The market for ‘functional’ drinks with added health benefits is growing at lightning speed. As more products compete for our money, we try an alcohol-free spirit that promises to give you a buzz without the hangover…
When I first stopped drinking six years ago, I’d be grateful to find something other than a Beck’s Blue behind the bar (no offence, Beck’s). Now, there are all sorts of alternatives available, from M&S’s picnic-ready “G&T” tinnies to bottles of Nosecco for every Christmas, New Year and hen do.
The growing selection of alcohol-free drinks reflects the increasing demand as more and more of us look to cut down or go completely teetotal. According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, 20% of adults in England and Wales now don’t drink.
So where can the alcohol-free market go next? One of the fastest-growing sectors in the entire food industry is functional beverages i.e. drinks marketed as having a supposed health benefit or a particular ingredient, such as vitamins, minerals or probiotics. Think sports drinks, kombucha and CBD seltzers like Goodrays, which promise to relax you and deliver a hearty dose of Vitamin D. Now, alcohol-free spirits are getting involved, and that’s how I recently came across Sentia at a festival.
This dark red, booze-free spirit from The Social Drinking Company claims to make you feel more relaxed and sociable – actually tipsy, even – thanks to its top-secret proprietary blend of “active botanical ingredients” designed by a team of scientists at GABA Labs.
These ingredients specifically target the GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptors in the brain, our main calming neurotransmitter. When we drink alcohol, it targets and enhances the GABA system, making us feel more relaxed and sociable.
The man behind the science of Sentia is GABA Labs chief scientist and neuropsychopharmacologist Professor David Nutt. He was the UK’s chief drug adviser in the late 00s, famously sacked after claiming that alcohol is more harmful than drugs like ecstasy and LSD. His groundbreaking research into the use of psilocybin (magic mushrooms) to treat depression also features in the BBC Two documentary The Psychedelic Drug Trial.
Nutt has been working to find an alternative to alcohol ever since his student years. He and his team have already developed Alcarelle, a synthetic ingredient that targets the GABA system, giving the effect of a couple of drinks without any of the harmful effects.
Alcarelle will eventually be sold to drinks companies for them to put into whatever drink they like. While it’s in testing, Nutt and his team got to work creating Sentia. To clarify, Sentia doesn’t include Alcarelle. Where Alcarelle is a synthetic ingredient, Sentia is a ready-made drink with ingredients that are all prepared from plants. It mimics the effects of Alcarelle by also targeting the GABA system.
While a relaxing drink made entirely from plants sounds lovely, we discovered that Sentia also includes 5-HTP, the naturally occurring compound in the body that is the precursor to serotonin. “It was originally included as a relaxant,” Nutt told Stylist after we pointed it out, “but I’m not sure it’s absolutely necessary. We’re in the process of refining the ingredients so it may disappear in the next couple of batches.”
I’ll admit I was a little nervous about trying Sentia. There was something about a drink that sought to replicate the effects of booze that made me feel uneasy. It wasn’t because I thought it might “tip me over the edge”; I’d come to associate the feeling of alcohol with bad times. But, would it make me feel rubbish?
There’s only one way to find out…
I poured myself a double Sentia and coke and found it tasted exactly as it says it does, “like a cross between a Bloody Mary and a mulled wine.” It’s very floral, with a bittersweetness and slightly spiced after taste. Particularly mixed with coke, it’s quite A LOT on the senses. Think Winter Wonderland.
Within 10-15 minutes, I definitely felt more relaxed, even “floaty”. My housemate told me I had “drunk eyes” and got involved herself. We both agreed it gives your eyes that soft focus and makes you react a bit slower when you move your head. Clearly, I’d forgotten what tipsy feels like.
Feeling content, I poured another Sentia with coke, then later a third with tonic, and was both pleasantly surprised and relieved to find that the floaty feeling had plateaued. And, of course, there were zero after effects the morning after.
“If people want to get out of their heads,” Nutt says during our interview that morning, “don’t drink Sentia because it won’t do that. Our ingredients have what we call a ‘ceiling effect’, so even if you drink more and more, you won’t get more and more effects.”
While it’s recommended you don’t exceed more than 200ml of Sentia in a single day, Nutt assures me that’s more of just a sensible recommendation than anything scientific.
