Lisa King Talks Entrepreneurship and The Secret Ingredient In Free AF: A Sober-Curious Beverage Line

Living that fun, carefree, lifestyle filled with Instagrammable moments has long gone hand in hand with drinking alcohol. Recently, there has been a cultural shift in society’s attitude toward booze. As the sober-curious movement is on the rise, people are starting to realize that a boozy night out is not actually worth all the hype when the next day arrives. With health and wellness becoming an increasingly popular trend, it only makes sense to skip the hangover and negative side effects associated with alcohol. Taking care of your mind, body, and soul is in! Celebrities, such as Jennifer Lopez, Bella Hadid, Zac Efron, etc. are paving the way to overall well-being by demonstrating that it’s not impossible to transition to a sober lifestyle in style.

Social entrepreneur, Lisa King, is all for it, making it her mission to normalize a healthier relationship with alcohol. Lover of gin-and-tonics, she decided she needed to bridge the gap between enjoyable, grown-up, alcohol-free drinks and a brand that could actually lead a shift in perspective. Recognizing that the choice to drink is not always black and white, King wants to show people that moderation and mindfulness is key.

Lisa King’s desire for an alternative to ease your way into a tastier sober lifestyle, eventually blossomed into Free AF Drinks. Aiming to inspire confidence and assurance in your decision to skip the hard stuff, these mocktails are the perfect, socially-acceptable, alcohol-free alternative. With Free AF drinks, you can still get that aesthetically pleasing Instagram Story you’re craving. Luckily, the line is conveniently based on the flavors of the world’s most popular classic cocktails, including the Aperol Spritz, Paloma, Cuba Libre, and Vodka Spritz. The coolest part? Each drink is powered by a 100% natural botanical heat extract called Afterglow. This special ingredient mimics that slight alcohol burn you get from drinking and will have your cheeks feeling that warm sensation after a few sips.

Free AF is available at Sprouts (one of the fastest-growing retailers in the country) and Amazon. To learn more about this alcohol-free brand that is making its mark around the globe, CONTRAST spoke to Lisa King, founder of Free AF.

Note: This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Your parents immigrated to New Zealand from Hong Kong in search of better opportunities. Can you tell us how your family and upbringing contributed to your entrepreneurial spirit?
 My parents came to New Zealand with no knowledge of the country or language and so had to create their opportunities. They opened up a Chinese restaurant (even though neither of them was chefs, my dad was a pretty good cook). The restaurant became relatively successful, with Prime Ministers and national rugby players frequenting. I started working at the restaurant on the weekends from the age of ten, making desserts. When I started high school, my parents bought the store next to the restaurant and opened up one of NZ’s first Chinese acupuncturists and medical centers. From there, they continued to invest and try their hand at different opportunities such as real estate, racing horse breeding, truffle harvesting, etc. They were always looking for that next business idea.

Growing up in that environment made me appreciate how hard my parents worked and the sacrifices they made. They taught me the importance of a good work ethic and that business isn’t just about making money. They went out of their way to help their customers and the community, often forgoing money to do the right thing. Their generosity and putting people and relationships before profit were distinctive characteristics that had the biggest impact on me.

When I turned 16, my parents offered to buy me my own bakery to run. The idea of working as hard as my parents at that stage of my life had no appeal and I absolutely refused. I decided to take the corporate route, which I did for the next 15 years. However, there was always an itch and desire to be my own boss – I didn’t enjoy the lack of risk-taking and speed, the reliance on others to determine your path, coupled with the politics of big corporations. I am also a quietly spoken introvert, which doesn’t fare particularly well in corporates, so I finally decided to start my first business when I was 38 years old.

While I acquired a lot of knowledge and discipline from my corporate experience, I don’t think I can ever go back to that world again. I love creating my own vision, moving at speed, and taking risks. And I love knowing that every minute and second I spend on my own business adds value. 

Free AF has been a trailblazer in the alcohol-free industry, one of the fastest-growing new industries in the food & beverage sector. Can you tell us about what specifically inspired you to create Free AF? I decided to stop drinking for a while after experiencing a few bouts of vertigo. I realized every time I had vertigo; I also had a gin and tonic. However, in New Zealand’s heavy drinking culture, saying you’re not drinking makes you feel like a social outcast, garnering strange looks and questions like “are you pregnant?” or “is everything ok?” It was odd to have to justify not drinking – no one questions anyone who stops smoking.

I also discovered how hard it was to get a good non-alcoholic drink that wasn’t a sugary soft drink or juice. I wanted a sophisticated, adult drink as good as my old gin and tonics. So I decided to make them myself, which is how AF started. I got the founding team together over our first lockdown, and we worked over Zoom for the first three months before meeting each other in person. We were clear from the start that AF was not only about providing great alcohol-free options, but we also wanted to create conversation and change behavior to make not drinking cool and sexy. Helping people to moderate and reduce alcohol consumption is ultimately our mission.

