The growth of the no- and low-alcohol category has been steady for some time now, but it seems like it has really taken off in the last year during the pandemic. Now you can easily find a range of products including non-alcoholic vermouths, bitters and various botanical blends as well as the existing range of zero-ABV beers and wines. People are increasingly conscious of their drinking habits, and even more so during lockdown. They are looking for alternative ways to enjoy a good drink without having to worry about the alcohol level and the consequences it may have the next day. But these alcohol-free and low-alcohol drinks are facing a wide range of issues, especially when it comes to their marketing and pricing and, of course, the elephant in the room – do they actually taste any good?
It’s probably easier to understand the issues with no- and low-alcohol drinks if we split them into two distinct categories.
One thing that most people don’t realise, or understand, is that alcohol-free botanical spirits are made using an alcohol base. This is why it’s nonsense to say they are like any other soft drink – they are not. They use a distillation method to extract flavours. The essential oils derived from the distilling process ensure the premium taste. The difference is that in the no-category the distillation will remove the alcohol entirely.
Some distillers macerate botanicals in a base spirit, either all botanicals together or in several batches before they distil the liquid(s) to remove the alcohol. Blending needs skill and time to carefully marry the crafted concentrate to create the perfect combination. Other brands use steam distillation to separate the essential oils.
Botanical extracts can also be used post-distillation to enhance the flavours.
Non-alcoholic spirits are often made to be mixed with tonic water or used in mocktails or in lower-ABV cocktails. These are nice alternatives for adults when they are driving, pregnant or just don’t fancy an alcoholic option but still want something nice to drink when out with friends. Also, you can now have a lunchtime drink and still be able to go back to work after.
Not to mention the health benefits. No-alcohol spirits come with fewer calories and less sugar – a guilt-free, yet trendy drink to be consumed on any occasion. It is nice to have something other than a sugary soft drink as an option!
Low-ABV spirits are made the same way as non-alcoholic options, they simply stop the distillation once it has reached the ideal alcohol by volume. It is clear, though, that there is a wider range of zero-alcohol drinks than there is of low-ABV spirits, but there is plenty of room for growth. You could say that with low-ABV spirits you can get the best of both worlds, as I believe the flavours in the low-category will invariably beat the zero-ABV alternatives while still offering a healthier option than full-strength spirits.
Spirits with a higher ABV carry the oils and aromatics of the botanicals better, creating a complex and flavoursome spirit. To be able to create a long-lasting and balanced flavour without alcohol can be very challenging. Even a touch of alcohol can help to maintain a stronger flavour profile and help to balance the profile better.
Of course, low-ABV spirits still contain alcohol, but these are great alternatives for when you don’t want to drink too much but want something satisfying. It is good to check first how low the alcohol percentage is, as some still consider 30% ABV to be low and they are often labelled as spirits (for example, the Ketel One Botanical range), while others can be as low as 1.2% ABV. If the alcohol percentage is low enough, the drink will also remain low in calories. See MARY as an example. It is a botanical blend at only 6% ABV and has only 9 calories per 25ml serving.
In simple terms, 25ml of MARY mixed with tonic counts as 0.15 units, while your average G&T is 0.9. You could have six M&Ts to reach one unit. (The weekly recommendation is max 14 units.)
Unfortunately, many brands are jumping on the bandwagon of the popularity of gin. These brands are focusing their marketing on all gin lovers by claiming to be a non-alcoholic or low-ABV gin. However, according to EU and UK regulations, gin must NOT be below 37.5% ABV to qualify as a gin. Therefore, none of these brands can go under the gin category and simply should not be labelled as gin in any way.
By using the word gin, these brands are misleading consumers and trying to up their sales by doing so. Gordon’s 0% with a very junipery flavour profile and Beefeater Light (29% ABV) may not be claiming to be gin, but I’m sure they are confident their name will give you the idea, considering both are widely known gin brands. As a consumer, when you see these no- and low-alcohol products, you are likely to expect something very similar to gin.
Luckily, the Gin Guild is constantly working on protecting the UK’s gin category and putting pressure on regulators to create clear guidelines to no- and low-alcohol drinks so that they would be clearly labelled and marketed.
Pricing is another topic that has created a somewhat heated conversation over on social media. How much can you charge for non-alcoholic drinks and how do they justify the price?
Often these products seem too expensive when compared to liquor, and this is exactly the problem. Why do they feel the need to do that? I’m sure the whole no- and low-category would see further growth if it would stop comparing itself to spirits. People are always willing to pay extra for quality. So why not market them as alternatives to sugary soft drinks and focus on the quality and versatility? Alcohol adds a certain depth to a spirit, which these no- and low-alcohol products will lack. If compared to spirits people’s expectations are very different.
Alcohol-free products don’t pay duty, which should keep their prices around £10 lower than spirit bottles. But what people tend to forget is that these brands still use botanicals, and they must do a lot of testing to find the right balance. The challenge for no- and low-alcohol drinks is to find ways to capture the flavour and make it powerful enough to shine through when mixed with tonic water. They use unique distillation methods, which can be time consuming.
The shelf life of these blends is also a lot shorter than with spirits. Not to forget the different regulations for soft drinks that these brands need to follow.
A list of no-and low-brands
Seedlip – The world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirit. They really have been the innovators and helped the category grow. The Seedlip range includes three blends: Grove 42, Garden 108 and Spice 94. Today, you can find Seedlip in 37 countries!
