Brain-juicing cocktails want to give the sober curious a buzz. But wheres the science?

The Diet Guide

Amid orange trees and beautiful people, I spent a Tuesday evening in Los Angeles at the clubhouse of a non-alcoholic beverages company, Kin Euphorics, drinking booze-free cocktails filled with substances that would ostensibly both relax and energize me. 

The aughts generation, fueled by the mixologist creations of cocktail culture institutions like Death & Co. has grown up, and we can’t (and don’t want to) hold our liquor like we used to. “Sober curiosity” and health trends like “Dry January” are taking hold, and alcohol sales are in decline. So a new market of beverages vying to take the place of alcohol among the health conscious is emerging. 

These new, enlightened beverage companies are riding a dual crest of yuppy wellness and the Silicon Valley thirst for bio-hacked, optimized living. Businesspeople from both worlds — one of the co-founders of Kin is a student of a kind of Indian medicine called Ayurvedic herbology; the other, a founder of Soylent — are betting that sober folks and lighter drinkers are looking for something to take the place of Old Fashioneds and Spicy Margs. But they’d better do more than just taste good. They’re marketed as brain-juicing mocktails, after all.

A Kin Kin Clubhouse bartender pours me a 'Some Like It Hot.'

A Kin Kin Clubhouse bartender pours me a ‘Some Like It Hot.’

Image: rachel kraus / mashable

Alongside a decline in drinking has come a rise in “functional beverages,” or drinks enhanced with substances broadly called nootropics that will supposedly help you think more sharply or, conversely, relax, by prompting the creation of neurotransmitters like serotonin. Those beverages (and supplements) have become particularly popular in Silicon Valley

Similarly, smoothies and juices infused with adaptogens, which are fungi, roots, and herbs that supposedly help moderate your body’s response to stress, have gained prominence at Gwyneth Paltrow-approved smoothie shops from coast to coast. 

There aren’t large studies performed on humans to back up the claims made by purveyors of these and nootropic substances, but evangelists say their legacy in eastern and indigenous medicine is proof enough for them. At the same time, modern medical professionals say the promised effects are highly unlikely.

Recently, several brands, including Kin as well as Curious Elixirs and Proposition Cocktail Co., have combined the concepts of booze-free living and functional drinks, and introduced lines of non-alcoholic “cocktails” ready to fill the cups of non- or former drinkers who still want to feel something from a beverage, sans a hangover. 

To see the trend in action, I visited Kin Euphorics’ Kin Kin Clubhouse, the brand’s new event space in West Hollywood. I went in as an optimistic skeptic, and found myself pleasantly surprised and delighted by the experience of talking to strangers in an artistic, beautiful place, with a drink that wasn’t a vodka soda in my hand. 

Then I got home, and, while I examined the bottle I’d gotten as a party favor, my stomach flipped. I realized that no one had communicated the “do not drink if” warnings listed on the label, and that several of those “ifs” described me. You weren’t supposed to drink the beverage if you were pregnant or had certain medical conditions, including gastro-intestinal disorders, hypertension, and heart disease, or if you were on drugs like antidepressants.

The drinks contain “natural” ingredients, but just because a product isn’t a chemical doesn’t make it harmless, and it could be messing with my body in unpredictable ways. My guest and I had not been warned in advance, nor at the event itself, because of course we hadn’t. How uncouth would it have been for the bohemian bartender to ask his eager patrons what medications we were on before handing us a Kin cocktail, rimmed with gold glitter.

Appearance.

Appearance.

Image: rachel kraus / mashable

Reality.

Reality.

Image: rachel kraus / mashable

More choice at the bar is undeniably positive, and the idea of an alcohol-free drink that can also act as a social lubricant is tantalizing. But these new companies are plagued with the same problems as the rest of the wellness industry: claims about the substances are largely unproven, and how safe they are and in what quantities is just not known.

“Anything that gives you an alternative and a choice for overdoing it with alcohol is probably going to be a good thing,” George Koob, the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, told Mashable. “There are some natural products [like green tea] that can clearly help you out, but people have to be cautious, and carefully look at the evidence based data. Some things can actually cause harm, so you have to be careful.”

