How Swedish Startup GNISTA Is Redefining Non-Alcoholic Drinks

How Swedish Startup GNISTA Is Redefining Non-Alcoholic Drinks

GNISTA is a Swedish non-alcoholic spirit created by Erika Ollén. It has become hugely popular in Sweden and is starting to make waves internationally. We sat down with Erika to learn more about her story and how she created such a successful product.

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Full Interview Transcript

Kevin: Hey everyone, this is Kevin and Monica, and you're listening to the Pour N Play podcast, where alcohol enthusiasts, bartenders, and business owners share their stories, so you can have a successful career in the bar industry.

Today, we'll be talking to an awesome business owner who has been in the food and beverage industry for a while now. She’s a brand strategist, a creative, a cook, and the founder of GNISTA Spirit, a Swedish non-alcoholic brand that caters to health-conscious individuals who love to drink but still prefer to count their calories.

Ladies and gents, let’s give a warm welcome to Erika Ollén. Erika, thank you so much for joining us today!

Erika: Thank you so much for having me! All the way from Sweden. This is big! It’s fantastic.

Monica: Hello, Erika! You know, any profession or business starts small, and everything has its beginning. From planning to thinking about every detail for a company, and we are so curious, what inspired you to create GNISTA Spirits?

Erika: Yes, I have been in the Food and Bev industry all my life. In the non-alcoholic scene since 2015, and then I was managing a different brand, and I could, you know, really feel this non-alc wave in coming up with all the new and exciting brands. And then, back in 2015-16, we discussed how to move forward with that other brand.

I saw that there was something called Seedlip launching, that was a non-alcoholic gin, and obviously being in the sector, I was super excited, and I bought one of the first few bottles, and me and my partner, we were very surprised, not that, it’s a nice drink for sure, but it doesn’t resemble spirit. It’s got nothing of that bite, the length, there’s no body and then more followers, more brands, more liquids with the same kind of brand proposition, and I was just like, why?

Why would they, you know, because these are brainy people, they’re good, why don’t they develop something that is spirit-like and obviously like after little while I realized that it’s not to do with the fact that its meant to taste like a spirit or hold up the base for cocktails. It’s all about health and calories.
It’s not the drink in the hand and the taste, and the experience that’s not the first thing. There are many other things coming for us. I was like, will this work? Do people like it? Like bartenders and mixologists, and you know what are their views?

We’re based in Malmo in the South of Sweden, and so I went to Stockholm, I went to Copenhagen, I crossed the bridge and I asked them. I did blind tastings, and I got confirmed that you know well, it’s a nice drink, but it’s not something that we can replace like when making cocktails.

So that was my starting point. I don’t come from the Spirits Industry. I come from the gastronomy side of things, so for me, the most important thing wasn’t that it should be made according to certain frames or rules. 

For me, it’s all about the taste experience, and I asked all these mixologists and bartenders if I was to make non-alcoholic spirits that would actually do the job and will replace alcoholic ones; what characteristics should they have? What are the key paths?  So, in essence, I just listened to them, and then I go back, and their answers were you need body, you need a certain kind of acidity, you need bitterness, there were different kinds of tannins.

And so, based on their answers, I got back into the kitchen, and that’s where I was like, “Okay, fine. So when it comes to the acidity, what kind of acidity is there?” There’s a rhubarb, and that will do the job in this setting.

So I started creating this that way, and so I always held the hand of the bottles. And I should tell you that this was back in 2019. So we’ve been around for some time now.

Kevin: That’s such an amazing history you got there, and actually, me and Monica did research on you as well and looked at that you were part of the food and beverage industry for a while. It’s amazing to hear that you’re really into the gastronomy side of everything. With regards to GNISTA, gnista means “spark” in Swedish, right

Erika: Yeah!

Kevin: What made you choose that name?

Erika: Why? Well, it’s, you know, I think it’s interesting. You know, drinking alcohol, cocktails, it’s always been part of our lives as humans. And you know when things change, go forward. People get more healthy; they don’t want to drink sometimes, et cetera et cetera, you know what is going to happen then? How can we define things when all of these are new?

