The alcohol free drinks category is growing at an astonishing pace. You can now find no- and low-alcohol options in every supermarket. Most bars and pubs have NoLo beers and even cocktail options. A small number of dedicated NoLo drinking venues have also appeared.
According to figures from the IWSR, the UK recorded double-digit volume growth in the no-alcohol sector in 2020-2021 (along with the US, France and Australia). The NoLo category now accounts for 3.5% of the drinks market globally, with a value of almost US$10bn (£8.3bn) in 2021 – a figure that’s up from US$7.8bn (£6.4bn) in 2018.
And there’s no sign of a slowdown any time soon. The IWSR has predicted that NoLo volume will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 8% between 2021 and 2025. That’s in comparison with growth of just 0.7% for regular alcohol in the same period.
Supply and demand
What’s driving this growth? Firstly there’s demand: from people who simply don’t want to drink alcohol as a lifestyle or religious choice; as well as individuals who want to cut down their intake for health reasons. Initiatives such as Dry January offer added incentive to look for alternatives.
Alongside demand is increased availability. As well as more NoLo products now being available, there’s also been an increase in retailers selling them. NoLo products can be sold anywhere because unlike alcoholic drinks, they don’t have retail licensing requirements.
The first World Alcohol-Free Awards, which will be judged in March this year, were created in response to this surge in supply. ‘There have been hundreds of new alcohol-free products launched in the last two to three years – spirits, beers, cocktails, sodas, wines – and trying to make sense of it all is daunting,’ says awards co-director Chris Losh.
Where to start
‘The move away from alcohol is demonstrated by pretty much every bit of research that comes out. It’s tempting to see it as younger people not drinking much, if at all. But while that’s part of it, it’s not the whole story,’ Losh continues. ‘There are huge numbers of people of all ages who have no intention of giving up alcohol completely, but are very definitely looking to cut back on how much they drink. The problem they’re facing, of course, is what should they try?’
Chrissie Parkinson, co-director and head of judging at the new awards, adds: ‘As you might expect, different categories are at different stages in their development. Beer is perhaps the most established – there are a growing number of really good alcohol-free brews out there, in all kinds of styles – and spirits are gaining ground, too. Some are imitating traditional drinks like gin or whisky, others are totally doing their own thing. It’s a very dynamic space.’
Capturing flavour – and preserving it – is the key challenge for producers. Alcohol serves to intensify flavours in a drink and also acts as a preservative, which accounts for the long shelf life of conventional spirits. Innovative drinks makers have come up with a number of different ways to recreate this effect.
How no-alcohol spirits are made
Distillers will start with a base alcohol made by fermenting grain (or any other crop containing sugar or starch). Some macerate botanicals – any plant, seed, root or flower – in the base alcohol, then distil the liquid to completely remove the alcohol. Others distil the botanicals to create flavour, then continue distilling to remove alcohol.
So much for the flavour. What about the preservation?
‘You’ve got to be very conscious about preservation and about any kind of impurity or microbiological infiltration in the liquid,’ says Howard Davies, co-founder of Salcombe Distilling Co, the maker of New London Light, a no-alcohol alternative to London Dry gin.
New London Light is flash-pasteurised (heated to about 85°C for 30 seconds) ‘to make sure that the liquid is completely pure without any impairment to the flavour’. This means that bottles can keep for six months after opening.
Distillers are honing new skills as the no-alcohol category develops, with impressive results. The 14 bottles below are worth seeking out now – but there will no doubt be more exciting products to choose from in the future…
The best alcohol-free spirits for Dry January
Æcorn is a range of herbal aperitifs based on grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier – infused with botanicals including oak, hence the name. Serve chilled over ice, with a splash of soda for a dry, elegant alternative to aperitif cocktails. Pair Æcorn Bitter with Fever-Tree Italian Blood Orange Soda if you’re a fan of Negronis or Campari and soda. Alcohol 0%
This no-alcohol spirit is an ideal option for fans of citrus gins. Fresh, sweet orange citrus aromas on the nose, with mandarin and hints of orange barley. The palate is a zesty mix of citrus and spice. Lemon, orange and lemongrass feature alongside a green chilli kick and a dry earthiness on the finish, which is crisp and slightly bitter. Try it with Fentiman’s Pink Grapefruit Tonic Water for a refreshingly zingy take on a G&T. Alc 0%
Bax Botanics Sea Buckthorn
Distilled in Yorkshire using organic, ethically sourced herbs and fruit. Packed with vibrant flavour, the no-sugar Bax range includes uplifting Verbena, laced with fresh, sappy, herbaceous notes. But my favourite is Sea Buckthorn: earthy, fruity, spicy, herbal and tangy, with a lip-smacking bitter finish. Pair with low-cal Lixir Ginger Ale for a refreshing, spicy alternative to a whisky highball. Now also available in cans, premixed with tonic. (Bax Sea Buckthorn & Tonic, 12x250ml, £28.80, Master of Malt) Alc 0%
Crossip Dandy Smoke
