By Richard Roy

NOCA’s founders see a big market for a ‘healthier’ spiked water

In the seemingly endless exercise to produce new, different, and even “healthier” versions of alcoholic drinks, the alcoholic drinks industry has invented or repackaged light beer, hard ciders, lemonades, pre-mixed drinks, and the current rage: low-calorie, low-sugar, gluten-free hard seltzers.

So maybe it was inevitable that the next evolution is . . . plain water and alcohol.

“Seriously, booze and water now?” asked David Park, the manager at Gary’s Liquors.

Yes, seriously.

Three recent University of New Hampshire graduates are seeing how far they can take this latest fad, using a $3 million funding round to expand distribution of their NOCA spiked water throughout New England. Alex Febonio, Galen Hand, and Richard Roy launched NOCA in May and currently make three flavors: watermelon lime, dragon fruit mango, and triple berry. Each 12-ounce can contains 4.5 percent alcohol and 95 calories.

All three graduated in 2016 with degrees in finance. Hand left his job in the field in 2018 and began researching high-growth industries with hopes of starting a business. That’s when he remembered the hard seltzer boom from their college years, and thought of a way he and his friends could improve the popular drink.

“I’m not a huge fan of carbonated drinks, and I made the relatively simple assumption that I wasn’t the only person who prefered non-carbonated,” Hand said.

Febonio added that a non-carbonated drink is simply easier on some people.

“There are a lot of negative side effects to drinking carbonated drinks; some people just can’t, because their digestive system can’t handle it. Other people don’t like bloating,” he said.

NOCA uses a fermented sugar base, which Febonio said gives just a touch of alcohol to the drink.

“All the time people say ‘Is there alcohol in this?’ because the alcohol base does not have a strong taste to it,” Febonio said. “When we add in our natural flavors, it really does strip out any hint of alcohol.”

David Park agreed, saying the NOCA drink goes down easily.

“It tastes like flavored water; you don’t really taste the alcohol,” Park said. “You could drink a good amount of those quickly.”

Park said Gary’s Liquors sells about one pack of NOCA for every 100 packs of hard seltzers.

“It’s not setting the world on fire, but it is carving out its niche,” he said. “I think they have to get better marketing out there, because people just don’t know about it yet.”

Matt Lawrence, manager at Blanchards Liquors in Allston, said spiked still water products sell poorly in his store. “I think it needs someone bigger to get behind it for it to ever be a thing. The marketing is nonexistent,” he said.

NOCA is available in several hundred stores in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The latest funding, the company’s second round, will allow NOCA to expand throughout the region. Febonio said the company will also add a variety 12-pack around March.

The UNH team wasn’t the first to market with spiked water. FIFCO USA, whose brands include Labatt Blue, Genesee Ale, Imperial beer, and the Seagram’s Escapes mixed drinks, introduced Pura Still in 2018, using fermented malt for its alcohol base.

Spiked water may not have the cachet of a cultish craft beer or a fine whiskey, but even for industry veterans, it is hard to ignore the popularity of low-alcohol drinks that are light on taste.

“I was hopeful that this wouldn’t happen — to me, it is about the ingredients, and the flavor, and the complexity,” said Rhonda Kallman, a former Boston Beer executive who now runs Boston Harbor Distillery.

Still, Kallman acknowledged that consumers are becoming more health conscious, even about alcohol. And while she can’t predict whether spiked still water will become as popular as hard seltzer has, she noted that nonalcoholic still water outsells seltzer water.

“If that is any indication, I think the still water guys have a good place,” she said. “Being at the forefront of the next wave is pretty exciting, and if that’s going to happen, hats off to the entrepreneurs.”

By Anissa Gardizy Globe Correspondent, January 23, 2020

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