Why there’s no place for non-alcoholic spirits in my drinks cabinet

Despite the surge in popularity of low-and-no alcohol drinks, Joel Harrison is not exactly in high spirits at the prospect of trying them

Words by Joel Harrison

Alcohol-free spirits

Unlike some of my fellow Club O columnists, I’ve no problem with Dry January. In fact, this year, despite the disorienting effects of the times we are living through, I once again decided to pare back my drinking and go ‘dry’ – as much as a drinks writer can – throughout the year’s first month.

When a hobby becomes a job, after all, it is easy to overindulge. As my father once sagely observed, a professional footballer wouldn’t play a game on a Saturday then turn out for a pub side on Hackney Marshes on Sunday morning. 

Joel Harrison
Joel Harrison: "The rich body of an alcoholic drink simply can’t be replicated artificially"

There is wisdom in his words. Drinking should be done in moderation, and after the excess of the festive period, January is as good a time as any to hit the reset button. And, of course, today there are plenty of lower-, low- and non-alcoholic drinks ready and willing to take the place of your regular spirits. The figures don’t lie – supermarkets now stock more than 250 no-and-low alcoholic drinks, with sales leaping from £98m in 2016 to £194m last year.

My drinks cabinet, however, is a tough place for these all-too-often anaemic drinks to break in to. The bully boys of overproof Jamaican rums, cask-strength Scotches and agricultural Armagnacs who guard my cabinet do not take well to those who would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them, yet arrive with not even a hint of alcohol about them. You don’t take a knife to a gunfight, as they say.

Personally, I don’t mind some of the lower-abv offerings we’re seeing in increasing numbers from big brands. Scottish whisky producer Whyte & Mackay makes the very good, 21.5% Light, which marries Scotch with sherry. The whisky element provides the robust Scotch backbone, with the abv being lowered by the addition of rich sherry, the natural bedfellow to whisky flavours. The result is a quiet harmony – perfectly sessionable and a good alternative to a blended whisky when you’re looking for a lighter style of dram. It won a Gold medal at this year’s IWSC, scoring a highly impressive 95/100pts.

I’m equally excited to try the new 20% abv release from Beefeater (also called ‘Light’), mostly because it has been created by Desmond Payne, the ‘godfather of gin’ – and if it has been deemed good enough by Payne, it’s good enough for me. Sadly, the gin is only available in Spain at the moment, so I’m going to have to wait a while to try it, but for €13 a bottle I’m confident it’ll be worth the wait.

Beefeater Light – non-alcoholic spirits
Desmond Payne
Beefeater Gin master distiller Desmond Payne, and the distillery's latest product, Light, which is bottled at 20% abv

My shrift, however, is short for the no-abv ‘spirits’ that have exploded in popularity over the past few years. The worst of all these spirits imposters have bullied their way onto the shelves of distilled drinks and expect you to pay the same amount for a product that contains absolutely no alcohol whatsoever.

Let me say that again: The same price. But for no alcohol. Whatsoever. Oh, and while you’re at it, here are some magic beans. And I’ve also borrowed some clothes from the Emperor. Go on, try them.

OK, there are some good examples of non-alcoholic spirits out there. I quite like the market leader, Seedlip. Cool bottle, and founded by Ben Branson, one of the nicest chaps you’ll ever meet. But at £26 in my local supermarket, where I can also pick up a 40% abv 12-year-old Scotch such as Chivas Regal that has spent more than a decade maturing, or an actual bottle of Beefeater gin, distilled in the heart of London, for just over half the price of the non-alcoholic version, I’ll take the gin, a fistful of tonics, some limes and a bag of ice, and pocket the change, thanks.

Seedlip – non-alcoholic spirits
Non-alcoholic spirit Seedlip has been leading the charge for low-and-no alcoholic drinks

For me, the rich body of an alcoholic drink simply can’t be replicated artificially. Yes, the non-alcoholic options available have flavour, but they simply don’t have the engine to pull the flavours through in the same way that alcohol does in a gin, whisky or rum. It is, therefore, a weaker experience, lacking in body, texture and, ultimately, sheer fun. They are often simply etiolated, as if they have been grown in the dark.

There’s one non-alcoholic drink that shines brightly, though. A brilliant – if not the best – non-alcoholic alternative. It comes still or sparkling, over ice or simply poured into a long glass, and is healthy, hydrating, and was my companion throughout Dry January. It’s also superb value. Water.

Now that we are moving headlong into the rest of the year, and Dry January is a distant memory, water will return to a more supporting role. Instead, I’m excited at the prospect of a more moist March, a wetter April and a positively torrential May. Roll on 2021. By the end of it, I forecast we are all going to need a stiff drink. And by stiff I mean alcoholic. No room for imposters here.

Joel Harrison is Club Oenologique’s consultant editor and a monthly columnist