Startup Spotlight

From New Zealand to the US: Non-alc brand Free AF spurs international growth with Walmart, Target deals

By Ryan Daily

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags non-alcoholic alcohol-free startup spotlight

New Zealand-based non-alcoholic (NA) beverage brand Free AF is expanding in the US in Walmart and Target stores, company Founder Lisa King told FoodNavigator-USA in a Startup Spotlight interview.

King founded Free AF in 2020 after experiencing severe bouts of vertigo from drinking gin and tonics — her alcoholic beverage of choice. At the time, non-alcoholic beverages that mimicked the taste of traditional cocktails were not widely available in New Zealand, which inspired her to create a brand dedicated to changing the culture of drinking. 

 “We started AF really with the goal of not just providing really great alternatives to alcohol but actually with the goal of changing our drinking culture. And that was to make not drinking really fun and aspirational and cool, which it was not at the time. It was very much seen as a no-no, and particularly in a culture like New Zealand where drinking is part of every single occasion.” 

Providing the sensorial experience of drinking alcohol

Free AF offers low-calorie, gluten-free non-alcoholic cocktails​, including Cucumber G&T, Paloma, Apero Spritz, Vodka Spritz, and Cuba Libre. The beverages’ “secret sauce” is a botanical extract called Afterglow that provides “the warming sensation of drinking” alcohol, King said.  

“We are anchored in classic cocktails, and what we have seen are a lot of other brands come onto the market and they are a cocktail, but you can also use them as a mixer or there are functional ingredients. And it starts creating quite a lot of confusion for consumers. And so, we have been very clear from the beginning we are all about classic cocktails. There are no other magic ingredients to make you jump higher or feel sleepy or relaxed.”  

Free AF developed its beverages to recreate the taste of cocktails without the expensive and laborious process of dealcoholizing, unlike like some other players in the space.

 “Taking out the alcohol is a very expensive process, and it takes out so much of the body and the mouthfeel and the texture that you would want in a drink. So, we have approached it from using natural flavor technology to really develop those layers of complexity and flavors that you would expect in a cocktail.” 

From Target to Walmart: How Free AF is growing in the US

This week, Free AF will be available in 800 Walmart stores across the US, she added. In 2023, Free AF first launched in Sprouts in the US, followed by expansion into Target in 2024 as part of the retailer’s curated collection of non-alcoholic beverages called Sèchey, King said.  

Since launching Free AF, the non-alcoholic beverage alternative category has gained mainstream acceptance in the US and abroad, King noted. 

“When we first launched in the US, there was not this category carved out ... and actually Sprouts [was] one of the first retailers to make space for these types of products. And we were very focused on the natural channel because it was still emerging, and we wanted to speak to those early adopters. And what we found is in the last 12 months, just [NA went] very mainstream.”

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