Her best shot
Local entrepreneur's alcohol-free elixir, Solbrü, is a sophisticated option for sober but social folks
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/12/2020 (734 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
‘What? Not drinking?”
After Leanne Kisil gave up alcohol completely in November 2017, her friends continued to ask why she didn’t have a beer or glass of wine parked in front of her when they were out for a bite or gathered at somebody’s place.
It felt odd to field the same question over and over, Kisil says. If she had been a smoker and was suddenly eschewing nicotine, she doubts anybody would have cared why she wasn’t sitting there, puffing away.
“Or they would been all, ‘Hey, good for you,’ if I’d quit cigarettes versus booze,” she continues, dressed in a parka, jeans and tuque, swaying back and forth to keep warm during a distanced outdoor interview in keeping with the city’s code red COVID-19 restrictions. “It’s almost as if we think it’s healthy or perfectly normal to drink when we all know (alcohol) is a toxin.”
Kisil, born and raised in St. Vital, was living in Calgary when she realized her dependence on the bottle was negatively affecting her physical and mental well-being. Two months into a holistic nutrition course offered at the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition, she began reading about “grown-up” alcohol-free alternatives that were creating a bit of a buzz on the consumer market, flavourful elixirs that appealed to what was being referred to as the sober-curious crowd.
One night in class it hit her: she should develop her own non-alcoholic beverage, not some sugary-sweet mocktail but something sophisticated in nature that also incorporated her freshly minted holistic training by offering a few health benefits.
“I actually had the name before I had the product,” she says of Solbrü, the herb-based, alcohol-free refreshment she launched in May, following close to two years of research and development. Her mother is French and sol, the French word for ground, the source of most of her ingredients, sounds like soul, so there is a spiritual connotation, she explains.
And because it was going to be a drink of some sort, she began toying around with the word brew, finally deciding to adopt the Germanic umlaut for her father, who’s Austrian.
“That’s how Solbrü was born, even though I didn’t have a clue what it was going to taste like yet,” she says with a chuckle.
• • •
Kisil, 34, was six years old when she started playing community club hockey in a league primarily for boys, 12 when she switched over to the girls game. By the time she was lacing ‘em up for the University of Manitoba women’s team — a six-foot-tall power forward, she served as the Bisons captain for three of her five years there — heading out with teammates for a drink or three to celebrate a big win or to mourn a tough loss had become commonplace.
“With hockey, it was the social norm pretty much to go hard on the ice for 60 minutes, then go and get drunk, sometimes to the point of getting sick or passing out,” says Kisil, voted the Bisons most valuable player for the 2005-06 campaign.
Following her university career, Kisil, who graduated with a commerce degree, played one season for the EHV Sabres, a professional women’s team based in Vienna. She hung up her skates for good in 2011 after suffering a concussion, an injury she sustained during what was supposed to have been a non-contact practice against a neighbouring men’s squad.
She returned to Winnipeg in June of that year before leaving for Calgary a few months later to accept a sales position with an Alberta oil and gas company. There, the drinking culture was largely the same as it had been when she was on the ice. So-called liquid lunches were routine and if sales calls revolved around a golf tournament, as many of hers did, she and her playing partners were flagging down the beer cart at every opportunity. (Kisil winks when asked about her drink of choice: “The healthiest option, vodka and water, because as an athlete, I had to maintain my physique.”)
“Finally, it reached a point where a lot of the people around me were struggling with that type of lifestyle and the toll it was taking on their personal relationships, professional career or both,” she continues. “In my case, I was dealing with digestive problems, as well as some mental-health issues. Luckily my higher self knew to take me away from all that, which was one of the main reasons I signed up for that (holistic nutrition) course, which in turn led to me quitting drinking altogether.”
Sober for seven months, Kisil moved back to Winnipeg in May 2018. That’s when Solbrü really began to take root. In concert with Red River College’s Prairie Research Kitchen, she began experimenting with recipes that incorporated herbs such as rosemary, ginger and cloves, ones known to help boost the immune system (when she wasn’t taking daily, meditative walks through Assinboine Forest, that is).
At first she combined the selected herbs with coconut milk, but after business coaches recommended against anything that needed to be refrigerated — retail space is difficult to come by for those types of products, they warned — she changed direction by working with functional fungi such as reishi mushrooms, which also contribute to a healthy immune system and have been proven to help fight fatigue and depression.
Satisfied with the fruits of her labour, she unveiled her first flavour, Restore, which, on the nose, boasts notes of orange, apricot, licorice and oak, in May. In September she added Elevate (our untrained sniffer picked up lemon, peppermint and basil) and Inspire (is that lavender?) to the mix.
“I would say it’s as close as what you can get to booze without having any booze in there,” she says. While non-drinkers can always have a glass of juice or pop in a social setting, if you want something more mature, Solbrü, which can be served on the rocks or paired with something like club soda or tonic water, more than fits the bill. “The first time my grandfather, who enjoys the occasional shot of Crown Royal, tasted Restore, which has more of a smoky, whiskey vibe, he motioned to his throat, repeating ‘pique, pique,’ the French word for spicy.”
• • •
According to a recent article in Bon Appetit magazine, sales of low- and no-alcohol beverages are expected to grow by 33 per cent in the next two years. That may explain why, in the space of seven short months (not to mention in the midst of a global pandemic), Kisil has been able to get Solbrü, packaged in sleek-looking black bottles, into retail outlets in six provinces. Here at home, De Luca’s on Portage Avenue was the first store to stock her product. She has since added 25 more Winnipeg locations to the mix, including Vita Health, Miller’s Meats and Mottola Grocery. And while COVID-19 has definitely made rolling things out somewhat problematic — try offering in-store demos when you’re supposed to remain two metres apart — Kisil can’t say enough good things about how the local retail community has supported her venture thus far.
Sure, she’d love it if at some point bars and restaurants were to offer Solbrü to customers who don’t imbibe. At the same time, she’s sensitive to the fact owners of those establishments presently don’t have a lot of money to toss around on new offerings, so she’ll happily wait a spell before pursuing that avenue any further.
That said, a percentage of sales — Solbrü is currently available in a variety of sizes, including a stocking stuffer-esque, 13-ounce vessel — will continue to be directed to addiction-recovery programs from coast to coast.
“My hockey coaches always told me I was a lead-by-example type of captain, and I want to continue in that role now that I’m a business owner,” she says. “On an almost daily basis, people send me messages thanking me for making this product, saying how it has allowed them to socialize again without being subject to any alcohol-related questions. That’s when I get watery-eyed. I want to make a difference in people’s lives and if drinking Solbrü means one less drunken argument with a spouse, or one less drunk driver on the road, I’ll have accomplished my goal.”
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.