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This alcohol-free spirit actually makes you feel tipsy

While many non-alcoholic drinks want to replicate the taste of a tipple, Sentia wants to replicate the effects

Alex Lee
Thursday 11 January 2024 11:31 GMT
There are two different Sentia flavours to choose from, with a third set to launch later this year
There are two different Sentia flavours to choose from, with a third set to launch later this year (iStock/The Independent )

There is a growing thirst for non-alcoholic beverages. Over the past few years, a wave of bars without booze have opened their doors around the world; more and more young people are zebra striping between drinks, and in a sign of changing tastes, last summer, Guinness tripled production of its zero-proof stout.

From non-alcoholic spirits and liquors to alcohol-free wines and beers, the sober curious movement shows no sign of slowing down, with Gen Z and millennials practising temperance. But while non-alcoholic blends offer a convincingly similar taste, what if they could also give you the same great buzz without the groggy head and debilitating hangover the morning after? 

For years, David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College London and co-founder of GABA Labs, has been toying with the idea of a synthetic alcoholic drink that mimics the same euphoric effects of alcohol, without any of the groggy weekend-ruining hangovers. Think Star Trek’s synthehol come to life.

Since 2016, the former drug tsar who was famously sacked after stating that cannabis, ecstasy and LSD were less harmful than alcohol, has been working on developing such a molecule. In 2021, GABA Labs launched Sentia Spirits, the world’s first plant-based, botanical-powered spirits that have 0% ABV but still make you tipsy. “It’s a drink that is based on the science of alcohol, particularly the low doses of alcohol that relax you and make you more sociable,” Nutt tells The Independent.        

Sentia is what Nutt calls a “GABA spirit”. GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, to give it its full name, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain that produces a calming effect. When you’re drinking an alcoholic beverage, those alcohol molecules bind to GABA receptors and cause the sedative, relaxing effects of GABA to be enhanced.

Scientists (including Nutt) have long since looked at herbs such as valerian root and their impact on GABA. “We’ve spent years researching the biochemistry of herbs to find ones which contain GABA molecules, and also those which have a track record of producing relaxation and calming effects,” Nutt explains.

By combining various GABA-enhancing and GABA-promoting herbs and botanicals into a concoction, Nutt says he and the team have been able to develop an “effective alternative to drinking low levels of alcohol”. Essentially, it’s an alcohol-free drink that’ll make you comfortable enough to spill secrets, smooth out a hard day’s wrinkles and ease yourself into the evening.

Sentia black contains magnolia officinalis, schisandra chinensis, salvia officinalis and other herbs (Alex Lee)

Sentia currently produces two different spirits – Sentia red and Sentia black. Sentia red is the drink you turn to when you need to relax on a Wednesday night or are looking for a first date drink. Featuring different herbs as well as the core GABA ingredient, Sentia black is a more active drink for wider social occasions and parties. Nutt says the company will be releasing a third spirit called Sentia gold in the summer, which is set to be a richer, prosecco-like beverage.

Does it work for everyone? “It depends on people’s varying sensitivity,” Nutt says. “There is evidence that your GABA system becomes a bit less sensitive when you drink a lot of alcohol, and if you’re a heavy drinker, to be honest, you may not get much of an effect at all.”

But effective as it may or may not be, Sentia isn’t the ultimate goal, merely a stopgap on the way to finding a GABA-enhancing ingredient that mimics the positive effects of alcohol. A molecule Nutt calls alcarelle is what he hopes will, in the future, be something that can be licensed to drinks companies so they can add it to non-alcoholic beers, spirits and wines. “That’s a big challenge,” he says. “We’ve made molecules that perform that function but we haven’t yet optimised the one we want to take through to food and safety testing.”

CBD-infused soft drinks such as Trip and Oto have also been taking off in the past few years, though Sentia claims that, while CBD drinks and Sentia perform the same task (using neurotransmitters in the brain to relax you), the quantities available in CBD drinks aren’t enough to give you the same effects as Sentia or, in the future, alcarelle.