Going out while drying out

A residential neighborhood in West Hollywood isn’t a typical place for a club house. But a glowy pink haze, orange carpet rolled over gravel, and distant earthy bass told me I was in the right place.

Last month, Kin Euphorics held the public opening of their Kin Kin Clubhouse, a permanent physical location where the brand will serve Kin beverages during thoughtful programming and more raucous music nights alike. It’s a retrofitted house, filled with nooks for conversation, pastel lighting, plenty of space for a dance floor, bars, and a shed that’s been converted into a speakeasy. 

On the night of its opening, a diverse group of Kin friends and family wearing flowy neutrals or bright oversized coats filled its pink-lit backyard. Paid partygoers, called the Bliss Brigade, broke out in ’60s retro style dance numbers every once in a while. 

The overall mission of the space (and the beverages) is to redefine nightlife and inspire “conscious connection.” Kin launched its beverages one year ago, but the clubhouse is its new baby designed to further the Kin vision. 

“We’re all moving toward more conscious consumerism, more inspired and informed by the availability of great ingredients on the marketplace,” Jen Batchelor, Kin Euphoric’s co-founder and CEO told Mashable. “The opportunity to nourish the mind and energy system is really needed.”

When my guest (my sister Aviva) and I reached the front of the line in the gravel-covered backyard, we ordered one of each High Rhode cocktail: the spicy-margarita-like “Some Like It Hot,” and the more herbacious pineapple juice drink, the “Rhode Less Traveled.”

High Rhode is Kin’s “nightlife beverage,” that has three categories of ingredients designed to “lift the mind and relax the body.” That includes, according to Kin, the adaptogen rhodiola rosea to “support the balance of cortisol” (the stress hormone), nootropics “GABA, 5-HTP, and tyrosine,” to “support neurotransmitters in charge of mood, pleasure, and reward for a boost of social stamina,” and botanics, like hibiscus, for flavor. In a cocktail, High Rhode is a general replacement for a base alcohol like tequila, but is naturally much milder tasting. On its own, it’s kind of like a funky hibiscus water.

After a few sips, it was impossible for my sister and I not to ask each other: Do you feel anything? But with all of the chit chat, well-dressed guests, and face painted dancers busting moves around us, it was truly impossible to tell whether it was the environment that was making us a little slap happy and social, or the cocktail.

All the guests standing in the line for the wellness bar.

All the guests standing in the line for the wellness bar.

Image: rachel kraus / mashable

But differentiating is really beside the point of brain-juicing mocktails. If you’re safely having a good time on a weeknight with friends or a bunch of strangers without the help of alcohol, and using the products under their recommended safety guidelines, maybe it doesn’t matter if that experience derives from a beverage, the environment, a placebo effect, or any combination of things.

“If we’re about reinventing the way that we drink after hours, then what would the space look like?” Batchelor said of the impetus for the whole Kin Kin clubhouse experience, not just the beverage. “What would our bar look like? We’re about creating a new reality, and so a space is a great way to do that.”

It turned out that a couple sips or even one High Rhode cocktail isn’t designed to do much, physically. Bearded and wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses at 7:30 p.m., Kin’s other co-founder, ex-Soylent exec Matthew Cauble, told me that after a few drinks I should start to feel something relaxing — although the maximum Kin beverage consumption is four, another disclaimer of which I didn’t become aware until later in the night.

Kin’s other beverage, Dream Light, uses adaptogens reishi mushrooms and passion flower, and nootropics like melatonin and tryptophan, to supposedlt reduce restlessness and induce a state of ease. The Kin Kin clubhouse began serving Dream Light, combined with oat milk and cinnamon, near the end of the evening, in a converted garage covered with floor pillows called the Sleep Easy Speak Easy.

The way to most closely mimic the disinhibiting body and brain effects of alcohol, Cauble said, is to combine the High Rhode with their Dream Light “nightcap” beverage; the social effects of High Rhode mixed with the relaxing effects of Dream Light would allegedly align with the disinhibiting downer that is booze. Kin hasn’t published studies or data to support the drinks’ supposed effects, but instead relies on the traditional uses of the substances in eastern medicine, and the anecdotal reports of their customers. 

