”
The vibe: Feel like you are tipsy in a speakeasy, wearing a stunning velvet gown, surrounded by suitors of your desired gender(s) without taking in a drop of alcohol.
Jen Batchelor has what she calls, “A storied past with alcohol.” She compares it to a bad boyfriend—a toxic relationship that she finally broke off, only to find that losing it made her whole life lighter. She dove into research, interviewing thousands of people about alcohol, including those who share the genetic risk factors that are linked to problematic alcohol use. She sums up what she heard from drinkers like this: “I drink because I want confidence but then if I drink too much, I hate the person I become.” To Batchelor, this felt outrageous. “It sounds too costly!” she says. “It doesn’t sound like we have a ton of control here.”
She believed that she could preserve “the social ritual of drinking” without wagering people’s health and wellbeing. “I don’t want to make a mocktail. I’m not interested in making glorified juice dressed up in a wine bottle,” she says. So she and her cofounder Matthew Cauble (he is also a cofounder of Soylent) met with neuropharmacologists, endocrinologists, endocannabinoid specialists, a clinical herbalist, and a flavorist, and came up with Kin. It’s gorgeous. But is it too bougie? “It’s $2 to $3 cheaper than a shot of Patrón and you’re doing yourself a way bigger service,” Batchelor laughs. “It’s not bougie, it’s beautiful!”
“The alcohol-free drink designed to give you a buzz.”
The vibe: Drink it while laughing charmingly, perhaps on a sailboat, get a light buzz, wake up the next day sans-hangover and ready for anything.
Nellie Coffy and Jocelyn Stradiotto loved to go out, and then surf, hike, kayak, or do yoga the next day. If you’ve ever gotten drunk and then woken up and done any of those activities, congratulations, you are a member of a tiny minority. For everyone else, they built Sun Chaser—a citrusy non-cocktail in a can that uses nootropic compounds to get you buzzed, with no alcohol, and no hangover. They’re not anti-drinking—they say people use Sun Chaser to replace a round. “We want people to be open minded to what they have to gain when they drink a little bit less,” Stradiotto says.
Coffy and Stradiotto met when they were working at Google, and left in the hopes of doing work that felt more meaningful to them. “We’re all here trying to solve a problem that a lot of us have: How can I feel my best tonight and still feel my best tomorrow?”
“Hemp and Botanicals for supreme vitality.”
The vibe: Have a spa experience in your mouth and get a stylish vitamin infusion.
Living in Finland, herbalist Erika Hanson loved sipping popular local mineral drinks. When she returned to the U.S., she found nothing for people who don’t love alcohol but also don’t want a sugary-sweet replacement. So she created hemp tonics—Instagram-friendly cans of sparkling Hemp seltzer with gentle flavors like “grapefruit nettle” and “magnesium mint,” without the sickly fake sugar flavor.
Hanson, who has studied plants for decades, is careful not to make crazy claims about Suu Kuu products—plants are science, not magic. “Our tonic cans provide a specific intention based on the historical uses of the plants and minerals used,” she says, noting that she likes to drink them in stressful social situations. “If it was an extra exhausting day I will sip it in the bath.”
Drink Your Way to Zen With Wellness In A Can The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Glamour.