In Food + Drink

Dry January: The Rise Of The Grown-Up Non-Alcoholic Beverage

Alcoholic-free drinks aren't generally thought of as sophisticated, but as drinking level go down, the class of a booze-free cocktail is going up.

As many of us set down alcohol this month after indulging in a few too many bottles of wine over the festive period, we’ll be joining a growing number of people switching to low-alcohol, or alcohol-free lifestyles. With Millennials and Gen Z drinking less booze than the generations that came before them, many manufacturers, pubs and bars — including some of the world’s top establishments — are developing drinks with flavour, depth and sophistication to cater to them.

People choose not to drink for myriad reasons (health and financial top among them). Now, teetotallers are no longer limited to the standard coke or lemonade. Instead, drinks are specially crafted to showcase the flavour of ingredients, low-alcohol craft beers that taste as good as those designed to pack a boozy punch, and cocktails that go far beyond strawberry daiquiri mocktails.

Kombucha is a growing non-alcoholic alternative Photo: Club Soda Co/Facebook

Recognising this growth, and corresponding increase in establishments catering for them, London-based Laura Willoughby MBE, former local government councillor, co-founded Club Soda, a ‘mindful drinking movement’.

Club Soda promotes bars and pubs that are doing a bang-up job of serving non-alcoholic drinks to their patrons, and doubles down on their ethos with their Mindful Drinking Festival, which showcases the variety of liquor-free drinks on offer.

“Once you’re not having alcohol in a drink, the questions you have about the drink are very different,” says Willoughby, who gave up alcohol five-and-a-half years ago.

“There’s a lot more experimenting going on around flavours [in non-alcoholic drinks], but I think it’s important to remember that alcohol is a flavour enhancer. You like an alcoholic drink because there’s an ingredient in it that affects its flavour, but it also affects your brain. We can talk about how much we like the taste of alcohol ’til the cows come home, but it’s actually in your behaviour.”

Instead of relying on the easy go-to of that heady alcohol rush, beverage manufacturers and bartenders are focusing on concocting ‘grown-up’ drinks using similar ethos to those found in the food world: turning high-quality ingredients into syrups, non-alcoholic spirits and soft drinks that offer the same satisfaction as alcoholic beverages.

“What you’re looking for is sippability and the ability to have more than one [drink] over an evening,” says Willoughby. “When you’re in a pub you want to have a drink every time your mates are having a drink. You don’t want to drink it like you’re thirsty, you want to drink it like [you would a drink with alcohol].”

Seedlip, billed as the world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirit, has been making waves in hospitality circles in the UK. Like gin, it is created with botanicals such as lemon peel, cardamom and cascarilla tree bark, and can be paired with tonic, or included in cocktails, offering a similar flavour profile to alcoholic spirits.

Its founder, Ben Branson, took his cues from a 17th-century book that detailed a variety of herbal remedies containing neither sugar nor alcohol, and took cues from the recipes it held within. The spirit is now sold at some of London’s top establishments, including Dandelyan, which is considered one of the world’s best bars, and has been picked up by Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant group, as well as Selfridges.

If your taste in tipple leans more towards hops and yeast, you’re also in luck. Two former Sipsmith Distillery employees have joined forces to launch Small Beer Brew Co. They reworked the traditional brewing process to maximise taste and minimise alcohol content — their lagers contain between just 0.5 to 2.8% ABV, while the average for regular beers sits around 4.5% ABV.

The no- and low-alcohol revolution isn’t confined to Europe. Australian bars are getting in on the trend, with a growing number of options offered to patrons.

Sydney’s PS40 launched in 2016, offering a range of house-made sodas, many using local ingredients such as wattle, Australian ginger and native lemongrass. While they’re available at the bar mixed with spirits and in cocktails, they’ve been designed to taste just as good sans-alcohol. The Virgin Negroni at Newtown staple Bloodwood, meanwhile, tastes just as good as the real thing, and restaurants including Bentley and Yellow have been offering non-alcoholic pairings with their tasting menus.

Down in Melbourne, 2017’s best Australian restaurant (according to the World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards), Attica, offers non-alcoholic drinks pairings with its famous locally-sourced menu. Popular cocktail bar Eau de Vie gives guests the chance to try an alcohol-free cocktail degustation, and Magic Mountain Saloon and Lume also cater to those who want their drink without a hangover the next morning.

Maggie Beer also sells no-alcohol sparkling wines, while the website AlcoFree ships alcohol-free beer and wine, ‘herbal elixirs’, and fancy soft drinks from makers such as Fentiman.

Published 04 January, 2018