Aaron Trotman goes by “CEO” but only because his preferred title, “The Firefighter”, doesn’t really fly in hifalutin business circles.
It’s apt, though, because the heavenly aromas wafting through Melbourne’s Non HQ – roasted pear and cherry, a cinnamon perfume, an invigorating orange-based stock – belie the hectically rapid learning curve behind them.
As Aaron tells Broadsheet, “The ‘non-alc’ category has been around for a while and may seem like it’s growing out of control, but it’s still only five past midnight.”
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Aaron introduced his wine-alternative brand Non in 2019 with no experience whatsoever in the drinks industry. And yet his eight variations have been eagerly adopted by some of Melbourne’s most agenda-setting venues, including Hope St Radio, Old Palm Liquor, Supernormal, Cutler & Co, Ronnie’s at Rialto, Ritz-Carlton’s Atria Bar and Neptune in Windsor.
Non’s origin story begins a few years earlier when Aaron and his wife Miranda Trotman embarked on an exploration of the world of fine dining. Miranda is a non-drinker, so bartenders would create elaborate concoctions to complement the complex dishes – and something clicked for Aaron.
“I thought it was a real shame that these drinks live and die in these places because they’re not in a bottle. Someone needed to do that,” he says. “I didn’t have any market research or really know anything about the drinks category.”
But Aaron did have a background in the cosmetics industry, specifically creating hair products and shampoos – first alone in his kitchen, then scaling up under the guidance of his mentor, the late Richard Gonano, the cosmetic chemist behind brands including Aesop and Kevin Murphy.
“He was really instrumental for me in learning about blending essential oils and how to create scents and fragrances, and then how they reacted in the product,” Aaron says. “I learned about formulations and bringing a product to market, and how the ingredient percentages change drastically as you scale up.”
Following a near-identical path, Aaron started his foray into beverages in his kitchen. Instead of following the formula of alcohol-free wines – which strips out the alcohol, and with it, much of the flavour – he took more of a perfumery approach, cooking layers of flavours into the verjuice base sourced from chardonnay grapes from Barossa Valley. That’s the process his team of alchemists (among them, chefs, bartenders, food scientists and winemakers) continues now, only on a much larger scale.
“I think if I had come from hospitality, Non probably wouldn’t exist because I just had so much blind faith,” he says. “I didn’t have the experience of taking something that’s in a pot and scaling it up into a 7500-litre tank, and so I had no idea how hard it could be.”
Around the time that Aaron was launching his bold endeavour, there was a surge of “sober pride” on social media. Converts to an alcohol-free life gave themselves prefixes such as “AF” or “Sober”, and increasing numbers of alcohol-free products hit the market. Aaron thinks the sobriety wave might have peaked now, with moderation being more commonly cited.
That’s not to say that interest in alcohol-free drinks is dropping. According to the International Wine and Spirits Record, no- and low-alcohol beverages grew by more than seven per cent in 2022, surpassing US$11 billion. It’s small wonder that alcohol companies are cashing in, developing alcohol-free versions of their biggest hits.
“I think some of that super-sober stuff is slowing down because it’s a little bit out of reach for people,” Aaron says. “The conversations now are more: ‘This is what I would have when I don’t want a drink’, or ‘This is how I’m cutting back’.”
In the earliest development phase, Non aimed to come up with wine-like products that could fool people in a blind taste test. Then the team decided that creating a stand-in for those desperately missing it wasn’t the goal.
“We offer an alternative for an occasion, or for exploration and exciting your palate,” Aaron says. “It’s aspirational, but that’s the kind of place I want to sit in.”
To achieve this, he set about assembling a crack team from different backgrounds with the goal of creating a combined skill set that could explore new frontiers. In his previous endeavours, both as a DJ and producer, and in cosmetics, Aaron had been a “lone wolf”, he says. “I’d never had staff before, so having business mentors has helped me learn on the job day by day as new problems come up.”
Non’s leadership arm includes the former head of marketing for non-alcoholic gin Seedlip; a national sales manager with a beer background (“really important for Non because beer is so aggressive – it’s fighting for shelf space all the time so you need that hustle and grind”); and an operations manager from Milwaukee Tool. “I saw the cultural fit of what these guys could bring into the business and that’s more important than them knowing about the drinks industry,” Aaron says.
The ability to problem-solve on the fly is key. First, there were all the boxes Aaron wanted to tick off: using 100 per cent green energy, being vegan-certified, gluten-free and halal, shipping carbon-neutrally and having 75 per cent less water wastage than conventional beverage manufacturing.
But expansion overseas created more curly conundrums. While Non’s current international focus is the US, the brand has also expanded into Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and New Zealand, and is making forays into Hong Kong, China and Korea. Each country has its own rules.
“Non is a food product because there’s no alcohol in it, but it’s not really in a category, so there’s also not a set category when Customs consider what the regulations are,” Aaron explains. “In Japan there’s a limit on the sulphites you can have in a non-alcohol drink, which is different to Korea. In the UK, instead of saying ‘salt’ on the label, you’re meant to say ‘sodium’. Indonesia is probably the most intense – there are so many layers to it.”
Visitors to the Cheltenham Non HQ in Melbourne's south-east can experience the full range of eight flavours for themselves by booking a tour on the first Friday of every month in what’s billed as the world’s first cellar door for non-alcoholic beverages.
“You get a flavour workshop by the liquid team,” Aaron says of the tour. “It’s designed for you to understand how everything that we put in there is the sum of its parts. You see all these ingredients in a little container in the kitchen and then we explain that we now use 50 kilograms of that. In the tasting room, you’re going to see how the drinks change and pair with food. The idea is that everyone walks away with a newfound appreciation of the effort and detail that goes into this.”
Choosing his favourite, Aaron says, is like trying to choose a favourite child.
“One of the reps described Non 7 as ‘Melbourne in a glass’. It’s got cherry, cold-brew coffee and garam masala, and Melbourne is such a great place for infusions and new ideas with food, so we flexed that in our creation of that product. And then Non 4, the beetroot and sansho, is polarising and a challenge to get your head around – and I like that!”
When we talk, Aaron is about to leave for New York to be the “hype man” for reps over there – another role that’s entirely new to him. If he’d known how much Non would ask of him, would he still have embarked on this mission?
“Yes, I love it,” he says in an instant. “I just jumped off a cliff and I built the plane on the way down – and I’m still building the plane!”
This article first appeared in Domain Review, in partnership with Broadsheet.