Fluére – This is one of the most sophisticated and elegant alcohol-free brands I’ve come across so far. Their unique range includes four varieties: Amber (pure sugar cane molasses, spiced) Pink (raspberry blend), Agave (smoked agave) and Original (floral blend with juniper). All come in stunning bottles.
Lyre’s – They have an alcohol-free amaretto, which is rich and sweet and can be enjoyed neat when chilled or add it into cocktails. Their Italian Orange is fruity, juicy and slightly bitter. Lyre’s also make red and dry aperitifs, coffee flavour, zero-abv Cane Spirit and Dry London Spirit.
Bax Botanicals – They have two alcohol-free spirits available: Sea Buckthorn (also works well with ginger beer) and Verbena (try with a mix of soda and lemonade).
Everleaf – Their line-up includes three non-alcoholic aperitifs: Forest (bitter with citrus and spices), Marine (savoury and citrusy) and Mountain (piney and fruity).
Tuscan Tree – This non-alcoholic aperitivo is made with Tuscan blood oranges, Sicilian lemons, Italian juniper, and lavender, infused in sparkling wine.
Saicho Sparkling Tea – Good alternatives to Prosecco and aimed to be served with food. Darjeeling has notes of mandarin, ginger and wood spice with gentle, dry tannins. Hojicha, a roasted green tea from Japan, has a savoury flavour profile. Jasmine is floral with notes of fresh green apples, lychee, elderflower and of course jasmine. It is slightly sweeter than the other two, making it an ideal fizz to accompany desserts. See this three bottle offer at The Whisky Exchange.
Caleño – These are tropical non-alcoholic spirits with great reviews. Light & Zesty is a blend of tropical fruits and juniper. Dark & Spicy is also made with various tropical fruits but with added spice from ginger, vanilla and black cardamom. Both are matured for two weeks post-distillation.
MeMento – These are aromatic and fairly bitter non-alcoholic blends made using various herbs and plants.
Punchy – A range of alcohol-free RTDs (ready to drink). Their Golden Hour with blood orange, bitters and cardamom has become the most popular from their line-up. They also offer all the same flavours as 4% abv RTD’s.
Sanbitter Rosso – An Italian bitter aperitif. Serve over ice with a slice of orange.
Crodino Aperitivo – This is similar to the above, but more like Aperol Spritz. Available on Amazon.
MARY – This is a very low ABV (6%) botanical blend made using garden herbs and a few other botanicals for added depth. Rather than create a completely alcohol-free product, the makers of MARY felt a touch of grain spirit would improve the taste and help to create a more sophisticated blend that is easy to mix with tonic. I love the fresh flavour profile of MARY. I also like to use it in cocktails for added herbal notes.
Clean Co – All Clean Co blends are bottled at 1.2% ABV. CleanRum has a similar flavour to a spiced Jamaican rum. They also have a CleanGin, which comes in several flavours. I’m not impressed by the names. This is exactly my point when I was talking about transparency. Obviously, the idea here is to create very low-ABV drinks that replicate the flavours of gin and rum, which is fine but the name is still misleading as the product won’t be the same as gin or rum.
Cotswolds Dry Gin Essence – OK this is a funny one as it is basically still a gin at 46% ABV but the spirit is reduced into this very intense botanical cordial. You only need to use 5ml for 200ml of tonic to create a lower-ABV G&T with still plenty of flavour. Each 5ml serve of essence contains just 0.23 units of alcohol and 14 calories.
Hayman’s Small Gin – This is similar to the above. Hayman’s Small Gin, 40% ABV, makes a G&T with both 80% less alcohol and fewer calories. You only need to use 5ml for each serve.
Campari Soda – This is another classic Italian aperitif. Launched in 1932, making it one of the first RTD serves. This one is 10% ABV.
Sometimes drinking a glass of wine after work or reaching for that pre-dinner beer is more of a habit than anything else. When we feel under pressure, we crave something stronger to calm our nerves or make us feel more relaxed. All this is merely based on how your brain is programmed. What if you replace that glass of wine with an alcohol-free wine or a low-ABV botanical blend mixed with tonic water? You are continuing with the action of having a drink, but you don’t actually need to drink alcohol to achieve the feeling you were after. I often opt for a bottle of zero beer when I fancy a drink but know I should keep a few days a week completely booze-free. It really works for me every time.
In Italy, people love a lunchtime drink or an after-work aperitivo, but the Italians aren’t huge drinkers. It is less socially acceptable to be seen drinking too many, so they opt for some great guilt-free ‘analcolici’, non-alcoholic, aperitifs. Many are bitter, citrusy or herbal, similar to your classic spritz. The UK (and many other countries) has taken a lot of influence from Italy in recent years and aperitivos and Aperols were a regular sight in many bars. This Italian-style approach could be helpful to many no-and low-brands.
No- and low-alcohol drinks should stop competing with liquor brands and focus on promoting their uniqueness in the beverage industry and become clearer about their key audience. Personally, I don’t drink soft drinks or juices and I’m always looking for alternative (healthier) drinks to try when I just want to drink something other than water or alcoholic drinks.
For example, Seedlip aims their marketing at “moderators”, those who drink alcohol but who are also looking for other options. Millennials are always looking for the next cool thing to be seen with, and that’s where many of these no- and low-alcohol drinks should aim some of their marketing.
Have you tried any no- or low-alcohol drinks recently? What are your thoughts on the category?
*Some of the links used are affiliate links. By buying through the links I may receive a commission for the sale. This has no effect on the price for you.