Peter Gray chats to Wilfred’s Aperitif founder Chris Wilfred Hughes about launching his non-alcoholic spritz brand, finding success in the US, and a renewed focus on the challenging UK market.

Chris Wilfred Hughes is a former engineer and the founder of Wilfred’s Aperitif, a British non-alcoholic bittersweet liqueur spritz. Chris founded the business in 2019 after turning away from alcohol to prioritise his health and wellbeing.

Peter Gray from Ben Franks Wine caught up with Chris to find out more about why he launched the brand, his success in the US, and his renewed focus on growing Wilfred’s Aperitif in the UK market.

What drives you to launch a non-alcoholic spritz?

For Chris, Wilfred’s is personal. Not only does the brand carry his name but it is also a product that fixed a personal problem. After drinking too much in his 20s, Chris hit his 30s and found himself ill for six weeks with a mix of burnout and stress, made worse by alcohol.

Despite his love for making a good cocktail and what he describes as a ‘beautiful cabinet of high quality alcoholic drinks’, Chris needed to cut out the alcohol and make it a ‘rare occasion’ to prioritise his wellbeing.

‘The problem was I have a passion for making drinks, particularly cocktails, when people come to my home. I love being able to serve them good wines and products, but a non-alcoholic alternative didn’t exist at the time.’

He recalls a guest who didn’t drink and his embarrassed trip to the fridge to get some leftover orange juice he joked was fermented. ‘It wasn’t acceptable,’ he admits. ‘It wasn’t good enough.’

Having travelled and lived in various areas like Japan, Argentina and France, Chris was exposed to many flavours – Japanese Hibiscus, Argentine Mate, grapes from France fresh from the vine. These flavours, botanicals and spices excited him to start experimenting in his kitchen back home.

He remembers his mother bringing some fresh rosemary from her garden mid experiment and trialling it in his next batch. ‘It was something special, like the missing ingredient. It had a beautiful aromatic scent and a complex flavour. It reminded me of my mum’s cooking and I wanted to be able to bottle that authentic flavour that reminded me of home but also worked so well in an aperitif.’

Eventually his mother’s rosemary was paired with bitter orange, inspired by a marmalade his father made. He then balanced both with rhubarb, adding earthiness, and cloves, giving spice.

The recipe soon became Wilfred’s, a bittersweet orange and rosemary aperitif with no alcohol. His customers, many in the US but growing in number here in the UK, serve it with soda, non-alcoholic sparkling wine, or tonic.

The bottle comes in 1920s-esque branding, a nostalgic nod to the gentlemanly aperitif, and stamped with the name Wilfred’s – Chris’ middle name and his great grandfather’s, who lived in the era that inspired the branding.

How is Wilfred’s Aperitif made?

In the early days the first batches were made at home and with limited equipment. The process was focused around the maceration and getting the flavour right. It took about a year and a half to go from home batch aperitif to production ready drink.

Getting the flavour right was very important – and by far Chris’ biggest challenge. ‘If I’m going to make a non-alc drink, it must be better or the same quality as the alcohol equivalent as that people are judging it against.’

In order to reach this quality marker, the maceration and extraction of flavour is the essential part of the process. Alcohol not only provide body, but as Chris says it is ‘probably the best extractor of flavour that anyone knows, which is why we use it in perfume and why alcohol tends to make great tasting drinks.’

The key to extraction and flavour without alcohol is to use ‘raw botanicals to pack in more flavour’. This, he says, is why non-alc alternatives still command a higher price point, and often more ingredients are needed in non-alcoholic than alcoholic drinks to have the same or better extraction. ‘The most expensive part of the drink is the ingredients because they’re all natural – we use a hell of a lot of them to get that flavour and quality and it’s not something we’re willing to compromise on.’

In the UK, Wilfred’s Non-Alcoholic Spritz retails for around £19-£22 for 500ml.

Who is selling Wilfred’s Non-Alcoholic Bittersweet Aperitif?

Chris has has particular success in the US, where he has identified a surge in non-alc specific shops with as many as five in New York alone, 3 in California, and with states opening more and more. He also says Wilfred’s is one of the best-sellers in over 50% of his retail listings in the states.