With the launch of the category in non-alc spirits, it's just a super creative space. There is everything. It's complete confusion for the consumer because there’s everything from tasting a lot to tasting nothing and everything in between, from high quality to low quality. 

But I wanted us to be a challenger brand and to challenge both the definition of spirits. Like what is it like going forward? What is it that really defines the spirit? Is it the alcohol? Is it the production method, or is it something else? If something else, what is that something else?

As a spark, yeah, I wanted us to be the spark, and I wanted that to be our keyword going forward and just to challenge us.

Kevin: That’s awesome. That’s really nice!

Monica: You mentioned earlier about blind tasting the alcohol and tasting the spirit. What were your earlier struggles when you and your team were still creating the taste you wanted to sell to people?

Erika: The early struggle, I think, had nothing to do with the taste. The early struggles had to do with more of people’s ideas. Is this a spirit? Can it not be a spirit? You know, why the price point? That kind of thing. That was more the issue rather than the actual liquid, I would say.

Kevin: What was the most difficult challenge you encountered, other than what you mentioned earlier? Were there any other challenges that you had to face when you were starting GNISTA?

Portrait of GNISTA founder Erika Ollén

Erika: Two. Two challenges. Number one: Money is always a challenge when you go forward. But our biggest challenge, you know, we launched late 2019. The global praise was so big, you know, had it like, oh this is going to happen very fast. And then, just after like, what, three months, it was a pandemic, and the lights of the entire hospitality industry, they just closed down. All turned off.

So that was a big challenge. Like how do you react and many, many brands were very successful, you know, redirecting. So instead of going to (bars), because bartenders and bars and restaurants, they’ve always been our biggest cheerleaders. But many others redirected and went directly to consumers via online. We didn’t have the funds to do that, so that was quite a challenge.

I supposed in the end; it wasn’t so bad because, you know, it gave me time to find great partners. We’re exporting to the US, Canada, countries in Europe, Australia, Middle East; we just started. So this is meant for like time, means that you can really test partnerships. So that’s a good thing.

Another thing is that this is a new kind of product, and you know we’ve now got a good way of scaling. We tested the quality because you never know, but that was definitely a challenge with a pandemic, and that our eighty percent of our thought customers were just not there. 

Kevin: I see. Yeah, the pandemic did a lot of things to the world. It’s stopped a lot of people. But the good thing about that is you were able to perfect your product.

Erika: Yeah! So that was good. Another thing that the pandemic has taught us is that, you know, we have the pandemic, we have environmental problems, we have now the war in Ukraine and just a lot of craziness, but throughout all these craziness and times, you know, people, this is one learning I have, people care but they sometimes also just want to pause and when they do, they want to drink something nice.

Monica: Yeah!

Kevin: That’s true.

Monica: Despite of these challenges, what keeps you and your team motivated about your work?

Erika: I think it’s so fantastic to represent a brand, you know, to represent quality. I’ve always cared a lot for quality. It’s important to me, and it’s, you know, business owners wanting to expand rapidly and get the biggest possible margin and all of that. I don’t really care. 

What I care about is seeing a bar manager pour GNISTA in a glass, swirl it around and taste it and see that kind of happy face and like, “Ah! Actually quite good. Not what I expected.” That’s a big motivator to be able to offer to people something they didn’t know that they wanted it.

Kevin: That’s a very great motivation to have. I mean, it keeps you going despite everything. All the challenges that you may face and you may meet. That’s a very good motivation to have, Erika, you, and the company. That’s a very good motivation to really just have.

Since everything around us right now is progressing so quickly, you know we just had the pandemic, there’s a war now in Ukraine. Especially with technology as well, other than current events with technology and introduction of new products, how do you continue to learn in order to stay on top of things in your role as being a business owner?

Erika: I listen to the market. I listen to people. I spoke to someone, you know, having one of this innovation in spirits converses in London earlier today, and he was like, “Who would you like to talk to? Is there a guru in the industry or someone in this place?”