“We don’t claim anything our customers haven’t shared with us to be consistently true for them,” Batchelor said.

Drifting off to adaptogenic dreamland...

Drifting off to adaptogenic dreamland…

Image: rachel kraus / mashable

While waiting in line for our nightcaps, one attendee told me he felt “noodly.” Chatting outside, another said she was “feeling it.”

“It’s energizing but very clear,” Lucy Blehar, an artist, said. “It doesn’t feel like you’re getting dragged out like alcohol does.”

Some attendees weren’t as clued in to the booze-free vibes of the evening; one woman told me she had “pre-gamed” the event with a glass of wine. While two women muscled their way into the speakeasy, I heard one ask the other “what are they putting in the drinks? Vodka?”

Another attendee, Daniel (who preferred not to be identified by his last name), was sarcastically effusive when I began speaking with him about his experience with the beverages. When I was less than amused, he gave me the slyly guilty caveat that he had gotten stoned before the party. But when we began to speak about the larger concept, he became more thoughtful. Daniel had recently become stopped drinking alcohol for personal and professional reasons.

“I’m four months sober,” Daniel said. “It’s perfect for me. You can socialize.”

A deal you can’t refuse

For non-drinkers or social drinkers who have spent or want to spend time not drinking, a hip cocktail replacement that actually makes you feel loose — but healthfully — sounds like the holy grail. But is it all too good to be true? 

John Wiseman is the founder of the adaptogen beverage company Curious Elixirs, which also designs its drinks to be mixed like cocktails or sipped with a garnish. (I recently tried the Number 4 concoction on the rocks, and it was brightly gingery, if a bit soil-y).

After Wiseman’s own reckoning with alcohol, he discovered adaptogens, and wanted to help share what they could do for people like him who were struggling to find ways to enable them to drink less. 

However, Wiseman acknowledges a sticking point: Hard evidence for the benefits of these substances is lacking. 

“It is very hard to say there is convincing evidence to support any one of those popular things on the market,” Dr. Zhaoping Li, the director for the Center of Nutrition at UCLA Health, told Mashable. 

According to Li and Mashable’s own research, there are some small studies, some studies in animals, and some studies that look at the cellular mechanisms on which specific compounds might work to back up claims about popular adaptogens and nootropics. However, part of the reason there is a lack of research is because “adaptogens” and “nootropics” are “not scientific categories,” as Li put it.

“You can’t view all nootropics and adaptogens as a single entity,” Dr. David Hogan, a geriatrics professor at the University of Calgary that previously studied the effect of supplements on the brain, told Mashable. “They differ markedly in what they are, how they are taken, and what they are supposed to do. Ideally each specific product should be tested in an objective manner to ensure they are both safe and effective, which I would define as leading to a personally meaningful benefit.”

That doesn’t mean scientists, and journalists, haven’t tried. In a 2017 article in Self, science writer Melinda Moyer reviewed the scientific literature on some of the most popular adaptogens, and found there were no large, peer reviewed, published studies of experiments performed on humans that back up the health and wellness claims about how adaptogens help our bodies handle stress. Mashable conducted our own review and found that the literature on the most common adaptogens is limited to small studies in niche journals; neither of the two of the most-touted studies linking rhodiola rosea with stress reduction were randomized controlled trials, which is the gold standard of scientific research.

Regarding nootropics, Dr. Pieter Cohen, a professor at Harvard Medical School who studies the safety and marketing of supplements, says he is wary that literature supports the marketing claims. 

“Would some of the nootropics that are being sold have effects on the brain? Yes. Will they have the effects that are being advertised, like improved clarity? That’s probably very unlikely. The only time we can say things like that is when we have clinical, human research, which I’m not seeing,” Cohen said.

For example, Kin puts the food supplement version of the neurotransmitter GABA in its beverages because it’s thought to promote relaxation. But it’s not clear within the scientific community that a supplement version of GABA is even able to penetrate through the blood-brain barrier at all.

