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Nate Medow recalls being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D) at 5 years old, and how he just wanted to be like other kids at school and not have his chronic condition make him feel different.

In fact, it’s one of his earliest diabetes memories — being forced to have water and carrots in school rather than apple juice and Cheez-Its along with classmates — that is a foundation for the New York 20-something’s new venture: creating a flavorful alcoholic beverage for those with diabetes without the aftermath of blood sugar swings.

The new company is XED (pronounced “crossed”) Beverages, and their first signature product is SESH, a ready-to-drink canned cocktail and seltzer combo. It has zero sugar, just 1 gram of carbohydrates, 120 calories, and is gluten-free. As the co-founders boast, it’s “all flavor, no bullsh*t.”

Working with his former college roommate Zeke Bronfman, who happens to have a legacy in the Seagram’s whiskey family, Medow launched XED Beverages and this new “cocktail meets seltzer” concept in early 2021. They have four flavors initially and more on the way, and part of their business model is giving back to the local communities where they launch the products and helping to raise awareness and support small, grassroots diabetes groups.

“For us, it’s all about having a robust drinking experience but not having all the carbs and sugar,” Medow told DiabetesMine.

The new drink known as SESH (short for session, as in social drinking gathering) is a “cocktail meets seltzer,” as the co-founders describe it. As of October 2021, SESH Beverages come in four flavors: gin and tonic, Moscow mule, mojito, and paloma.

With no sugar and only 120 calories, they’re quite different than other hard seltzers or traditional cocktails that can contain a minimum of 30 to 40 grams of fast-acting carbs and higher calories. SESH drinks contain roughly a third of the calories typically found in similar alcoholic drinks.

They also have no gluten or preservatives. And while they did contain stevia artificial sweetener initially, Medow tells DiabetesMine they recently phased that out after feedback from the Diabetes Community indicated many people weren’t interested in drinking beverages with that ingredient.

He pointed out that throughout the alcohol beverage industry, many big brands don’t even list stevia if they do include it. That addresses an important issue for Medow, who feels transparency is important, but too often lacking in this niche of the food and beverage industry.

“Our goal has been to create an authentic drinking experience, giving you all the flavors you’d get in a cocktail, but then giving you the nutritional information you would get with a seltzer and keeping the sugar and carb count as low as possible,” Medow told DiabetesMine.

Medow is clear that his T1D diagnosis at 5 years old is behind the inspiration for SESH. He has strong memories of feeling isolated because he had to eat different snacks during class, and overall didn’t grow up with the same food and drink experiences that his friends were having.

“That was a reason I felt different and super-isolated, but I tried to not let that get me down,” Medow said.

He eventually settled into his “new normal” with T1D, played competitive soccer growing up, and was able to manage his T1D quite well, even though he didn’t start on an insulin pump and continuous glucose monitor (CGM) until college, he said.

“But I’m a big foodie, and I didn’t want to sacrifice my eating and drinking experiences because of diabetes,” he said.

Medow is thankful that as the years progressed, the food and beverage industries evolved so that he’s been able to more often eat and drink the same type of things as his friends without feeling different. He also appreciates that as someone with T1D, he’s always been aware of the health impacts of food and he’s always looking at nutrition labels to help guide his choices.

Nate Medow and Zeke Bronfman

Yet the adult alcohol beverage industry hadn’t yet caught up with where Medow believes it should be. So, he and Bronfman, his past college dorm roommate at Williams College in Massachusetts, decided to do something about it.

Bronfman is a fourth-generation descendant in the Seagram’s family, and a budding entrepreneur himself. The pair saw a lack of options beyond just light beer and sugar-saturated seltzers or cocktails, the latter being chock full of carbs and calories.

Information about ingredients and nutrition for these drinks in general wasn’t often available, and Medow says he found that frustrating once he got to college and was trying to navigate social situations where alcohol drinks were being consumed — especially at bars or restaurants, where cocktail pours differ and you can’t be certain how much of a particular mixer is being used, or whether a sugar additive or sweetener like stevia is added to pump up the sweet taste.

“I really struggled when I first started drinking, because I didn’t know how much sugar was in even a simple gin and tonic, or one beer versus another,” Medow said. “I didn’t know the difference could be so dramatic, and have such a big impact on my blood sugars. Only a few brands at the time were fully disclosing what were in their beverages.”

So, the pair developed an idea that led to the creation of XED Beverages and their first ready-to-drink product.

In 2018, they started researching what would be involved in developing their own ready-to-drink adult beverage that would maintain taste and drinkability without sacrificing the nutritional value thanks to no added sugar. They weren’t satisfied with the abundance of hard seltzers becoming so popular at that time — when the White Claw craze was starting — as those fruity drinks were high in sugar and had little flavor.

