How This Alcohol-Free Aperitif Became a Bar Cart Necessity
Ghia founder Mélanie Masarin wants non-drinkers to feel included.
Growing up in Lyon, France, Mélanie Masarin was surrounded by celebration. She and her family split time between the historic city and the South of France, constantly gathering with friends and cooking meals.
“I grew up in an environment where making drinks kicked off togetherness. There was always food on the table to share and loud conversations lasted into the night,” she remembers. “It was something I missed moving to the U.S. Even when I’m really busy, I try to cook for friends at least once a week.”
Another cultural difference Masarin observed was that, in France and Italy, alcohol is almost exclusively about celebrating. But in America, drinking culture has experienced pretty wide pendulum swings—from Prohibition to binge drinking—creating a more toxic connotation. “We’ve been conditioned to think of it as a coping mechanism,” she says.
She took this unhealthy outlook and flipped it on its head. In 2019, she founded Ghia, a non-alcoholic product that is designed as a cause for celebration without the depressant side effects. The apéritif is made with Riesling white grape juice, yuzu, fig, elderflower, orange peel, and other herbs, resembling the taste of Campari without the added sugar and booze.
“I don’t love sweets and sugar, which doesn’t mean I’m super healthy. I love fat and salt,” Masarin laughs. “But when I was drinking, I loved a more dry beverage, something with bitters, drinks that are more complex and travel through the mouth. I was a Campari-soda girl.”
She refers to drinking in the past tense because, after a 2018 test revealed she had Crohn’s disease cells in her stomach, she had to make some intense lifestyle changes. She cut out alcohol, sugar, coffee, and shifted around stressors in her life. It was that same year she began work on the idea of a sophisticated, spirit-free drink.
“At the time, the category had very few players,” she says. “We wanted to develop a culinary product that felt like a grown-up drink. Even if you went to a nice restaurant that had a great non-alcoholic menu, the drinks didn’t feel thoughtful or complex. You should feel included if you’re not having alcohol. But the mindset has changed so much since then.”
In fact, a Nielsen study found that 66% of millennials are making efforts to reduce their alcohol consumption (citing health as the primary reason) and Ad Week reports that demand for non-alcoholic drinks was up 60% year-over-year through July 2021.
“Right now, we have the most information available about what makes us feel good and what makes us feel bad,” Masarin says. “The pandemic, at first, made people want to cope and drink more. But the lasting effects have made us more aware of our health and motivated us to take care of ourselves. This is the future, not a trend.”
With this kind of long-term thinking, it’s no wonder that the research process for Ghia took some time. Developing the flavor itself involved a year-long initiative the company dubbed “1,000 pours,” in which Masarin hosted brunches, handed out mini bottles, and tried to get Ghia into the hands of everyone she knew. She collected feedback on Post-It notes and made adjustments accordingly.
“This was very much developed for and by people who drink, not by a set of sober people,” she explains. “At the beginning, we did a version that was a little too bitter, so we decided to lower the gentian root content. We realized people really loved the yuzu flavor so we focused more on the citrus aspect.”
Those tweaks seemed to do the trick. Ghia is now stocked in 100 restaurants, including the much-lauded King in New York City, has been promoted by food personalities like Antoni Porowski, and is beloved by fashion stars and Instagram influencers alike.
Ghia currently offers the apéritif on its own, which you can mix into cocktails like the Slow Burn, its version of a hot toddy. There are also two ready-to-drink Le Spritz versions, one with added soda water and the other with added ginger juice. Plus, the company is about to launch its first food product called Ghianduja, a hazelnut spread that’s a nod to Marasin’s early days of spreading Nutella on crepes back in France.
It’s those nostalgic days of togetherness that remain her motivation—whether customers are looking at the alcohol-free section of a restaurant menu or deciding to stay sober at a party.
“I want people to be able to drink and dance at the same time, or drink and drive at the same time,” Marasin says. “I just want people to feel comfortable.”
Slow Burn Recipe
- 2 ounces Ghia
- 8 ounces water
- 1 teaspoons honey
- 1 teaspoons coriander and/or fennel seeds, whole
- Fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
Combine water and fresh ginger slices with coriander and/or fennel seeds in a saucepan over low heat and stir. Bring to a simmer and let steep for one hour, then strain. Add a lug of Ghia and honey to taste. Drink from a mug while it’s warm.