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The Nonalcoholic Spirits Brand That Wants to Enhance Your Mental Health

Optimist Drinks doesn’t just want to provide an alcohol-free alternative; it wants to help people better their mental well-being through social connection.

Photo courtesy of Optimist Drinks

Coming off a year that had alcohol sales skyrocketing and mental health issues running rampant, Optimist Drinks is meeting society at the right time. The brand creates craft nonalcoholic spirits that mirror classic alcohols, such Bright, their take on a citrusy vodka, Fresh, inspired by gin, and Smokey, which is similar in flavor to tequila. With these drinks, the company’s greater mission is to help people better their mental well-being through social connection.

Optimist Drinks was launched in January by husband-and-wife duo Lisa Farr Johnstone and Tommy Johnstone. Both with backgrounds in advertising, Tommy says they had begun noticing brands shifting toward being more mission oriented.

“We found that increasingly brands were trying to talk about their missions. They were trying to talk about positive impact, and some of the brands we were working with were walking the walk as well, but actually a lot of brands were not,” he says. “They were taking a stance on something but not changing their policy on their product itself. So, for us, it kind of seemed like the best way to have an impact was not just purely from a brand messaging point of view but actually to create products and a company that aligned with a way of thinking and a belief that helped drive everything that you did, right from product development through to messaging through to company mission. That seemed like the best way to have impact.”

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After Lisa left advertising, she started work in the nonprofit sector, which also influenced her and Tommy’s desire to create a company that was backed by a strong mission and values. While Optimist Drinks is presently a nonalcoholic beverage company, they see the brand growing to include many more aspects.

“Optimist is about positive decisions for your physical and mental health,” Tommy says. “That’s what the brand is about and that’s what we want to empower people to do with our products and that’s what we want to talk about as a brand and celebrate those kinds of positive active decisions.”

Lisa Farr Johnstone and Tommy Johnstone. Photo courtesy of Optimist Drinks

So why start with drinks? According to Tommy, it’s because alcohol is a big part of adult social life, but as we know, can also be quite harmful—not to mention younger consumers are drinking less alcohol than the generations before them. So, at Optimist Drinks, they wanted to be able to offer consumers an alluring alternative to alcohol while still promoting the socialization that often comes with going out for drinks.

“The act of coming together for a drink is—on a mental health level—one of the most positive things you can do as an adult,” Tommy says. “It’s a really good way to be plugged in socially, it’s great to kind of have off-duty, non-agenda time with people, and it’s a great way to make a really strong social connection. And what we saw there as an opportunity, or as a problem potentially, is if people are drinking less, which on the face of it is a good thing for people’s physical health, there’s a danger that the ritual of getting together for a drink, which is a great thing for people’s mental health, is lost. If there are periods where we’re not drinking alcohol, then we find ourselves going out less and socializing less, which is actually the wrong thing to do. You don’t want to lose the social interaction, if you are reducing alcohol.”

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“What we wanted to do is create a range of products that were at home in the environment of alcohol, and if people decided that they weren’t drinking alcohol for that day or even that round of drinks or forever, they had an alternative that wasn’t a big sacrifice, that was something that they actively wanted and that could make them feel included,” Tommy continued. “So instead of people buying a round and then one person having a soft drink or not having anything at all, they could have something that had equal levels of craft and sophistication to it, so they felt included in the experience of going for a drink. That’s what why we started with that. It was celebrating the positive social side of getting together for a drink and all the brilliant things that come with that but acknowledging that maybe the alcohol in the glass is the least important ingredient in meeting someone for a drink and giving people a really good quality viable option.”

Coming back to the idea of mission, one of the most striking things about Optimist Drinks is the company’s 360-degree model of sustainability, which focuses on the health of both people and the planet. Lisa says the broader social mission is around mental health, as Tommy spoke to, and the idea that they’re creating a product that helps you look after your own mental well-being as well as helping those choosing not to drink alcohol or drink less of it still maintain social connections. Their mission largely centers around mental well-being, with two percent of each sale going toward Safe Place for Youth, a nonprofit that gives underserved youth access to mental health services, but they are also passionate about environmental sustainability.

“Any company that’s being created now should have sustainability and environmental betterment, if not kind of neutral, environmental impact, should have it as a given. And so therefore, that kind of freed us up, we said OK well that’s all good and that’s our baseline, we will create a company that is environmentally positive,” Lisa says.

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“We were also really interested in looking at sustainability as a philosophy and putting it into other things, so sustainability on a human level,” Tommy explains. “So, looking at physical, mental health—that’s really important for us as a business. And all of our products look to help people make positive decisions that are sustainable health decisions. What we’ve observed is that health trends or health fads are often about denying one thing and moving in an extreme way into something else. And that is an unsustainable thing to do for your physical health and potentially your mental health, too. What we wanted to do is create products that were a positive choice that you could make that didn’t require a full lifestyle change, that could just augment what you were doing, that meant a good practice around drinking behaviors could be adopted in a sustainable way, too. We looked at it in lots of different ways and looking at sustainable practices from an environmental, from a mental wellness and then from a product innovation point of view is something that we think about all the time.”

The company is currently pending B-Corp status—something that was important to them so as to be able show that they are walking the walk.

“For us, B-corp was just a shortcut to tell people what we stood for, with a clear mark. And that comes down to our hiring policies, our ethical outlook and behaviors through the company, and I mean, we want to build a company that is future-facing and does good,” Lisa says.

As for the future of the company, there appears to be much more coming from Optimist Drinks. Tommy says they are working on a pipeline of products that have zero sugar and no alcohol but still fit into the nonalcoholic spirits space. As well, they put out a weekly podcast called Optimist in Progress with Dr. Drea Letamendi, a licensed clinical psychologist, director of the UCLA Resilience Center and wellness consultant for Optimist Drinks, that focuses on “creating tools for optimists,” Tommy says. And lastly, they’re working on getting in front of more people: “We’re just taking the brand to more places, so as we grow in scale, we’re able to take the products to more people and more doors, and we’re excited to see people sort of understanding this new category and really getting behind what we’re doing,” Tommy says. With optimism on their side, the future appears to be looking bright for Optimist Drinks and their mission of bettering mental health, one drink at a time.

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