It can be wise to be sceptical of drinks trends. It doesn’t, for instance, seem that long ago that the wine world was trying to convince us that Viognier was the next big thing and that didn’t play out too well. And as for water sommeliers…
But sometimes a drink or a category deserves all the attention that comes its way – and that’s very much the case with the rise of alcohol-free.
Unless you’ve spent the last five years in the deepest Champagne cellar in Epernay (not, perhaps, out of the question for some readers), you’ll almost certainly realise that zero alcohol is a trend. Barely a week goes by without another survey, news report or piece of market research explaining how sales of booze-free beer or fizz sans whizz are growing at a phenomenal rate.
It’s true that a growing number of people are giving up or not starting drinking alcohol in the first place. But much of this shift comes from moderation. A growing number of ‘sober curious’ drinkers who can’t imagine life without Barolo, but also don’t want to have to lie quite so flagrantly to their doctor about their alcohol consumption.
In the past, avoiding alcohol was a pain. It meant imbibing either water or soft drinks full of sugar. Or even de-alcoholised versions of wines and beers that should probably have come with a nil-by-mouth warning on the bottle.
A new era
But that’s completely changed. There are a lot of genuinely good, sophisticated alcohol-free drinks out there now. Some are mimicking or inspired by alcoholic equivalents. Some are long-established traditional alcohol-free drinks styles (such as shrubs, kefir or kombucha). And others are joyously different to anything that’s gone before.
But the best thing is, they taste like they are made for grown-ups. They have tannin, bitterness, acidity, fruit, spice, structure and depth… All the characteristics you’d expect in your favourite alcoholic tipples. It genuinely is one of the most stimulating areas of the world of drink.
The category is growing fast too. This year, a business partner and I set up a drinks competition dedicated entirely to the area – the World Alcohol-Free Awards. We couldn’t have done this even three years ago because the numbers (probably) and the quality (for sure) wouldn’t have been there.
But our judges were knocked out by what they found. There were a lot of really, really good entries, from all over the world. This is very much a global trend, not a regional one.
Unless you live in Sweden, where Systembolaget is doing a brilliant job with alcohol-free, you won’t get most of these drinks in mass-market retail. So be prepared to buy bottles direct from the producer or from the growing number of specialist online retailers that are springing up, particularly in Europe, North America and Australia.
The US-based alcohol-free guru, Laura Silverman, has also put together a brilliant map with hundreds of venues and retailers all over the world on her site Zero Proof Nation. It’s well worth a look.
In the recommendations here, I’ve gone for drinks that I can imagine you wanting to sip on a warm terrace, or while the smoke from a barbecue roils into the air this summer. Brilliantly, you can drink as much as you like. You can’t get drunk, and you won’t get dehydrated. Drink them exclusively or mix in the odd glass of booze. Either way, they’re a brilliant addition to the summer experience.
The best alcohol-free drinks for summer to try
Agua de Madre Lemon & Ginger Kefir Water
£10/75cl Abel & Cole
If you want something citrusy and invigorating but without caffeine, sugar or alcohol, this is a good bet. The flavours of lemon and ginger are subtle and because it’s water-based it’s naturally light, with just a hint of funky kefir tang. Could work as a wine (or a Mojito) alternative, and since it’s probiotic it’s good for your gut, too – just don’t drink too much of it! Alcohol 0.5%
Bax Botanics Verbena
Created by a husband and wife herbalist team in Yorkshire, this is a really distinctive gin alternative. Verbena, mint and fennel are craft distilled – and faithfully reflected in a drink with precision, lift and the joyous lazy hum of a British country garden. Alc 0%
£20/50cl, Everleaf Drinks
Created by bartender Paul Mathew, the Everleaf range is interesting and balanced, with plenty of personality – whatever the mood or occasion there always seems to be an expression to fit. The cherry-coloured Mountain has flavours of red fruit, spice and marzipan with a lovely dry, sour cherry finish. Mixed down with tonic to a winsome pale pink, it’s perfect for summer. Or try it in a Violet Mountain Spritz with Artisan Drinks Violet Blossom Tonic. Alc 0%
The Gunner cocktail (rather like the G&T) was invented in the far east – Hong Kong this time – to refresh British expats. Made of ginger ale, bitters and lime with splashes of fruit juices to plump out the palate, it’s not unlike an alcohol-free Moscow Mule – and dangerously addictive. Customise with an extra squeeze of lime or a couple of dashes of bitters. Alc 0%
This coconut cane spirit is a brilliant rum alternative. Very coconutty, with back flavours of vanilla and citrus, it’s fine neat over ice, but really comes into its own when mixed. Coke and a wedge of lime is an easy option, but a Piña Colada (mixed 2:1 with pineapple juice and a little coconut cream) is the ultimate summer evening sipper. Alc 0%
Nonsuch Bittersweet Apple & Cardamom Shrub
£22/50cl Nonsuch Shrubs
Nonsuch is a shrub, meaning it’s vinegar-based, rather than distilled. But it’s so concentrated and complex that it acts like a spirit. There’s so much richness and flavour here, with a natural apple acidity, that you can dilute it down with soda or even water. Add a couple of drops of All The Bitter New Orleans Bitters (also alcohol-free) to make a complex, super-easy long cocktail. Alc 0.5%
£19.45/75cl, Saicho Drinks
This cold-brew sparkling tea will delight fans of fizz, tea and red wine alike. It’s delicate, balanced and ever so slightly tannic, which makes it a good red wine substitute. But it’s also lip-smackingly refreshing with a whisper of sweetness too, à la Champagne. It’s excellent chilled or over ice; or get creative and try it with juices or alcohol-free spirits as a cocktail ingredient. Alc 0%
Three Spirit Spark
£16.99/75cl, Three Spirit Drinks
Pink and frothy, Spark is billed as a ‘party in a glass’ – due in no small part to quite high levels of caffeine. Malty tea flavours are backed up by juicy fruits – redcurrant and stone fruit– with a prickle of green pepper on the finish. Best served over ice, it’s a good way to start a long night. Alc 0.5%