GABA Labs says it hopes to complete FDA testing of alcarelle in the US by 2026, with the ingredient available to purchase by 2027. Until then, for those trying to give up alcohol, Sentia’s blend of botanical spirits could be the solution. But does it really work? Did it make us tipsy? And how does it taste? We put it to the test to see if non-alcoholic GABA-powered drinks are the future.

Sentia Black

Sentia Black
  • Size: 50cl
  • Why we love it
    • It actually did make us squiffy
  • Take note
    • Weird medicinal taste
    • Looks like tar in a bottle

While Sentia says drinking its spirits alone will still make you feel relaxed, drinking Sentia with friends will increase the effect. “Social interaction in itself brings out warmth in you, so, once you’ve got over that threshold of anxiety to start communicating, the communication itself probably releases some GABA as well, so you get a double whammy,” Nutt explains. So, to try it out, we took it to one of our game nights.

“That looks like tar”. Those were the first words that left a mate’s mouth as we brought Sentia black out of our bag and plopped it down in the middle of the table.

They aren’t wrong. Sentia black is a tar-black concoction in a beautiful potion-like bottle that could have been nicked from the set of a Harry Potter film. It had a pretty earthy, muddy smell when we unscrewed the lid, and it tasted about the same as it looked.

To be honest, we found it tasted pretty horrific on its own, and only slightly better when paired with a mixer. It’s got a bitter medicinal flavour that stuck in our mouth long after we’d swigged it down. A strong, spicy taste with a hint of liquorice. No one in our group particularly enjoyed the taste, though mixing it with ginger beer helped it go down.

It did, however, work. After 10 minutes, we felt a bit of a buzz. You know that slightly woozy feeling, and that head high you get when you’ve just kicked back a gin and tonic. It was good – we felt relaxed, chatty and surprised at the results. The effect wore off in about 40 minutes, but pouring another 25ml shot kept it going. It never made us drunk, just a bit tipsy, and we had zero side effects the morning after. Tastes horrible, but it worked for us.

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Sentia Red

sentia red.jpg
  • Size: 50cl
  • Why we love it
    • Lovely fruity taste
    • Made us feel relaxed

Ah, now that looks more appetising. Sentia red has a really lovely rouge hue, and, as it’s aimed at helping drinkers unwind, we decided to pour ourselves a glass after work one Friday night.

There’s a lovely berry scent when you pop open the bottle. Pouring a splash into a glass (we didn’t want to go the full 25ml straightaway, for fear of hating the taste), we were pleasantly surprised. The flavour is a little tangy, fruity and quite strong, but there’s a huge depth in terms of the flavour, and we wanted more.

We poured another, and it just got better with each sip. We tried it with some tonic and lemonade, and it paired nicely with both. A really delicious drink. Did it work? Surprisingly, it did make us feel a little more relaxed, with a bit of lightness in the shoulders. That slight sense of composure you get with your first few sips from your poison of choice.

Again, the effects lasted about an hour, but that was enough to help us unwind at the end of the day. Tasty, masses of flavour and, best of all, it does its job.

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The verdict: Sentia non-alcoholic spirits

Sceptical as we might’ve been, Sentia’s non-alcoholic spirits did make us a little squiffy. While Sentia black tasted pretty horrendous, with a spicy, medicinal flavour that overpowered most mixers, it did give us that slightly woozy feeling you get when you have your first or second pint.

If you want something that tastes quite nice, Sentia red is a fruity drink that relaxed us almost as well as half a glass of wine, though, its effects didn’t quite last as long. If we compare it to CBD soft drinks such as Trip, Sentia performs better. While Trip did make us feel a little bit relaxed, it was slightly dampened. We’ll have to see what Sentia gold brings to the party when it’s released later in the year.

Sentia could definitely taste better but, as David Nutt explains, these are proof of concept drinks: “We didn’t set out to be a drinks company,” he says. In the future, we imagine the Guinness and Jack Daniels of the world pairing the taste of your favourite bevvy with a synthetic product like alcarelle, giving people the positive feelings gained from drinking alcohol. Except without the hangover.

Thirsty for more? We’ve rounded up the best non-alcoholic spirits

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