Michael is our salesman extraordinaire and the number one reason why we’ve had such strong and healthy relationships with our producers for over 25 years. He's a treasure trove of knowledge, so we sat down to get his thoughts on the alcohol-free movement, what gets a non-alcoholic product across the line, and how he envisions ClearMind's future.
First, the obvious question – what led you to give up alcohol?
In the mid-70s, I went through the lifestyle shift that a lot of our ClearMind customers are probably going through now; looking at my health, asking who I was and trying to make sense of the world. I was young, living in London with my twin brother Joe, and was hanging out with a new crowd of people who were looking for meaning in life.
I was drinking and smoking a lot, and very keen to know how to stop. Then came the ‘brick through my window’ – one of Joe's mates started practicing meditation and suddenly stopped pinching my cigarettes. I thought to myself, ‘How is he doing this?’ He took me along to a group meditation session which was being taught by spiritually focussed women from India, and a few months later I was on my way to Delhi, via Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, for a whole new adventure.
I saw sides of the world that I wouldn’t have ever thought to visit, and when I eventually came back to Sydney, I realised I didn’t want to go back to the old me. I had space in my mind and heart to look at myself less flippantly, and I could see that fully immersing myself in this alternative lifestyle of meditation and vegetarianism, and surrounding myself with people that were like minded, had made all the difference. So I kept it up, and it kept me off the cigarettes and grog for good. I’ve never looked back.
What do you look for when sourcing new products for ClearMind to import?
When we started ClearMind, we made a decision that we would never go below a certain quality. To be honest, we probably could have made a fortune if we did, but we wanted to uphold our reputation and values: if you want the good stuff, go to the team at ClearMind. And the biggest indicator of quality is simply the taste. We taste everything before we sell it, and our rule is that we all have to love it. We can’t say, ‘Mmm, it’s okay’. We all have to love it, otherwise we can’t sell it.
Over the years, I reckon we've tasted ten or twenty times the number of products that are on our website. We’ve tasted so many, from South Africa, from Chile, from New Zealand, from France. From everywhere. And for us to take it on, it has to be as good as the existing range of our portfolio. The most recent products we’ve tasted and started selling are probably the best non-alcoholic wines that we’ve ever tasted in our entire 26 years: the Leitz range from Germany. When we tasted the wines, we were like ‘Hello? What is this!’ That’s the kind of reaction we have to all of our products, and most importantly, our customers agree with us.
What about the wines you say no to? Can you pinpoint what it is they're lacking?
When it comes to the many non-alcoholic wines we’ve tasted, you can tell by the taste when they are not as well developed as the European wines. If you take 99.5% of the alcohol out of wine, you take the body out, so it has to be very delicately done. Instead, some producers extract it poorly and just replace it with a load of sugar. They also don’t start with very good grapes.
However, when you taste the really high quality products, like the ones we sell, you notice the difference instantly. Even just by the aromas.
What about non-alcoholic spirits?
The process to select non-alcoholic spirits is not too dissimilar to the wines. The key, as always, is the taste. Most non-alcoholic spirits need “friends” – as in, you have to match them with tonic or another mixer. You can’t drink them straight as the products are thin in their taste.
We've been excited to discover some really fantastic brands, like Pearsons and Glen Dochus. I had read some press releases from a mindful-drinking festival in Edinburgh a few years ago, and they were raving about the Spirits of Virtue range, especially their Pearson’s non-alcoholic gin alternatives and their Glen Dochus whiskey alternative, saying that they didn’t even compare to the rest of the non-alcoholic competition. Naturally, I got on to their sales director in Scotland and asked if they wanted to work with us. They sent some samples over, and I tell you, on our first taste, we actually thought they must be alcoholic products. They had such a strong taste, and you didn't need to put tonic or ginger ale in them to get a delicious flavour. That was crucial to us.
We’re also really excited about a new non-alcoholic bourbon alternative from Kentucky called Kentucky 74. Three women run the business, and they’re so colourful and positive and enthusiastic about their mission. We think it’s going to be a real game changer.
The drinking culture in Australia has shifted in the past 5 years – why do you think there is now a trend towards alcohol-free lifestyles?
It certainly has. In fact, overall sales of alcohol are down globally. I think it’s down to one word – women. Particularly women in that 20-40 age range, who are invested in their health and wellbeing, or are professionals who don’t want to be hungover when they have a big day at work.
Women are such drivers of change in many cultures, and they’re feeling more empowered than ever, because there has finally been some pretty vocal criticism in the public arena lately of misogyny and other bad behavior. That blokey culture – ‘have a beer, she’ll be right, why aren’t you drinking’ – is getting way too old fashioned. I also think there’s an element of young people seeing how alcohol might have affected their parents negatively. People are more aware now, refusing to accept old fashioned ways of being, however they also don’t want to sit around drinking mineral water or lemonade all night. There's a real demand for premium non-alcoholic products, which is really exciting.
What do you see in ClearMind's future? Is there anything you're especially looking forward to?
I see our future as being a big part of the broader acceptance of what's loosely referred to as the ‘premiumization’ of the non-alcoholic category. We’re already seeing it with our spirits – a bottle of our non-alcoholic gin is around $50, because it’s of a really high quality. And people are no longer balking at the prices. You could buy something else for cheaper than that, of course, but you’ll probably wish you hadn’t. The same thing happened with a recent new product made in France of Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine. We were hesitant to sell it because of a higher price point than usual, but we tried it out, and we sold out in 30 seconds. We’d never seen anything like it. A lot of our customers care more about quality than price, so that’s our motivation.
The hospitality industry is also primed to get on board too. In the past, we've been kicked out of pubs when offering samples of our products. They said things like, 'You've got to be joking,' but in the last three months, we've had interest from two of the biggest on-premise players in the Australian market. This is happening for the first time in 25 years because customers are now demanding it from them; when they go for a nice dinner, they want something better than a soft drink or mineral water to accompany it. It's a huge shift, and will take time, but I see ClearMind playing an important part in it.
In terms of new products, I'm excited to launch some new RTD cans that we're bringing on board from Spirits of Virtue in Scotland. These are unique in the market and will complement our 700mL bottles of non-alcoholic spirits really well. They’re great as a ‘try before you buy’ entry product, and really convenient to take to parties and picnics. It’s what the younger market is asking for and we’re really happy to be able to supply it. A couple of my favourites are the Pearsons range of gin alternatives with premium tonic and the Usko Nordic Berries & Lemonade, which tastes exactly like a vodka mixed drink – pleasant and mellow with no harsh burn.
It is wonderful to be part of Team ClearMind, all our skills, experience and capacities blend together to give our customers the best quality products available. Thank you to everyone.
How do you practice mindfulness in your life?
I view being mindful as being aware of your life in all aspects and the impacts you’re having. So, when it comes to your state of mind, I think it's important to realise that diet and consumption of alcohol both have an effect. And it's about choosing to not always do things the way they’ve been done; like, we just bought an electric car, it is an investment in our planet's future. I also try to be mindful when I speak and interact with people, because this affects you too. It’s all about being thoughtful and mindful with your relationships and treating other people how you expect to be treated yourself. A lifestyle saying I like is : The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.