As first published by Simon Doherty on Vice.com here
For many, having a lovely frosty pint is one of life’s great pleasures. That is, until they drink many more than one frosty pint, feel absolutely horrendous the next day, wracked with beer fear and memory loss, and enter that near-fugue state that makes it very hard to properly use any of your limbs. This also feels like a good place to mention that, according to the World Health Organisation, booze is responsible for 3 million deaths a year globally.
But what if all that could go away? What if a non-toxic, non-addictive drug could keep you at that sweet spot where you suddenly get really good at making conversation, or bowling, or karaoke? (This is somewhere between the two and three-pint mark, by the way: when you’ve decided to stay out, but you’re still a few pints away from going in on a gram on a work night.)
Professor David Nutt, a leading psychopharmacologist, has been working on reducing the harms of alcohol for 30 years.
“I would say that alcohol is the most damaging drug to society,” he told me over Zoom. “I don’t believe that there’s a family in the land that hasn’t either themselves been affected by drinking or had one of their loved ones damaged by someone who’s been drunk. It’s a leading preventable cause of high blood pressure – more people die of hypertension from alcohol causing strokes or heart attacks than from cirrhosis.”
About 15 years ago, Professor Nutt decided that instead of trying to mitigate the harms of a toxic substance, it would be better to just create a non-toxic version instead. This led him to synthesise a compound called Alcarelle, a non-harmful alternative to alcohol that supposedly gives you the positive effects of booze – feeling chatty, relaxed and sociable – without the negatives, like becoming aggy, forgetful and hungover.
Nutt says he knows the substance works because he’s tested it on himself. But because it’s a “novel synthetic chemical” it needs to go through rigorous safety testing, which will take two years and cost around £20 million.
In the meantime, he’s developed a non-alcoholic botanical spirit called Sentia. This side project for Nutt’s company, GABA Labs, is mainly to raise the capital to help bring Alcarelle to market, but also to ease the general public into the idea of alcohol alternatives.
I can see why they might want to do that: I was sent some samples to try, and I couldn’t help but feel skeptical. Can a botanical drink really get you tipsy?
“Alcohol targets different receptor systems [in the brain],” Nutt explained over Zoom. “At the lowest levels in the brain, it’s working through the GABA system. We now know that there are 15 different GABA receptors in the brain, and they control different things. What we’ve targeted [with Sentia] are the receptors that control sociability, relaxation – the ones in the frontal parts of the brain – and we’re avoiding the receptors that cause problems, like unsteadiness, falling over, irritability, anger and hangover.”
To create Sentia, Nutt and the team at GABA Labs searched thousands of databases and “found a number of herbs which make substances which work on the GABA system”, plus other herbs which accelerate their uptake. The reason the ingredients don’t fall under the Psychoactive Substances Act is because they have long been approved as foods or food supplements.
“We ended up developing this cocktail: four herbs that make GABA-like substances, three or four herbs that get it into the brain faster and the colouring,” Nutt explained. “We’re using blackberry, which is a nice colourant, but also facilitates the uptake of substances in the brain.”
One immediate roadblock is that Sentia is not cheap. At £30 for 50cl (the size of a standard bottle of water) or £14 for 20cl (smaller than a can of Coke), it’s roughly the same price as a high-end spirit. Still, I cracked open a bottle and poured a 25ml measure over ice. It smelled a bit like rose potpourri or an air freshener, but tasted much better – a sweet, herby, woody initial flavour, with a spicy kick, like a cross between a Bloody Mary and a mulled wine.
Within about ten minutes, I was surprised to find that I started feeling something. It wasn’t comparable to getting pissed, more like having a half pint or smoking a small joint of hash – a mild intoxicant, but an intoxicant nonetheless. I can’t tell you for certain whether or not it was the famous placebo having its wicked effect on me, but I did feel noticeably more relaxed. My mood was lifted and I felt generally more at ease.
To test my legs, I tried an American-style roadside sobriety test: walk along a straight line, touch your nose and stand on one foot. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I passed with flying colours.
To see if I could up the ante, I followed this with a neat serving on the rocks, several shots and two measures mixed with tonic water – but none of that had any perceptible effect on how I felt. For drinkers who use booze to forget their problems, that’s probably a negative; for those who want a bit of social lubrication without having to peel their tongue off the pillow the following morning, it’s anything but. Speaking of which, I didn’t feel hungover at all the next day.
There are other hangover-free products on the market, but many still contain alcohol, which is harmful in itself. This development – along with the growth of the alcohol-free booze market – comes as the alcohol industry stands at a crossroads: there are plenty of older heavy drinkers, but a considerable amount of young people are turning away from drunken nights out.
According to Nutt, the drinks industry has taken notice of his invention; after all, if non-toxic psychoactive alternatives to alcohol take off, they may well become the drug of choice for some of those aforementioned young people, potentially losing Big Booze plenty of revenue. “At first, I think the alcohol industry was a bit suspicious,” said Nutt. “A couple of companies approached us and said, ‘Can we buy it?’ We thought they were buying it to get rid of it, so we said no.”
If all goes to plan and Nutt’s invention really does have the desired effect, drinks companies may well end up investing in Alcarelle the same way some tobacco firms invested millions in vaping products. Why? Because psychoactive alcohol alternatives have the potential to disrupt the drinks industry like nothing before.