First it was Dry January, now we’re into Sober October (or “Stoptober” if you’re into such neologisms; “Ocsober” if you’re in Australia). A few years ago, the prospect of a month without a decent drink was something to bear with gritted teeth; today, such is the range – and quality – of “low and no” spirits (and, to a lesser extent, wines) that a lack of alcohol doesn’t have to mean lack of taste or texture.
Across beer, wine and spirits, the statistics demonstrate that the “low and no” boom is here to stay. Market analyst Nielsen reported a 32.5% uplift in sales of “low and no” drinks earlier this year. UK supermarket Waitrose’s sales were up over 50% last year.
Beer is the biggest gainer, but abstemious options in wine and spirits are catching up. There are now dozens of upmarket bars and restaurants in London, from Mayfair’s Sexy Fish, to the City’s Sky Garden and Fitzrovia’s Sanderson Hotel, which take their mocktail lists very seriously indeed.
“It’s expanding all the time,” said Camille Vidal, founder of La Maison Wellness, a multi-media platform which specialises in low- and no-alcohol cocktails. “It used to be drivers, pregnant women and people with an alcohol problem who bought them – now a vast range of people are choosing low-and-no as a lifestyle.”
There are now at least 70 low and no spirits on the market, she said. “It’s expanding from ‘mimic’ products to a new wave of totally alternative drinks.”
At London’s upscale department store Harvey Nichols, wine and spirits buyer Bryan Rodriguez says the category is growing. They already list more than 30 different drinks, from wines and beers to spirits, including their own-label Alcohol-Free Chardonnay. “We’ve seen steady growth all year round, not just in dry January or sober October,” he said.
The popularity of “low and no” spirits was amply demonstrated at the International Wine and Spirits Competition last month, where the category attracted its biggest ever crop of entries – 44 spirits from more than a dozen different countries, including Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Italy, Australia, the Netherlands and the UK.
Wine too – famously the most difficult “low and no” to get right – gave rise to notable acclaim from a visibly impressed panel of judges.
But it’s the spirits that are really taking off. While there were several gins and gin-style offerings tasted at the IWSC, the selection also included malts, coffees, aperitifs, dark cane spirits, white cane spirits and many other styles.
David T Smith, chair of the judging panel, said the variety of entries was a revelation. “There’s always been a focus on [low and no] gin, but now people are starting to look at whisky and rum and further afield. It’s a great range of drinks.”
The spirits were flavoured with dozens of different botanicals and spices – juniper, orange spirits, lavender, oolong green tea, spruce, raspberry, peach, coriander, lime, seaweed, creamy cinnamon – the list goes on.
The IWSC judging was the first time so many low and no spirits have been tasted at once
The IWSC “Low and No” Trophy was taken by Sydney-based Lyre’s for its Amaretti Non-Alcoholic Spirit. The judges awarded it a Gold Outstanding score of 98 points and described it as “well-crafted and decadent”, lavishing praise on its “superbly authentic amaretto character with clean, focused notes of sweet almonds, marzipan and a light touch of coffee”.
The Lyre’s offering was the standout drink among some brilliant non-alcoholic entries, an enthused Smith told Club Oenologique. “This is the first time this many low and no spirits have been tasted in one go. The Amaretti stood out but there were others that were very, very good. The American Malt [also from Lyre’s] had all the right boozy flavours.”
Achieving body, texture and mouthfeel without alcohol is notoriously difficult: alcohol is is a great carrier of flavour, Smith points out. Juniper and other botanicals are not water-soluble so it’s very hard to get what he calls the “boozy intensity”.
“It’s about texture as well – some of these drinks manage to get that peppery heat that comes with alcohol, which has always been the part missing in low- and no-alcohol blends.”
Also in the line-up was an anomaly: London distiller Hayman’s Small Gin is a full-strength gin distilled with such intense botanical concentration that it is intended to be taken in a 1:20 ratio with tonic water: the bottle comes with a thimble attached for that purpose. The fact that the spirit is 43% ABV means it can be labelled as gin, but when mixed as directed, it makes a gin and tonic of less than 0.2% ABV.
This is not a gimmick, Smith said. The botanical concentration is so intense it would be impossible to drink diluted to normal G&T ratios. “It would strip your tastebuds. This is an imaginative and compelling way to produce a non-alcoholic gin and still call it gin.”
Low- and no-alcohol drinks were assessed blind by panels of four judges in the same way as all other IWSC wines and spirits. Distillers and producers who send their drinks are asked how their spirit is designed to be drunk, and it is mixed accordingly.
“On the panel we put ourselves in the postion of the end user,” Smith said. “In its mixed form, does the drink have character and lasting impact? Is it delicious – and most importantly, do you want to drink more than one? Those are the key considerations.”
On the wine side, the panel was unanimous in the four silver medals it awarded: critic David Kermode said he left the judging very impressed, determined to “give low-and-no wines a fairer hearing from now on”.
The producers behind the four top wines were all well-known names from the New World: Australia’s De Bortoli, Stoneleigh and Brancott from New Zealand, and South Africa’s Bellingham. Kermode was particularly impressed by the latter’s Pinotage. “It really had varietal character,” he said. “It would satisfy Pinotage fans.”
He added that low-alcohol wine has always been the most difficult to get right. “The whites can lack acidity and the reds fall down on tannin, but these wines properly tasted like wine, with excellent balance. Hand on heart I can say these are wines that deserve much more attention.”