Food52, not as widely known in the UK, is particularly strong and Wilfred’s has been their best-selling non-alcoholic drink for the last two years and counting. Food52 is an e-commerce platform targeted at premium buyers and boasts a prolific content-rich media platform.

Thanks to the success in the US, Wilfred’s Aperitif has been picked up by Vanity Fair, the New York Times, and America’s test kitchen rated the drink the ‘most highly recommended non-alcoholic spirit’.

Now Chris hopes to bring that success to the UK market.

He believes there is ‘space for both’ non-alc spirits and wines and that brands should ‘work together’ to ensure the market offers ‘more and better non-alcoholic wines and spirits’. If there’s a bad product, he says, then a consumer might dismiss the entire category for a long time. ‘Competition is on quality is a good thing,’ he says.

One of the key movements Chris is hoping to target is the wellness movement, much like his own story to reduce his alcohol consumption. He says his aperitif brand leans into wellness because the brand makes people feel ‘they’re outside in the sun, they’re having a drink, it’s bright and enjoyable. It’s an aperitivo moment effectively.’

While Wilfred’s Aperitif sees a slight skew towards female drinkers, he says Wilfred’s appeals to a broad range of ages and people. It is the occasion that drives them to buy the drink and often Wilfred’s customers also consume alcohol, particularly gin and tonics or Aperol-style spritz.

‘Once you realise you can get that sense of occasion from non-alcoholic drinks, it very happily replaces that moment or craving for booze.’

Winning the UK market

Wilfred’s is a British brand and originally launched in the UK. While Chris’ head was turned to the US where the brand was taken by storm, he says it is now the ‘right place and right time’ for the UK. They are partnering with Club Soda, an online platform that focuses on mindful drinking through the promotion of non-alcoholic or low alcohol drinks.

The UK, while smaller than the US, is a considerably challenging market due to the saturation of what’s on offer and similar brands from the likes of Diageo have come and gone. Chris is still confident Wilfred’s can make an impact.

‘There are competitors in the space that have less intention to take the space and own it as the go-to non-alcoholic aperitif. We are focused and have a single one.’

Wilfred’s Aperitif wants to be the best non-alcoholic aperitif on the market, leading in ‘flavour, branding, ethos and experience – that’s what we’re focused on.’

His aim is to replicate the brand’s sales success in the UK.

Looking at the future for Wilfred’s Aperitif

Right now, Chris and his team are focused on one single product that ‘hits the spot’. There are conversations and designs for a ready to drink aperitif spritz in can but Chris is wary to take any of the focus from the product he already has. ‘The moment you put it in a can you tell people it’s the only way to drink their drink. At the moment people use Wilfred’s to make spritzers, sours, use it in cooking…

‘Then again a sunny park is the perfect place to have a Wilfred’s, and while we won’t launch cans now it may still happen.’

For the foreseeable future, the team will grow the brand and try to help customers believe in the non-alcoholic premium space, somewhere that provides a real experience to match the venue or occasion, and where Wilfred’s can play a role without the booze.

‘That’s what we do best,’ he says. ‘We create a real occasion without the booze and it ensures people are left out, which is key to our ethos – people having a good time, whether they’re drinking or not and everyone feels included.

‘We think we make the best aperitif in the space and if you want a sense of occasion for your non-alcoholic drinkers, buyers should reach out.’

How does Wilfred’s Bittersweet Orange and Rosemary Non-Alcoholic Spritz taste?

Wilfred's BFWR 2 Star

★★ Great Spirit. Ben says: ‘This is one of the most accomplished non-alcoholic spirits I’ve tried. It has a fab clear colour and recognisable bitters aroma with perfumed blood orange, red fruits and rosemary. On the palate it is layered and intense with great concentration; its best feature being the good balance of flavour, sweetness and bitterness – too many overdo the sugar. It can’t quite escape the hole where the alcohol would be but it more than makes up for this on the finish with packs of character. Since we’re not going to be sipping this neat anyway, what really matters is that finish and aroma, as this carries through a mixer in a Spritz or cocktail really well.’ Read the full review here.

Images credit Wilfred’s Aperitif. You can find out more on their website here.