The lack of studies health experts refer to didn’t worry Kin’s Batchelor, who wrote in an email: “All the ingredients in Kin have existed for at least half a century and are Generally Regarded as Safe to consume by the FDA.”

Li views the common substances in these beverages as “probably fine” — but with some caveats.

Some of the substances run the risk of interacting with drugs (like anti-depressants) in unpredictable ways, especially if you’re taking the substances in large doses — say, as a replacement for alcohol. Kin lists a host of warnings against imbibing, such as if you are pregnant or “if you have a medical condition, including but not limited to G.I. disorders, heart disease, and hypertension” and “if you are taking any medication, including but not limited to Coumadin, antidepressants, MAO inhibitors, or SSRIs.” That’s quite the broad list, and experts implore that users take the potential risks and side effects that Moyer catalogues — like miscarriage — seriously.

“We just don’t have data on what the safe levels are,” Koob, of the alcohol abuse institute, said. “A lot of these herbal preparations are not as well controlled. If you’re taking a lot of whatever it is, you’ve got to make sure you’re not doing some harm you don’t know about.”

The issue of dosage, regarding the substance’s efficacy or safety, is also thorny. For example, one small but randomized placebo controlled study has suggested that rhodiola could alleviate depression when given to individuals in a measured dose at a specific time each day. However, because beverage companies like Kin use a “proprietary blend,” they’re not obligated to disclose how much of each substance is in their drinks, Cohen, of Harvard Medical School, said.

“The way that the law is about these supplements, the company can mix up whatever combination, whatever amount of the different ingredients they want to, and put it in something called a proprietary blend, and then they don’t have to declare how much is in there,” Cohen said. “So you really don’t know how much you’re taking.”

Still, Kin focuses more on an individual’s experience than a specific claim about a single compound and brain science.

“Kin is not a drug or trying to be a cure for anything other than loneliness, so it’ll be some time before we can substantiate the results of Kin helping people have more fun with less regret which ultimately is what we stand for,” Batchelor said.

Regarding the health and safety warning, Kin characterized the warnings on its back label as “precautions against misuse,” but didn’t specify the potential effects if you happened to accidentally misuse it (like I did). Otherwise, Batchelor says that as long as Kin users follow the bottle’s instructions, they’ll be fine.

“We do stand proudly by these ingredient stacks as designed by Kin herbalists and chemists alike in order to deliver the unique and subtle social effervescence now signature to the Euphorics experience: one that allows the drinker to maintain control of their experience, keep their faculties about them and have fun,” Batchelor said.

While assessing the potential risks and claims of these substances, I found myself comparing them to alcohol. Right now, adaptogens and nootropics are a scientific unknown. In comparison, alcohol is a substance that we know is bad for our brains, bodies, and sometimes spirit. Or, as Wiseman put it: “It’s not about whether alcohol is good or bad. It’s that too much is definitely bad. And we need better options.”

Maybe those options don’t need to be filled with under-studied herbs, chemicals, and fungi. But, thanks to the sober curious market, more options are certainly coming.

Serenity now

As my own Dry January came to a close, I found myself thinking, “maybe I should just keep this going? I can do it!”

Then, I promptly drank a bottle of wine, stayed up until 3 in the morning, and spent the whole weekend with a hangover. Abstinence doesn’t work for me because it causes its equal and opposite reaction later on. 

So for someone like me, a Kin or a Curious Elixir drink sounds like the secret sauce. I’ve told all my friends about it. I’ve read, and researched, and sampled. I’m seduced by the beautiful branding, the concept, the larger lifestyle movement of which these beverages want to be a part. 

But without the science to back it up, and the pit in my stomach that forms when I wonder what drinking three adaptogen-nootropic cocktails while on medication might be doing to my brain, I come back down to Earth. These drinks have potential as alcohol alternatives, but caution regarding dosage and claims about their effects is warranted. 

Not everything that glitters is gold, and during my Tuesday at the Kin clubhouse — thanks to those glitter-rimmed drinks — everyone’s mouths were sparkling.

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