For ages, being sober meant getting stuck with a crappy O’Doul’s or some take on a Shirley Temple at the bar. But now that the nonalcoholic revolution is here, a whole bunch of flashy new drinks are vying to grab the attention of those who no longer spend their cash on booze.
In 2020, the flagship drink of this trend might just be Kin Euphoric, the hipster tonic made with herbal extracts and a blend of supplements that the brand claims can relax you and provide a nice social buzz. Other companies like Curious Elixirs and Proposition Cocktail Co. are competing for a slice, but Kin has gotten the most press and mainstream attention so far, especially at the start of the COVID pandemic when bottles sold like hotcakes. Beyond just selling to consumers, they’ve even broken into the bar scene in cities like New York and L.A.
What, exactly, gives these elixirs their “buzz”?
The answer is both simple and endlessly complex, as the secret lies in two types of compounds dubbed nootropics and adaptogens. “Euphorics work primarily on your neurochemistry — your willpower, your might, your seratonin levels; your ability to be polite and charming, or to deal with assholes, all of which are usually depleted by about 3 p.m., particularly if you work at a high-stress job in the city,” Kin co-founder Jen Batchelor told Vogue. “Euphorics replenish and rebalance the endocrine system naturally, through a mixture of nootropics, adaptogens and botanics.”
In reality, none of this is surprising or even all that innovative — nootropics, adaptogens and other “neurohacking” supplements have been hot with the Silicon Valley hustle-porn crowd for a decade, with fans extolling the virtues of things like GABA, citicoline and modafinil everywhere from gym locker rooms to Reddit boards. The claimed benefits of taking these substances range from Adderall-like focus to MDMA-like fuzzy-happy vibes to simply less social anxiety; there are long debates on which supplements and what combinations work best, too.
Part of the issue is that even more so than alcohol or THC, adaptogens and nootropics affect each person differently. The hyper-trendy plant extract ashwagandha, for instance, may reduce stress but can also either liven you up or mellow you out depending on your body chemistry and environment. Kin’s proprietary formula for their bestselling “High Rhode” euphoric is a stack of different ingredients the company claims works in tandem to boost effects, which makes it harder to pinpoint what your body “likes” most. It reminds me of a similar product I reviewed years ago: the “gamer supplement” blend D20, which uses some of the same compounds found in Kin, such as 5-HTP and L-theanine, as well as the aforementioned ashwagandha.
How critical is finding the “right” blend?
Neurohacking nerds swear by (and bicker over) their custom regimens, but Dana Hunnes, senior dietician at the Ronald Reagan-UCLA Medical Center had her doubts about a kitchen-sink approach to supplements when we spoke about D20. “Basically, what they’re marketing is reductive medicine, which refers to stripping down an herb or root and trying to extract one or two benefits from it very specifically,” she told me. “The problem is, companies don’t really have to prove what they say these ingredients do, and especially not what they claim a blend can do.”
With that in mind, for my hacked Kin homebrew, I decided to minimize the purchase of pricey supplements and focus on two products I’ve already tried and enjoyed in the past: Liquid ashwagandha extract and a GABA blend with vitamin B-complex and L-theanine, both of which purport to reduce anxiety and aid relaxation.
Before we dig into the recipe, please note that people who are pregnant, under 18 or are on medications — especially SSRIs and MAO inhibitors — shouldn’t consume nootropics and adaptogens without seeking medical advice. Nor should you mix this stuff with alcohol. And, crucially, you shouldn’t drink more than four 2-ounce servings within a 24-hour cycle, because in larger quantities, the active ingredients can upset your stomach or have other side effects.
With that warning out of the way, let’s get into my bootleg elixir. Kin gets a lot of its flavor and color from hibiscus extract, so I decided to use dried hibiscus flowers, which give a floral tartness and a beautiful crimson color when steeped in hot water. I added a dose of caffeine via a bag of white tea, which some research suggests help boosts GABA activity. I wanted some warm and exotic aromas in the mix, so I added cloves, whole star anise, black peppercorns (which can help ashwagandha absorption) and a fat pinch of smoked sea salt. Finally, I finished the “tea” with white sugar and the peel of an orange and lemon, then let it steep on the countertop for 20 minutes.
At this point, I ground up my GABA chew tablets in a small mortar, then added the powder to the warm liquid. Once it dissolved, I stashed the brew in the fridge until chilled, after which I whisked in my final ingredients: 6 milliliters of ashwagandha extract and 10 squirts each of Angostura and orange bitters.
Here’s the list with exact amounts by mass:
- 550 grams boiling water
- 20 grams dried hibiscus flower
- 1 bag white tea
- 20 grams white sugar
- 4 grams whole black peppercorns
- 1 whole star anise
- 2 whole cloves
- Peels from one orange and one lemon
- 5 grams smoked salt
- 8 tablets of GABA L-Theanine Stress B (for a total of 200 milligrams GABA and 200 milligrams L-theanine)
- 6 milliliters of ashwagandha extract (3,000 milligrams total)
Following Kin’s own recommendation to use two ounces in a cocktail, I dropped a shot into a glass with some ice and topped it with lemon seltzer. And you know what? I think it tastes better than Kin’s High Rhode, which I find to be intensely bitter and herbal. My bootleg is still kind of earthy and funky — my girlfriend took a sip and initially remarked that it’s “kinda confusing” — but its acidity and spice can dance with a variety of mixers, be it tropical fruit juice, infused simple syrups or just plain tonic. (I just thought of something delicious: Muddle a strawberry and some mint, add a shot of elixir and top with citrus soda.)
It looks and feels like a fiery hellscape in San Francisco today, which has ground down my nerves to their roots. Thankfully, sucking down two elixir-and-sodas did successfully mellow me out; the effect feels a little like drinking a CBD seltzer, with both time and my thoughts slowing down a gear in the aftermath of each beverage. After a third drink, I could feel the back of my eyes seemingly relax, too.
I’ve been deeply skeptical of the rise of wellness and lifestyle brands that aim their wares at the “sober-curious” movement, largely because of the ripoff pricing on products that have already existed for ages. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure what justifies Kin’s price of $40 for 500 milliliters — more than what I’d shell out for an excellent bottle of bourbon, for crying out loud. I spent less than that stocking up on the supplements for my bootleg, and have enough active ingredients left to make 10 more bottles of elixir.
But I do understand the desire to access a nonalcoholic drink that’s still a little mysterious, sexy and intense. As Kin co-founder Jen Batchelor told Vogue in 2018, the product was borne out of a frustration that stress-relieving wellness products were just dull. “I had to go to the nutritional aisle for something to spray under my tongue 30 minutes before a stressful meeting,” she explained. “It took all the sensuality out of it. And so I wondered: Where’s the thing that I can sit at the bar and order — or that’s sophisticated enough for me to bring to a friend’s house?”
Turns out, we just have different answers to that same question. I’d like to think my brew is as intriguing and sophisticated as Kin, even if I don’t have pretty labels to put on a bottle before serving it (yet). Then again, it’s like $35 cheaper — and that gives me some extra peace of mind as I kick back and relax with one last glass.