I enjoy a drink as much as the next chap – especially when the next chap is Joel Harrison – but I’m not sure that I agree with all of the conclusions from his recent takedown of ‘low and no’ drinks.
There’s been a lot of buzz around the category recently, and inevitably that will lead to some froth. But there’s no denying that, in 2021, things are looking decidedly bright for the no/low consumer in terms of choice, innovation and affordability.
It’s worth remembering that choosing a non-alcoholic beverage over an alcoholic one isn’t always voluntary. There are many reasons why someone may abstain, be it permanent or temporary: being the designated driver, reasons of faith, being pregnant, having particular medical treatments, or even before or after donating blood. As a female colleague sagely observed, “With all due respect to Mr Harrison, I’ll wager he has never had to endure nine long months of enforced abstinence; desperate for the taste of anything that might even loosely resemble a gin and tonic. And believe me, water just doesn’t cut it for that length of time.” Yet for too long, the non-drinker has been relegated to cola, orange juice, lemonade, or – as a special treat – soda and lime.
Providing more interesting non-alcoholic offerings is not just the responsibility of producers, but publicans, bartenders and hosts – and with more options on the market, their job is being made easier. It’s easy to forget that non-alcoholic drinks can – should – also be about a sense of occasion. It’s not only the alcohol that greases the wheels of social interaction, but the act of hospitality itself. The use of proper ice, the finest glassware, and a colourful, fragrant garnish play an important part, too – a far cry from a pint of Coke in a glass that has been through a dishwasher three dozen times and is showing the effects.
Very few of the new generation of non-alcoholic spirits are designed to be served neat; rather they are substitutes for alcoholic spirits in mixed drinks. Take the gin and tonic. Both Hayman’s Small Gin and The Cotwolds Distillery’s Gin Essence make for fine alternatives – both are bottled at the same strength as full-strength gins (43% and 46% ABV, respectively) but are so intensely flavoured that a fraction of a normal serve (only 5ml) is needed to produce a flavourful rendering of around 2% ABV, compared with a typical G&T’s 10% ABV. (For those looking for completely alcohol-free options, Warner’s Double Juniper is worth seeking out; a (non-industry) friend said he couldn’t tell it apart from the real thing.
Lyre’s Collection from Australia is a range of drinks where every product is a non-alcoholic alternative, providing a huge range of flavours and cocktails to explore: from absinthe to dark cane spirit, and Italian spritz to dry aperitif. The IWSC trophy-winning Amaretto is almost indistinguishable from alcoholic varieties and I have served a Godfather cocktail made using this and its American Malt to guests without them even realising that it lacked alcohol.
The price of non-alcoholic spirits is, as Harrison observes, a pertinent issue. Each bottle of alcoholic spirits in the UK attracts at least £7.50 in duty, often more, so there is an expectation that non-alcoholic versions should be cheaper. The logic makes sense, but misses one crucial factor: non-alcoholic spirits are difficult to make. The technology and research is considerably less-established and the development of the products can take much longer. Additionally, the yield (of the good products, at least) is lower than in the alcoholic alternative, since a gin distilled using alcohol has a higher yield than the version distilled using water. So in short, the non-alcoholic version has a higher cost of production.
That said, with bigger-scale players such as Gordon’s and Tanqueray entering the 0% market, there will be a downward pressure on price. Warner’s Double Juniper comes in at about £18 a bottle (50cl) and it seems likely that most non-alcoholic spirits will end up sub-£20. For the time and energy involved, I think that’s about right.
The future is bright for low/no spirits and, with the combination of a broader range, good-value products, and increasing awareness from bartenders, both at home and in the trade, it’s only set to continue. And surely that’s something to which we should all raise a glass (alcoholic or not)?