I was like, “Yeah, you know, I don’t really have time. I don’t know anyone.” For me, it’s like, and I think for most of us small startups just moving rapidly, it’s about, you know, having the ears towards the ground. Listen to the customers, check out the forums, what do people share, and what’s the word of town when it comes to non-alc experiences, cocktails, and all of that.

So just listen to the market, to people, wherever they are, whether it's talking to someone live or talking to someone or listening or chatting in a community or a forum. I think also it’s kind of interesting because the non-alc wave is obviously a global one, but the different countries and the different markets they have come far.

That’s also very interesting, I think. When I talk to someone in the US, you know, what like he told me a couple of years ago and then I meet someone in Sweden and what they say now will correspond to what the Americans said like a year ago. The UK is like five years ahead, you know, competition in the UK is fierce. So it’s the same kind of conversation, but it varies depending on where you are.

Kevin: I see. By the way, I have a non-business question. I have a question regarding your products. Have you guys already shipped out here in the Philippines? Cause I really wanted to try your drink before we had this podcast today.

Erika: No, we’re in Singapore, and we’re in Australia. But that’s where we are; I can get bottles to you.

Kevin: That would be awesome! I wanted to try it because when me and Monica were reading your website, I got interested with the two drinks that you have. The Floral Wormwood and the Barreled Oak. I’m very interested in tasting the Barreled Oak.

Erika: I should probably introduce them like this. So the Floral Wormwood is bitter, it's quiet, it’s lavish oregano, orange peel, almonds, and obviously got some wormwood, raisins, and then there’s the Barreled Oak and you know, I deliberately choose not to call them like a non-alcoholic bourbon when I started.

Because I don’t think you can make a non-alcoholic bourbon. I think you know it would be extremely hard to find, you know, precise so for me when you’re in a bourbon drinking occasion but you don’t want the bourbon - you want something without alcohol, how can you match that? What is it in the drink that matters? Well, obviously smokiness, but there are other aspects as well.

So, for example, we say in this one we have rosemary, cinnamon, we have chocolate rye, it’s not like when you drink it you shouldn’t expect it to taste like a bourbon. There are a few non-alc whiskies on the market, but I think it’s just, you’d be disappointed if you think that it will taste like that.

GNISTA bottle beside a glass filled with ice-cold non-alcoholic spirit

So the Floral Wormwood is not a vermouth, but it works on all occasions where you otherwise use vermouth in a drink or like neat as an aperitif. And the Barreled Oak is not a bourbon, but it will work, you know, whenever you want to use a bourbon or even like a rum in drinks, it will make it taste.

So what you get in the end when you mix with GNISTA is that you can obviously drink them neat as well, is that you get drinks that taste like they are alcoholic. That’s like the bottom line. So when you want to have something that would otherwise give you the feel of a negroni, but you don’t want the alcohol, then, you know, GNISTA is different in the sense that it's intense, it's bitter, its kind of hard, as in challenging taste-wise, but it would also carry through when used as a drink mixer.

Kevin: That's awesome! I’d really want to taste that. If I can get my dad to, you said you have stuff also in the Middle East, right? In Dubai, do you think you have products there as well?

Erika: Yes! So we’ve just started. Kuwait has just got its first shipment, then its Dubai and Saudi coming next. But the thing is that we have, in these versions of GNISTA, they have like 0.3 percent alcohol. So what they have is I make extracts with Absolut vodka, then let them soak, and put them in small barrels.

So, for the Middle East versions, they are 0.0.0, and even if you have 0.3 percent alcohol, you know, you get some depth and complexity, and that’s what I wanted to intimitate. But they don’t know it. They’re not used to it. They’ll be happy anyway.

Kevin: Okay! I was asking because I’m going to ask my dad to buy me some when he comes home because he’s actually in Dubai right now. I really want to try your drinks out, so I hope he can pass by.

Erika: Is he going to be there next week?

Kevin: Yeah! He’s going to be there for a while because he’s working, so he might come home by end of July.

Erika: Okay, cool! Well then, I have a business partner who’s going to Dubai next week. So maybe, for a couple of weeks, Johan could bring bottles and give them to your dad.