One of the striking ingredients in your products is Afterglow, a natural botanical extract that mimics the warm sensation of alcohol. Can you elaborate on this ingredient and why you felt it was important to include this? 
Having tried many alcohol-free drinks, the one thing they tend to lack is mouthfeel and complexity. We knew we had to deliver this to ensure we weren’t just putting a nice flavored sparkling water on the market. We also know that people drink alcohol not only for the taste but the feeling they get from drinking – that slight alcohol burn and the warming sensation.

This is where Afterglow comes in. It’s a natural heat botanical that provides that little kick at the back of your throat and also mimics the warmth of alcohol. The more you drink, the warmer you feel (after two AF’s, my cheeks start feeling warm). When we’ve done blind tastings of our G&T against the likes of Bombay, Tanqueray or Gordon’s G&T’s, AF has been chosen as the “booziest” tasting one. Afterglow is such a distinguishing feature of AF versus other non-alcoholic drinks, and we source the ingredient from New Zealand as the way it is blended and extracted is hard to replicate. Afterglow really delivers on making AF a sessionable, complex adult drink.


What do you think distinguishes Free AF from other non-alcoholic beverages? Afterglow, the natural heat botanical ingredient, of course. Also, our drinks are based on classic, well-known cocktails. We have a more extensive range in New Zealand, including cocktails such as The Dark & Stormy, G&T, Margarita, Sparkling Sake, Whiskey Highball, etc.). This is still an important new category. We wanted to make it easy for consumers to know what to expect from a taste, occasion, and usage perspective. (You won’t be having one of our drinks in the morning or after a workout).

The most incredible creative team has created our branding and design. Between them, they are some of the most awarded and experienced creative directors, graphic designers and brand strategists from this side of the world. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have them as part of our founding team and establish a beautifully premium yet fun and cheeky brand that anyone would be proud to be seen with.

In New Zealand, you have the country’s first (and only) alcohol-free bottle shop, with other curated brands alongside your own. Tell us about that space and how people have responded to it.
In New Zealand, we have Dry July rather than Dry January. So for Dry July last year, we wanted to show Kiwis just how exciting and big this world of alcohol-free is. We launched an alcohol-free bottle shop that not only had AF but the best products from around the world that, included beers, wines, spirits, and bubbles. The team tried over 100 drinks and chose the top 30 to showcase.

As a brand about curiosity and being different, we created a space more like an art gallery than a bottle shop. Each drink is displayed singularly on individual plinths on the wall. The focus is very much on the visual and drinking experience: customers are encouraged to try any/all the AF drinks and featured drinks from other brands. The response to the bottle shop has been overwhelmingly positive, and it is now the destination for people looking for alcohol-free products. We will also host events such as masterclasses and food and drink pairings. 

I know it’s probably like choosing a favorite child, but which Free AF flavor is your favorite? Or perhaps your favorite right now? 
I love anything Japanese, so the Sparkling Sake with Yuzu is a definite favorite (this is currently only available in New Zealand). Although I recently had our Apero Spritz, and I was reminded of how much I love this – it’s not as sweet and sickly as the alcoholic version, and the color is just amazing, served in an oversized wine glass with a slice of fresh orange. 


You have just launched into Sprouts stores nationwide. Can you tell us why Sprouts is the perfect first place for Free AF and your expectations for this partnership? We are going to be in Sprouts from April 1st! It is so perfect as Sprouts is a genuine, high-quality retailer trying to bring the best from the US and around the world to its curious customers looking to discover new, innovative products. This coupled with Sprouts recognizing the fast growth of this category and leading the way by having fixtures dedicated to the alcohol-free space. We’re incredibly excited about our launch! 


You often speak about Free AF being more than a brand but a movement that empowers people with more choices and decisions around their drinking habits. Why is that important to you? We were clear from the beginning that we wanted to be much more than just a drinks company. Anyone can launch a drink, but we want AF to be meaningful and, in some way, make the world a little better. We know that if we can get people to start being more mindful and reduce their drinking, even by a little bit, the impact it can have at a societal level is significant. 


It’s important that we have positive conversations about this openly and start normalizing not drinking. I don’t want others to feel the same pressures or feel they have to justify themselves for making a good decision. 


How do you see this dialogue and interest in “Lobriety” developing over the next few years? The concept of “Lobriety” came about as I recently had many people ask or assume that I don’t drink at all now. I don’t identify with being sober or a teetotaller. I just choose not to drink most of the time, but when I do, it is very mindful, and I value it. 


We don’t think drinking or not drinking should be so black and white, and Lobriety is more about moderation and reducing when you choose to. Similar to being “Flexitarian,” I think more and more people will see themselves in this camp rather than in an all-or-nothing position. 


The definition of Contrast is ‘to be strikingly different.’ What makes you strikingly different? Business, for me, will never be just about making money. It has to do good as well.


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