Medow recalls how Bronfman would experience bad hangovers after drinking cocktails like gin and tonic, but he — like many of their college-aged friends — didn’t know why that was happening. They had no clue about the amount of sugar versus other ingredients in the drinks they enjoyed. So, awareness about ingredients became a focal point for them in developing SESH.

“We created this better-for-you, better-tasting version of our favorite canned cocktails,” he said.

They originally planned to kick-start everything in March 2020, preparing for a summer launch. But the COVID-19 pandemic pushed that timetable back.

Yet Medow says that delay actually helped, as they were able to refine their recipes and also improve their launch plans with a different distribution company for the new beverage brand.

SESH was originally going to launch first in just one test market in New Jersey. But pandemic delays actually allowed a more expansive launch into Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio, as of October 2021.

In those states, you can find the drinks in Kroger and Giant Eagle grocery stores, Total Wine and Binny’s stores, and through the digital delivery service goPuff. They’re also available at Met Life football stadium in New Jersey. Dozens of locations are shown on the interactive “SESH locator” at the company’s website, and Medow says more markets will eventually be added.

You can also order directly from SESH online, with third-party liquor distributors being able to ship to many different states around the country.

They’d like to expand soon into retail locations in Georgia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee down the road, but Medow also emphases that they’re taking the “lighthouse approach” — a focused effort, not being available in markets everywhere all at once.

Prices start out at $29.99 for a 12-can pack of each flavor or a variety pack with three flavors.

When they started out, Medow says they tested a diet tonic and gin, with a bit of added Mio energy drink to create a low carb cocktail. They dumped the unused portions of diet tonic down the drain, he recalls. Their friends loved the drinks and that helped them settle on a canned option, rather than a mixer version.

They tested many different of the existing brands of cocktail and seltzers, tweaking their tastes and recipes. Most of the new players in hard seltzers — whether it be White Claw, Truly, High Noon, or another — were developing mixed fruity flavors like mango-lime, kiwi-raspberry.

Medow points to one of their competitors that has a gin and tonic canned cocktail, but it has nearly 30 grams — something he finds out of the question for his glucose-focused palate.

Their initial formulations tasted awful, Medow recalls, and he feared the business idea was doomed. But after a third round, they developed flavors they liked and believed could be sold. After the 2020 delays, they did 20 rounds of “flavor innovation” where they created custom flavors in order to test various nuances.

For example, in the gin and tonic, they took various oils from different botanicals to develop their own gin blend, instead of using the established, mass-produced gin flavor. Their Moscow Mule flavor that contains vodka and ginger beer has a more gingery tone than most, that brings more warmth and heat to the taste, Medow says.

“That’s how we developed more depth to our flavors, making them more unique,” he said. “That is really what we did for those early 8 or 9 months of pandemic time, before eventually bringing it to production.”

So far, customer feedback from the Diabetes Community has been great. One longtime T1D sent Medow an image of her CGM trend line, showing her glucose levels stayed steady at 90 mg/dL the entire night after drinking some of the new SESH beverages. That is something she said hadn’t been possible before — to enjoy alcohol drinks without experiencing a roller-coaster high and low blood sugar effect.

“That’s been one of the proudest moments I’ve had in this,” Medow said. “It’s one of the best feelings, out of all of the comments. She said that her blood sugar used to spike and drop after drinking, but look at the CGM data now. You can just see a perfect straight line that we’re all trying to achieve. Her sense of joy… that’s really success. when people can enjoy the product the way I intended them to… that’s one of those really amazing feelings.”

Part of XED Beverages’ mission is also working to raise diabetes awareness and support advocacy groups. Medow said they’re honing in on supporting smaller, grassroots diabetes groups doing work for people in the local communities where SESH is sold.

For example, in their first big city market in Cincinnati, Ohio, they’ve partnered with a local group called Type 1 Diabetes Journey. It’s run by a D-Mom Antoinette Worsham, who lost one of her two T1D daughters as a result of insulin rationing due to the high cost. Worsham has become a vocal advocate on the issue of insulin pricing, and she’s testified before Congress on the issue.

“There are so many people who aren’t educated enough on the topic of diabetes in general, but they also can’t afford their insulin,” Medow said. “We are contributing 5 percent of our proceeds in this community to her group, to support her efforts on prescription assistance for people who can’t afford their supplies and need help getting those things.”

“We’re trying to give back to the communities we’re a part of in an authentic way, that isn’t just donating a dollar amount to a large organization. That you can see the impact it’s having, and that [help] is at the core of what we are trying to do,” he said.