Kevin: Oh, that would be so awesome! Thank you, Erika!

Erika: Yeah! We’ll find a way.

Monica: So since this is a huge business you’re making, and it’s hitting up people’s interest all around the world. What is the most important thing you learned in this business?

Erika: I think it has to do with what I said before that, you know, people who want to celebrate even when times are hard, and the other thing possibly is that there aren’t any, I supposed, for some businesses there will be some set rules. In this industry, there aren’t really any set rules. Why should there be, and if some people think, okay, fine, you know, let them do it?

And I’m guessing that will apply for any business, any industry, like they’ve been, well if you want to change something, if you want to try something, and you have the target group, then you have the needs, probably just do it.

Kevin: Yeah, so you’ve been in the industry for a while. You’ve started GNISTA 2019, but you’ve already been in the non-alcoholic scene since 2015. What advices can you give to aspiring business owners who want to create a product, maybe similar to yours, or just any product in the current bar scene right now?

Erika: Well, first, listen. Go and ask what’s needed; go and ask the bartenders, the mixologists. It could be like a product doesn’t taste or could also be like something else. Let’s say delivering a liquid in drums or barrels to your place when you want to cut off, like help the environment and not shipping bottles, etc. There could be other ways, many ways that you can be inviting. So ask for and make sure there is, you know, actual need for it. 

The second one is to prioritize. When you’re a business owner, when you’re running a startup, if you run off even half of the balls out there, you’d be burned out. There’s just too much work, too much to be done and so prioritize and go after the low-hanging fruit. That would be my top tip because no one can do everything. As long as you know what you want and just do it methodically, then you’ll get there.

Kevin: That’s actually great advice. Taking one step at a time until you reach your goal. That’s really good!

Erika: Yeah! And there will be lots and lots of things happening, fires to turn out, problems rising. It’s just brimmed with troubles going forward. So, it’s like, put each problem in a queue, and then you take them separately. That’s my advice.

Kevin: Wow! So everyone who’s listening right now, take note because, especially business owners or people who are starting their own products, what Erika just said is great advice so take note. This will really help you out.

Erika: Well, thank you! No, but it’s important not to be stressed out. There are a lot of things to be stressed out about. I mean, in a 100 years, we’re all going to be dead, so who cares?

Kevin: That’s true! That’s really true.

Monica: So what do you believe can really inspire people who wanted to pursue this career?

Erika: I don’t know. I think inspiration differs depending on who you are. I think people will be motivated if they have an idea and they get good feedback. You know, not just naysayers but like proper feedback. I’d be happy, by the way, if someone has an idea, you know, feel free to send an email to erika@gnistaspirits. Okay? I would try to help out. What you want is constructive feedback. Is this actually good or not, or how can it? (become good)

Kevin: Wow! People in the bar industry are really kind. 

Erika: People in the bar industry are really kind.

Kevin: That’s true! We had another guest a few weeks ago. Miss Heather Wibbles, and you guys are awesome! I can just say from a business owner to a content creator as well as a mixologist. You know, everyone is kind in this industry. 

Erika: I know!

Kevin: So listen up, guys! If you need help and advice, everyone wants to help you out, which is really good! You don’t see that in other niches or other kinds of passions you want in life. It’s hard to get. 

Erika: I totally agree! I’ve been to so many bars. Oh, okay, sorry! Go ahead, ask me the next question.

Kevin: No, no. no!  I’m sorry to cut you off.

Erika: No, it’s fine! I just wanted to say that I’ve been to so many hotels and bars and hospitality people, they are the best.

Kevin: I agree! I truly agree. Erika, since your products are dedicated to creating drinks, I mean GNISTA is dedicated to creating drinks that give a distinct taste; what distinguishes you from other spirits and non-alcoholic drinks and cocktails that you believe make it unforgettable to people?

A rocks glass with GNISTA with barrels in the background

Erika: First of all, we are the first one and one of the very few still that is recommended to drink neat. So a big majority of the non-alcohol experience on the market, when you go on to their website, they will say don’t consume this product neat. So, that’s really one thing that sets us aside.

