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Business partners Jackie Verrilli and Nick Grube have known each other for a number of years. After initially meeting through their children and then seeing each other around the community they became friends. Most recently they have become the co-founders of ISN’T Drinks, which produces zero-proof (nonalcoholic) cocktails.
“I have known Nick as a home brewer and have enjoyed his brews,” said Ms. Verrilli. “We were at lunch and discussing drinks and beer and we came up with a problem. Sometimes sitting at a bar or restaurant, if you don’t want to drink alcohol, you realize that there aren’t many nonalcoholic things to drink.” After running through a list of the likely options, such as club soda with lime, lemonade or iced tea, she explained that she and Mr. Grube realized others probably were having this issue too. It was then that they decided that they would like to make good-tasting nonalcoholic cocktails.
“We’ve talked about redefining the concepts of going out and social occasions – they don’t need to be exclusively about alcohol,” said Mr. Grube. “We’re not vilifying alcoholic drinks – neither of us is a teetotaler. We just want to increase the options for people.”
“Social drinking doesn’t have to include alcohol,” said Ms. Verrilli. “There is a lot of interest in nonalcoholic beverages, and the options are becoming more interesting. There are younger people who are very health conscious – they’re drinking less alcohol overall or less often.”
They came up with the “sober social hour” – an alcohol-free social event – as a way to kick off their idea, get reactions to their product and change culture. They said that a number of people came out for their first event, held in December, and the feedback they received indicated people really enjoyed the drinks.
The two business partners do not imagine that their drinks would be exclusively for events like their sober social hour. They imagine them being available at any type of event and especially at places where drinks are sold.
Mr. Grube said a trend toward increasing interest in non-alcoholic drinks has emerged. “You’re seeing this in more and more bars and restaurants. Some refer to them as ‘mocktails.’ We aren’t using the word, because it sounds too clever and silly. We consider ourselves to be about alternative beverages instead of replacement beverages. We’re not looking to mock something, we’re looking for something different. We’re not looking to be an old fashioned or Manhattan.”
At their first sober social hour, they led a discussion asking what a cocktail is. They explained that their take on the answer to the question is that it is a slow drink, something to be sipped and enjoyed, something with complexity to it.
ISN’T Drinks currently has five non-alcoholic drinks they are pursuing. “We want to offer unique flavors – adult flavors that are not too simplistic,” said Mr. Grube. “We have one that is slightly bitter that we think people will enjoy – it has herb, gin and botanical notes. Another is floral and tart – both flavors that bear interest – very sippable. For one of the drinks we use barley and rye malts in a way that isn’t beer, isn’t whiskey – it creates its own profile of flavors that tend not to be used outside alcoholic drinks. Our cordial has a dessert-type sweetness, but not a simple sweetness. Another that we do pairs particularly well with food – that one gets toward a red wine replacement, but we don’t want it to be considered nonalcoholic red wine.”
Ms. Verrilli said that through talking with people and seeing their reactions to the drinks they learned a lot. “When people taste for first time it appears to be unexpected – it’s like they don’t know if they like it because it’s so unusual. Then they slow down and sip. It takes a sip or two, or even four to you get to ‘I like this.’ Some flavors build over time, like heat, pepper, floral or fruity. The complexity develops and you become more interested in it. It grows on you.”
Both Mr. Grube and Ms. Verrilli have been highly involved in developing the drinks – sometimes collaboratively, sometimes separately. Mr. Grube said he has been homebrewing for a long time, noting, “I have an opinion on flavor and always have.” He comes from a design and advertising background, which he believes is helpful when it comes down to the brand. He manages the bar at Evanston’s American Legion, where INS’T Drinks held its first sober social hour. Mr. Grube said, “I bartend when a bartender can’t make it. … I see more and more the interest in this type of beverage.”
Ms. Verrilli said she also initially came at the work from the perspective of flavors. She is an avid home cook who has always had an interest in the pairing of spices, herbs and different culinary flavors. She said pursuing the pairing of flavors in such a different format has been very interesting for her. She also has a bit of an entrepreneurial bent, having worked in commercial real estate and started a business with her sister some years ago in Galena. After taking a break to raise her family, she started doing small business consulting to get “back in the game. … Ultimately, I got the bug again, but only because of this opportunity and discussing it with Nick. We didn’t want to create more stuff for the world, but this was unique, and it felt like it was time for me to step into the entrepreneurial world again.”
Mr. Grube and Ms. Verrilli said that while their business is still very nascent, they are at the point where they are finding their business partners. Up to now, they have been self-funding, but they have started working on getting other investors engaged and have a complete business plan to share with them.
“We’d like to be in all the bars and restaurants in Evanston,” said Mr. Grube. “We want to grow this brand, this idea, these particular drinks. … We think the initial occasion for these drinks is outside the home. Because there are a lot of culinary venues, there are so many places where these drinks would be welcome – and we’d love to see them on the menu.”
As for the name, ISN’T Drinks, the two partners said that the more they talked about the product, the more they talked about what it isn’t. “It isn’t a water or sparkling water, it isn’t tea, it definitely isn’t alcohol, it’s not juice, it’s not kombucha,” said Mr. Grube. “So, we decided to include ‘Isn’t’ on the label.”
“It’s kind of funny, you get people who first say that it’s a negative, but then say ‘that’s kind of interesting’,” said Ms. Verrilli. “It’s different. It’s a positive. The name ‘ISN’T’ tells you what it is.”