All the fun of cracking open a bottle of wine, minus the hangover.
In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on, many turned to alcohol to cope during a universally rough time. For at least 23 percent of Canadians, their alcohol consumption increased during the pandemic. A new study done by Sunnybrook Hospital and the University of Toronto, found that alcohol sales in Ontario increased by more than $ 2 million a day in the first four months of the pandemic compared to the same time in 2019.
But all that extra booze isn’t great for your health: In the long-term, excessive drinking can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, cancer, weakened immune systems and mental health problems like depression and anxiety.
Luckily, there’s been a boom in no- or low-alcohol options as of late — since 2015, the sector has grown 506 percent. And there’s quite a bit of variety out there: from non-alcoholic beers, to spirits made to mimic liquor, to dealcoholized wines.
One Canadian company in particular is taking alcohol-free wine to a whole other level. Acid League, which started as a vinegar company in August 2020, has layered their live-fermented vinegars with juice, teas, spices and bitters to create wine proxies. They’re designed to be enjoyed with dinner — and can help you cut down on that red, white and bubbly.
We spoke to Charlie Friedmann, Head of Wine Proxies at Acid League, about making a faux-wine for wine lovers.
What is Acid League? And why acid?
“Acid and acidity are the key to unlocking great flavour. We often ask ‘why does food taste better in a restaurant than at home?’ and people will point to salt or butter or fat. But what they don’t realize often is how important acidity is. Acidity is the key to balancing flavours, bringing brightness [to a dish], giving your food layers of complexity.
When we launched Acid League, we started out with a bunch of living vinegars, which are just raw, unpasteurised vinegars. They have a lot of gut health benefits, and compared to adding salt or adding fat, adding acid is a super healthy option. We took the idea of healthy apple cider vinegar and we made it with more interesting flavours like Meyer lemon honey or carrot, jalapeno and tomato.”
What are wine proxies?
“We always had the idea to expand this idea of acidity into beverages. When we started to do research into different drink options, we discovered this ancient Roman energy drink called posca. It was made with vinegar, honey and a bunch of herbs. It kept them energized and it was healthier to add acidity to the water at the time to keep it stable. We found this drink really interesting and began to explore and iterate on that.”
Courtesy of Acid League
Why did you create wine proxies?
“Two of our founders are food scientists and the person in charge of making the proxies is a winemaker with a food background and we just went down this rabbit hole. We wanted to make this sort of elevated posca, but as we kept doing more experiments, we realized this is becoming more like a wine alternative or substitute. Non-alcoholic wine is typically just dealcoholized bulk wine: pretty cheap, generic wine that they’ve stripped the alcohol out of with industrial processes and it ends up being sweet, one-note, and kind of boring.
We also heard from a lot of sommeliers that they don’t carry traditional dealcoholized wines in their restaurants. We wanted to make something that does fit in at a restaurant. We wanted it to work at the highest end restaurants or at a casual wine bar because it’s more interesting and more layered.”
How are wine proxies made?
“They’re all a bit different, but they all have some sort of blend of fresh cold pressed fruit juices, wine grape juice, unripe grape juice, teas, and in-house infusions and bitters that we make out of all kinds of different herbs and spices. So, like pink peppercorn, Sichuan peppercorn, sandalwood, all sorts of things. We’ve done hundreds of these different infusions and we meld them together in each case, depending on what the flavour needs.
It usually starts with a concept, but that concept will change; it never ends up exactly where we thought. We have a library of ingredients to draw on, and we choose an inspiration that might be an existing line or like, the flavours of Northern Rome. It’s inspired by something, but it is its own thing.”
Why might non-drinkers and wine lovers want to try wine proxies?
“We want to expand the category of your typical non-alc line that is purchased by pregnant people or people who are sober and is thought of as a last resort for if you’re having a special occasion and you need something for the non-drinkers. We’re hoping to provide an alternative where you don’t need to have that alcohol, or a hangover the next morning, but you can have something that’s more interesting than water or healthier than a craft soda.
I do think we’re creating something that is new, and that doesn’t need to compete with wine. It’s really for people who are sober-curious and people who like exploring new flavours and people who honestly just want something special on a Tuesday night but don’t really need alcohol.”
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Acid League Wine Proxies, $ 70 for three bottles or $ 60 a month for a monthly subscription, acidleague.com.