You can enjoy this with an ice cube or a lemon slice. You can pop in some soda if you want, but you know, they do have distinct tastes. But I would say the complexity and the body to carry itself all the way, and I think that has to do also with the fact that I don’t care too much about calories.

I think there are other ways, I mean, in my head, it’s like you drink a non-alc gin with zero calories, but you mix it with a fever-tree tonic. Well, you know, you can have the sugar and the calories, anyway.

Kevin: Yeah, that’s true.

Monica: Since GNISTA is crafted in balance the same way you cook a delicious meal, what cocktail would you recommend to foodies like us? Well, I like spicy food, what would you recommend?

Erika: Spicy food. Well then, you can make a dark and stormy. I would, actually, with grated fresh ginger and all of that. But I would, you know, the most foodie kind of drink and one that I would say like, “This is good!” for drinks, but this one is more versatile. This tends to be; the Floral Wormwood tends to be, the favorite for bars and restaurants.

And one that I think is quite fascinating is equal part bits of Floral Wormwood, equal parts cream or oat cream if you’re vegetarian. Then equal parts grape juice, and then you shake that on ice for a little while, and you’re going to have a delicious and different tasting drink, but if you otherwise, if you like dark and stormy, then I would go for one with ginger and lots of goodies.

Kevin: I can’t wait to try that when I have the opportunity.

Erika: Sorry, again?

Kevin: I was just saying that I can’t wait for the opportunity to try that cocktail, you said, with GNISTA spirits.

Erika: Perfect, then let me know what you think once you get it.

Kevin: Of course! Yeah, sure! By the way, we’ve looked at GNISTA’s website, and the cocktail photos look amazing! Did you guys use a polaroid camera to shoot these?

Erika: Nope, we used a normal camera, but we have a very good photographer. So he, in essence, just wanted to capture the nostalgia in the classic way. You know the dark spirits have been portrayed over the past 50 to 60 years. But also that other world, other feel that you sometimes enter when you enjoy life or when you drink cocktails. So no polaroid, just a lot of flash.

Kevin: Yeah! But your photographer and the concept he had, or you guys had, really is amazing. I can’t stress that enough! The photos look great! 

Monica: It's very unique!

Kevin: Yeah! What’s with mixologists and anyone from the bar industry making amazing photos? God, you guys are great!

Erika: Yeah, well, thanks! It’s the photographer. His name is David! He’s not a bartender; he’s just a good photographer.

Kevin: Imagine! He could still do that! Man, photographers are amazing.

Monica: So, aside from creating a drink that is aimed at health-conscious customers, what do you envision for GNISTA and the future?

Erika: Well, I want us to continue to be a challenger brand and to continue to redefine things and to continue to offer quality because that was really, like the starting point. I didn’t agree with where the category, non-alcohol spirits, where that category was heading, and what kind of drink that was presented. So, I jumped into that pool, and I tried to stir things up a little bit. 

So now in August, we’re going to launch like red wines, and when I said red wines, I mean it's not a de-alkalized wine. I think one of the problems with the spirits industry or like non-alcoholic spirits category is that people think too much about the distillation process. You know, all of that. 

Well, if you distill, but you don’t have the alcohol as a base, you’ll get something that’s completely different from when you distill something, you know, where alcohol is the base, and really with wines, it’s the same thing. It’s not like what makes a great red wine drinking experience great. It’s not the fact that it’s made from grapes or that it comes from Italy or France. It’s something else. 

What are those building blocks, and how can we get there using gastronomy and food tech? That’s really what I hope to be able to continue to deliver great drinking experiences to people.

GNISTA non-alcoholic drink bottles

Kevin: We’re very sure you can achieve that too. With how the company is, the trajectory you guys are in now, I think that’s really possible.

Erika: Yeah, I hope so; it’s a lot of hard work. It’s a lot of uncertainty. But yeah, it feels good, and given the amount of people in the world and the non-alcohol wave. Because to be honest, the great majority of people choosing a non-alcoholic they are not 0.0 people, you know.