“It’s very unlikely anything would happen if you went over that,” he says, “but even if it did, it would be a lot less than the effects of exceeding the recommended limits of alcohol.”
As for drinking Sentia when you’re pregnant, driving or underage, Nutt’s view is clear. He doesn’t recommend it to people who are pregnant, because they haven’t been able to study it. “It’s unethical to give it to them, so we don’t know and don’t want to encourage it.”
Equally, Sentia is positioned as an adult drink, “only for people who are old enough to drink alcohol.” As for people who are driving, while they don’t have any data yet, Nutt says it’s probably not sensible to drive if you’ve drunk something that relaxes you.
While Sentia did really relax me, I was conscious of being more sensitive to its effects than alcohol-drinking folks, so I asked other drinkers what they made of it.
Lauren, a self-described “pink wine enthusiast but not a big-time binger,” tried Sentia in one of the brand’s own bespoke cocktails, the Sentia’Rita. It combines a shot of Sentia with 50ml apple juice and 7.5ml lemon juice.
“It makes me feel nice and chilled but I don’t enjoy the taste,” she admitted. “I wish it tasted less festive. It might make an interesting mulled wine at Christmas, but I’d still rather have actual mulled wine.
“For the level of buzz I feel, it’s the equivalent of a glass of wine, which I wouldn’t get a hangover from anyway. I’ll reach for my pink wine every time. Plus, I think they need to work on their recipes. That was basically a thimble.”
I agree with Lauren that finding the right recipe for Sentia is a challenge. Tonic water ended up being my preferred mixer, but I’d drink it for its effects over the taste anyway. Nutt also told me that part of the reason Sentia is currently just online and in fancy London restaurants like Tamarind and Locanda Locatelli is because they’re interested to see what expert mixologists make of it.
Next to give it a try is Hannah, a “wannabe-mindful drinker,” currently dabbling with alcohol-free alternatives. She tried Sentia with soda water and then with a sparkling ginger mixer, preferring the latter for the extra kick it gives.
“It’s delicious,” she told Stylist. “I wasn’t expecting it to give me that tipsy feeling, but I’m really surprised. It’s been a long day so it’s given me that nice after-work feeling.”
She admitted to feeling conflicted by the idea, though. “Sometimes not drinking can make you feel like a bit of a party pooper or not confident,” she said, “so this could be a perfect alternative to get you going and help you feel comfortable in your own skin.
“At the same time, people should just accept your choices, but we know sometimes that’s easier said than done.”
I’m with Hannah. I’ve been teetotal long enough now to feel totally comfortable walking into a house party where I only know the host. But for those new to not drinking, or with a bit more nervous energy, I think something like Sentia is a good shout while you build your confidence.
After Nutt told me Sentia was more effective in a social setting, I ended up taking my £30 bottle to a house party for the final test. I had maybe three or four doubles with tonic across the night and felt the same relaxing effects, seeing things in a bit more soft focus.
Did it make it easier for me to work the room, though? It’s hard to say. I’m quite an energetic personality, and part of the reason I stopped drinking alcohol is because I didn’t like the sluggish, slower feeling it gives me. While the calming effects of Sentia are lovely, it doesn’t quite get me in the party mood, which is arguably what a lot of people drink for.
I put this to Nutt, and his team are already way ahead of me.
“Sentia is doing really well so we’re working on variants at the moment,” he told Stylist. “What you’re drinking is Sentia Red, which is relaxing, more of an evening drink. We’re testing one right now called Sentia Gold. It’s more energising, more for a party than a dinner party. We’re also working on the first functioning non-alcoholic beer.”
As GABA Labs gathers pace, could this be the future of drinking?
“If everyone in the world drank Sentia or Alcarelle, there’d be 3 million fewer deaths a year from alcohol,” says Nutt, “but we’re not aspiring to that. We’re looking to have perhaps 10% of the alcohol market, which is £1 trillion a year right now.
“The main thing is to give people who like alcohol but are concerned about the possible health problems a choice. I do actually like drinking – my daughter and I own a wine bar in South Ealing – but I’d just like to have the effect of drinking with less of the harm.”
Images: Sentia, Ally Sinyard, Lauren Sinyard