It started as a tiny trickle. One lone bottle called Seedlip suddenly appeared on the market in 2015. I remember tasting it at the drinks magazine I was working on at the time. ‘It tastes OK – but who’s going to buy it?’
As it turned out, the answer was: everyone. The trickle turned into a flood, led by people who didn’t know they needed a quality alcohol-free alternative until they had one. They were joined by people who simply don’t want to drink alcohol as a religious or lifestyle choice, plus people who need to cut their intake for health reasons.
‘It’s been surreal to see the demand,’ says Ben Branson, creator of Seedlip. ‘It launched from my kitchen; I was delivery driver, accountant, salesman, marketer, manufacturer. Five years later we have distribution in 37 countries… and there are now over 125 products in the non-alcohol spirit category globally.’
Indeed, the global value of the no-abv spirit category grew by 499.5% between 2014 and 2019, according to The IWSR. And there’s more growth yet to come: volume sales are predicted to increase by 40.5% globally from 2019 to 2024.
Spirit of innovation
In addition, low- and no- is one of the most innovative categories out there, driven by creators outside the drinks industry as much as by traditional distillers. Branson was running a design agency when he came up with the idea of Seedlip.
‘Back in 2013, while researching interesting herbs I could grow at home, I came across a book written in 1651 called The Art of Distillation that documented distilled herbal remedies – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic,’ he says. ‘Out of curiosity I bought a copper still and began experimenting in my kitchen.’
Branson’s interest was also driven by strong links to the land; his family owns a pea farm, and peas became an important ingredient in his drinks. It was a similar story for husband- and-wife team Chris and Rose Bax, who were inspired by their love of foraging to create their own brand, Bax Botanics.
‘We used to teach people about putting wild flavours into all sorts of different products. It might have been ice cream, jam, chutney or wine,’ explains Rose. The duo approached the creation of their no-alcohol drinks in a culinary way, steered by Chris’s background as a chef.
‘I think in some ways we weren’t hampered by thinking: “This is how you distil stuff”. Having worked with gin distillers, we know that our approach is probably not the obvious one,’ says Chris. ‘We combine methods used in gin distilling and methods used in perfumery. Our goal is to capture beautiful flavours.’
All taste, no booze
Capturing flavour – and keeping it – is the key challenge for no-alcohol spirits producers, as alcohol both heightens flavours in a drink and acts as a preservative (which accounts for the long shelf life of spirits).
There are different ways to do this, starting with a base alcohol made by fermenting grain (or any other crop containing sugar or starch). Some producers macerate botanicals – any plant, seed, root or flower – in a base alcohol, then distil the liquid to completely remove the alcohol. Others distil the botanicals to create flavour, then continue distilling to remove alcohol.
To create low-alcohol spirits you simply stop distilling when you reach your required abv. Botanical extracts can be added after distillation to round out and ramp up the flavour.
‘You’ve also 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 ensures that bottles will keep for six months after opening.
Tapping into trends
Of course, there would be no point mastering these production methods without a demand for low- and no-alcohol drinks. Seedlip’s Branson cleverly anticipated that demand, but what continues to drive it?
‘Consumers are changing behaviour very fast, particularly the younger generation, who are starting to question their relationship with alcohol,’ says Eric Sampers, previously brand director of Beefeater Gin, now working with Illogical Drinks, which makes 6% abv Mary.
‘There is always a generation that dictates the agenda in terms of trends and fashion, but then their choices end up influencing a lot more. They can break the rules or the tradition, but eventually those trends spread very fast across other age groups,’ he adds.
‘I think we’re becoming increasingly more demanding of access to great food and drink options, without having to compromise on our health and wellbeing,’ says Claire Warner, co-founder of Æcorn, a range of non-alcoholic aperitifs from Seedlip.
‘Certainly some people are drinking less often, but they actually want to drink quality,’ agrees Rose Bax. ‘They’ll have a couple of glasses of delicious wine with their meal, but might have an alcohol-free drink as an aperitif or use an alcohol-free as a pacing drink throughout the meal.’
‘With greater access to better no-alcohol choices, we’re beginning to enter a new phase of socialising which isn’t centred around the types of drink or even location that we’ve become used to,’ believes Warner.
‘This evolution in how we spend our time – how we connect meaningfully with others and where – will be fascinating to see play out over the next few years.’
Low-alcohol spirits to try
Hayman’s Small Gin
A little bottle that packs a big punch. This 43% abv gin dials up the botanicals during distillation, so you only need 5ml to make a decent G&T with classic citrus and spice character – but only 0.2 units of alcohol. Each bottle comes with a dinky 5ml metal thimble for measuring. A brilliant idea that’s so simple, you wonder why no one thought of it sooner. Alc 43%
Created by Eric Sampers, previously brand director of Beefeater Gin, Mary is distilled with responsibly sourced botanicals – basil, thyme, sage, coriander seed, angelica root, juniper and pine needles – for a fresh, herbal alternative to gin. Mix one part Mary with two parts Schweppes Slimline Tonic for a vivacious, herbaceous, low-calorie (9kcals) drink. Alc 6%
This organic spirit made from British wheat is also vegetarian and vegan friendly and delivers 29kcals per serving. Sister to Pure Vodka, which launched in 2019, it’s got a creamy, silky palate with a delicate citrus and floral character and a clean, crisp finish. Great for sipping or mixing. Alc 20%