They drink normal cocktails; they drink wine and normal beer; it’s just that sometimes because it's a Tuesday or, you know, it’s getting late on a Friday, and they don’t want to be hungover, they want something else. That group of people they are just growing. 

I’m sure you have friends with the same kind of like, you know, a few years back they had drinks like every day of the week and is now like, “Yeah, no. I’m going to skip it like Monday to Thursday.”

Kevin: Yeah. That’s true! When I was younger, I used to drink with my friends every weekend. Just beer and stuff. But now that I’ve grown older, I don’t drink as much as I should, or as I could, I think, not as I should.

Erika: Yeah! (Chuckles). Yeah, and then you have the group of people being in their 20s now; they don’t even have a relationship to alcohol or to drinks. They don’t have an emotional tie. For them, it’s not like, well, you know you’re meant to have a gt before dinner, or you’re meant to have something else. 

But they still want something to fill the gap, so that means that the fact that they don’t have these already set ideas means that they are more open to more creative drinks and concepts.

Kevin: That’s true! That’s really true. So you already answered to what’s going on with GNISTA for the next couple of months. How about you? Do you have any plans for the next couple of months?

Erika: What me? Personally?

Kevin: Yeah! Personally or with the business.

Erika: Yes, I do! I’m going to launch the wine. No, but I, except for business, I bought a farm a couple of years ago, and so it’s a lot of work refurbishing that. I have three girls, so I’m going to spend two or three weeks in the summer just hanging out with them. We’re going to the south of France. Might have some nice wines. We’ll see.

Kevin: That’s so amazing! That’s great!

Erika: That’s my a little bit of rest, but other than that, it’s full steam ahead with the work. 

Kevin: You should still take time off, too, because I know being a business owner, you’re very hands-on. You should be hands-on most of the time; business owners are. 

Erika: Yeah.

Kevin: So taking time off is a good thing for you.

Monica: Very important.

Kevin: It is very important.

Erika: It is very important, and I think it’s very much, I mean, I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was in my twenties, and I’m now 40, and it’s a big difference when you have children. When you have children, the minute that you hang up to go to school or to nursery to collect them, you’re just like, you cannot do both. I’ve tried. 

You cannot write a press release and be with your baby. It’s just going to be like a bad press release, and you’re going to be a bad mom. You need to choose, so I think that’s actually very good. It’s very helpful to have a family that you can, and I have a big garden plot. I’m now growing and removing weed and adding straw, and it sits. That’s also really good.

Kevin: That’s amazing! That’s so amazing.

Erika: What about you? What are you doing?

Kevin: Me? I mean, for the next couple of months, maybe improve in my cocktail drinking, I guess? Because I’m very used to drinking beer. I do drink cocktails now because my wife is such a great cook, and she mixes a lot of things. So she keeps making me drinks I don’t know about. It’s a really great experience.

Erika: So you’re going to have some cocktails?

Kevin: Yeah! I’m going to have some cocktails while trying to lose weight because, you know, it’s time for me to lose weight. I’ve been chubby for the better half of my life. It’s time to be healthier! How about you, Mon?

Monica: Well, right now, I’m really busy with my internship, and in a couple of months, I’ll be having my long vacation.

Kevin: Wow! Well-deserved vacation.

Monica: Yeah! Well-deserved! So, Erika, where can people connect with you?

Erika: Either through GNISTA Spirits’ Instagram, Facebook, or obviously through the phone number or the email on our website, and I’ll be one of those on the other side of that. It’s easy; it’s always GNISTA Spirits.

Kevin: Okay. Thank you, Erika! We had such a great time with you, Erika, by the way. Before we let you go, do you want to say anything to our listeners?

Erika: No, enjoy summer, choose quality and have that well-deserved rest before you head into Fall.

Kevin: You heard it here first, folks! (Chuckles) So thank you again, Erika, for joining us today; we appreciate you having the time to do this interview with us.

Erika: Of course. Thank you!

Monica: For everyone listening, make sure to check out GNISTA’s website: You can also check out the links to reach us and GNISTA in the show notes below. Thanks, everyone! Bye!

Kevin: Thank you, everyone! Buh-bye!

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