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To drink or not to drink?

Drinks writer Alice Lascelles abstains for a fortnight and surveys the lay of the low-and-no land. What are the alcohol-free drinks that stand out the most and will any of them help mark that 'down tools' moment so many of us crave?

Words by Alice Lascelles

Real drinks peony blush alcohol-free sparkling tea on table with food
The Collection
Real Drink's Peony Blush sparkling tea, a rosé-like alternative for the sober curious

I recently spent two weeks on the wagon – not for penance but for fun. I had some downtime from work and was curious to explore a slightly different headspace. I’m no stranger to abstaining from alcohol – I forgo it two or three nights most weeks – but a whole fortnight sans booze, especially on holiday, is unusual for me.

I was surprised by how little I missed it – at least physically. The one time I found myself really craving a drink was after a day I unexpectedly had to spend at my computer, working. This makes me wonder if the real toxin is not the alcohol but the excessive amount of screen time my job entails.

I slept better. I felt calmer. I clocked up some new personal bests out on the fells. I leapt out of bed at 6:30 every morning and felt pretty well all-round.

It wasn’t the alcohol I missed; it was the rituals around it–in particular, that ‘down tools’ moment heralded by the cheerful squeak of a cork

I didn’t want for liquid entertainment, either, because I had planned ahead and brought in an array of non-alcoholic options to scratch the 6 o’clock itch: hoppy Beavertown Lazer Crush IPA; Saicho Sparkling Tea; Mother Root’s fiery Ginger Switchel; and Lyre’s Italian Orange, the alcohol-free answer to Campari. I drank Real’s rosé-like Peony Blush sparkling tea, Big Drop lager and Botivo shandy; tangy LA Kombucha and sakura-infused Japanese drinking vinegars mixed with ice, lemon and soda. At mealtimes, I just drank water.

It wasn’t the alcohol I missed, I now realise; it was the rituals around it – in particular, that ‘down tools’ moment that’s so often heralded by the cheerful squeak of a cork or the clink of a gin and tonic.

I’d still stop at the appointed hour to crack open a 0% DIPA, sure, but then I’d just keep on going: answering emails, clearing drains, picking up Lego and folding washing. Without the pleasant incapacitation of alcohol, my days became one long to-do list. I started to wonder if teetotal me was a little too efficient.

Mother Root's Ginger Switchel, a 'fiery' option when forgoing the booze

Elevenses is long gone; we have breakfast on the run; and most of us lunch at our desk. We’re too busy for tea, and dinner’s been hijacked by Netflix. The cocktail hour increasingly appears like the only sacred time that we have left. The fact that it made such a comeback during lockdown was surely no accident. It offered us a chance to relax and regroup, and it gave shape to days that were often alarmingly shapeless.

A couple of times during my teetotal fortnight we had friends to stay; some drank, some didn’t. And yet, despite our differing levels of inebriation, I’m pleased to report that there was no shortage of merriment. I have to be honest, though, I did miss the act of sharing a bottle. Telling your friends to go have a rootle through the non-alc cans in the fridge at 6 o’clock isn’t quite as convivial.

The lack of really convincing rituals, moments of reverence, is an undoubted challenge for non-alcoholic drinks brands

You can have moments of communion without alcohol, of course. I recently took part in my first Japanese tea ceremony. Its central tenet – ichi-go ichi-e, which roughly translates as ‘one life, one encounter’ – is all about being present in the moment. It left a big impression on me. You can’t be present if you’re smashed, naturally – which is a pretty strong argument for sticking to tea. But will it ever be possible to derive that same strong sense of ‘now’ from a non-alcoholic G&T?

The lack of really convincing rituals, moments of reverence, is an undoubted challenge for a new generation of non- alcoholic drinks brands. It will take a bit more than some fancy glassware or a quirky serve, I suspect, to really change people’s drinking habits.

Botivo alcohol-free aperitif
UK-made alcohol-free aperitif Botivo is hard to define - giving it the chance to forge its own path and for drinkers to create their own rituals around it, says Lascelles

However, there’s another way of looking at it: rather than being starved of heritage, these brands are refreshingly unencumbered by history. They haven’t got to contend with the baggage – the ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’ – that dog Champagne, wine or whisky. There is no handbook that tells you what, when and how they should be drunk; no canon or appellation. In the absence of any clear structure, they are free to be creative.

It’s the ones that elude easy definitions, I believe, that have the most potential – the wine-shaped fruit and botanical blends such as Muri, Real’s kombucha-like ferments and Botivo, a bittersweet apéritif that’s made in Hertfordshire with cider vinegar, herbs and honey.

These products are not second-rate stand-ins for alcohol but good drinks in their own right. Perhaps they will be the architects of the drinking rituals of the future – they just don’t know it yet.

Alice Lascelles illustration
By Alice Lascelles

Alice Lascelles writes about drinks for The Financial Times and is the author of The Cocktail Edit (Quadrille 2022). Follow her @alicelascelles