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. Globally, the value of the category grew fivefold between 2014 and 2019 according to drinks market analyst IWSR; volume sales are set to increase by 40% over the next five years.
Beer is the biggest gainer, but abstemious options in wine and spirits are catching up. “It used to be drivers, pregnant women and people with an alcohol problem who bought them,” said Camille Vidal, founder of La Maison Wellness, a multimedia platform that specialises in low- and no-alcohol cocktails. “Now, a vast range of people are choosing low-and-no as a lifestyle.”
“The choice is expanding all the time,” she added – there are now at least 70 low and no spirits on the market, for example. “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 is excited by the growth. The store already lists more than 30 different drinks, from wines and beers to spirits, including its 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 year, where the category attracted its biggest-ever crop of entries – 44 spirits from more than a dozen countries, including Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Italy, Australia, the Netherlands and the UK.
And it’s the spirits that are really taking off, with a wealth of innovation harnessed in many cases by newcomers to the field, as well as established distillers. Here, the process is more straightforward – you simply halt the distillation process when the desired abv is reached; botanicals can then be added to augment the flavour profile.
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, lavender, oolong green tea, spruce, raspberry, peach, coriander, lime, seaweed, creamy cinnamon – the list goes on.
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.”
The IWSC judging was the first time so many low and no spirits have been tasted at once
Achieving body, texture and mouthfeel without alcohol is notoriously difficult: alcohol 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 taste buds. 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.”
Wine, too – famously the most difficult low and no to get right – gave rise to notable acclaim from a visibly impressed panel of judges who awarded four silver medals: critic David Kermode said he left the judging very impressed, determined to “give low-and-no wines a fairer hearing from now on”.
Most big supermarket branches now have a section dedicated to wines that have reduced alcohol, or have been stripped of their alcohol entirely. The good news for wine lovers is that after years of hit-and-miss efforts, many of these wines are of a decent standard. Mechanical methods for dramatically reducing alcohol or taking it out altogether (the most popular is reverse osmosis, a complex process that filters out water and alcohol) have become much more sophisticated; though lower alcohol wines (those at around 8% ABV) can also be achieved in the vineyard – the simplest method is to pick less-ripe grapes so there is less sugar to convert to alcohol.
As a result, gone are the days when a low- or no-alcohol wine would taste of not very much at all beyond grape juice or sugar (winemakers will sometimes add extra sugar in order to give the wine the mouthfeel that alcohol provides). In 2020, IWSC judges noted the ‘outstanding off-dry character’ of the De Bortoli Very Cautious One Gewurztraminer-Riesling (0% alcohol) and the ‘masterful balance’ of sweetness and acidity in the Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc (9.5%).
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.”
Note: This article is an amended version of a piece that was originally published on 1 October