Mixologist Carl Anthony Brown created the Crossip range with bartenders in mind. One for fans of whisky and dark rums, Dandy Smoke is full-flavoured and richly textured. Intensely smoky aromas with dry black spices and a leathery/savoury undertone. The deep, complex, smoky palate is good enough to enjoy neat over ice, or simply paired with coke and a squeeze of lime. But Dandy Smoke is also a really versatile choice for cocktails. Try a delicious Dandy Sour. Put 35ml Crossip Dandy Smoke, 20ml lemon juice, 10ml apple juice, 5ml honey and 20ml aquafaba/egg white in a shaker without ice. Shake to mix, then add ice and shake again. Strain into a chilled Nick & Norah glass. If you want to get creative this January, Drinks Distilled has joined forces with Crossip and top London bar Seed Library to create a limited-edition low-alcohol Moderation Menu and cocktail kit. Alc 0%
The excellent Everleaf range was created by Paul Mathew, a conservation biologist and bartender. As well as sustainably sourcing botanicals for flavour, plants such as acacia and seaweed are used for texture, mimicking the viscosity of alcohol. The range includes seaside-inspired Marine and the cherry and rose hip-laced Mountain. But I love the rich earthiness and spice of Forest, with its aromas of undergrowth – like tramping through a wood after the rain. There’s also a touch of smokiness that continues on the complex, mellow and textured palate. Vanilla, woodsmoke, earthy spice, orange citrus, candied peel and a hint of saffron. Mix one part Everleaf with three parts tonic. Alc 0%
With its pretty twisted blue glass bottle, Fluère is a delicate, floral alcohol-free option. Subtle citrus, fresh floral and herbal notes on the nose, followed by a creamy and silky palate, that’s light and lifted but with plenty of spiciness and background floral notes. Mix 60ml Fluère, 60ml coconut milk and 120ml pineapple juice for a no-alcohol Piña Colada. Alc 0%
ISH Mexican Agave Spirit
ISH is a range of zero-alcohol spirits from Denmark, launched in the UK in October 2022. It also includes Caribbean Spiced Spirit and London Botanical Spirit, as well as a selection of still and sparkling non-alcoholic wines. But the smoky and spicy Mexican Agave Spirit is my favourite. Styled after a reposado tequila, it’s made with organic agave and rested in American oak. Enjoy it mixed in a Mindful Margarita. Combine 60ml ISH Mexican Agave, 30ml lime juice, 30ml orange juice and 20ml sugar syrup in a shaker with ice. Shake until your hands are cold then serve straight up or on the rocks in a salt-rimmed glass. Alc 0%
Lyre’s Italian Orange
Lyre’s offers a useful range of alcohol-free substitutes for bottles that you’d find in a home cocktail cabinet. Italian Orange is a great replacement for Campari, with the same bitter cherry, bitter orange, spicy character. Pair with the Lyre’s Dry London Spirit and Lyre’s Aperitif Rosso for a lighter, delicate take on a Negroni. Lyre’s Orange Sec also makes a great substitute for orange curaçao if you want to enjoy a lower alcohol Margarita. Alc 0%
Packed with flavour, the Pentire range – Adrift and Seaward – is made by distilling botanicals found along the Cornish coast, including rock samphire, sea buckthorn, seaweed, woodruff and sage, as well as Cornish sea salt. Seaward has citrus aromas and flavours, noticeably pink grapefruit, which is a key botanical (and makes a great garnish in a No-G&T). Adrift is bursting with coastal freshness, bright and pure herbal notes and earthy spice. Alc 0%
Salcombe New London Light
From Devon’s Salcombe Distilling Co, low-calorie NLL is inspired by gin, distilled from a base of juniper, ginger and habanero capsicum, before blending with botanical extracts including orange, sage and cardamom. With Fever-Tree Refreshingly Light tonic, it makes a decidedly lighter take on a classic G&T but still has enough punch to cut through salty, savoury snacks. The latest additions to the range – Midnight Sun and Aegean Sky – are also worth seeking out. Alc 0%
Sea Arch Coastal Juniper
Created by former wine bar owners Sarah and Geoff Yates, Sea Arch majors on coastal botanicals: sea kelp and samphire. Its sugar-free botanical blend also includes juniper, coriander and grapefruit. I love the breezy aromas; like a walk over wet rocks on a fresh day. A well-balanced palate combines juniper bitterness and dry spice with punchy citrus and fresh green notes; with tonic it tastes just like a G&T. Alc 0%
Seedlip Garden 108
The world’s first zero-abv distilled spirit, Seedlip was inspired by a book of 17th-century herbal remedies. The different botanical expressions should appeal to lovers of spicy, citrus or herbal gins. Clove-laced Spice 94 was the first launch, followed by Garden 108 and lemony Grove 42. Garden, with its notes of thyme, sage and pea pods, gives a fresh, herbal-edged drink with a crisp finish perfect for summer sipping. Alc 0%
Strykk Not Gin
Packed with herbal botanicals, Strykk is a fresh green explosion! Vibrant herb garden aromas – mint, sage and basil plus cucumber – are followed by a mouthful of lively green notes backed by real spiciness: think green chillis and black pepper. One for fans of herbaceous gins… Good for mixing as it retains all of its aromas and flavours. Pair it with Fever-Tree Refreshingly Light Cucumber Tonic Water for a no-G&T that delivers herbal refreshment. The range also includes ‘Not Rum’ and ‘Not Vodka’. Alc 0%
Wilfred’s Non-Alcoholic Aperitif
Chris Wilfred Hughes took inspiration from familiar ingredients – fresh rosemary from his mother’s garden and bitter oranges in his father’s homemade marmalade – to create this zero abv aperitif. You’ll also find notes of tangy rhubarb and plenty of clove spice. Pair it with The Artisan Drinks Co’s Pink Citrus Tonic (one part Wilfred’s, two parts tonic) over ice for a refreshing spritz. Alc 0%