There are many reasons why you might be planning for alcohol-free or alcohol-limited celebrations and an increasing number of consumers are indeed decreasing their alcohol consumption as part of wider wellness and lifestyle trends. The ‘sober curious’ are driving the increasing demand for the no/low category, leading some of the UK’s foremost retailers – such as Waitrose and The Wine Society – to ramp up their offering in both quality and diversity.
But do the available alternatives stand up to their boozy counterparts? Can they underscore merriment and conviviality in the same way? There’s a growing number of appealing alternatives that deliver in both drinking pleasure and food pairing possibilities.
Beer – low in alcohol but not in flavour
Low-alcohol beers have been around for centuries, having played a key role in the diet (and survival) of many western countries since times immemorial. When clean drinking water was unavailable, low alcohol beer provided a safe, storable alternative; the management of fermentation to arrive at a moderate alcohol level has long been mastered. It didn’t take much, therefore, for brewers to put the latest technologies (such as cryogenic fermentation) at their service to arrive at even lower levels without – unlike alcohol-free wine; more on this below – significant loss of flavour or body. It’s easy to find superb alternatives – of which the below are just two examples among many – that comfortably measure up against boozy brews.
One of the flashiest and most diverse sub-categories in the no/low scene is alcohol-free spirits. Technically not all these drinks are spirits to which alcohol has been removed; many are herb & spice mixes and elixirs that never started as an alcoholic product. Relying on the same botanicals and spices that shape the profile of the alcoholic products they stand in for, these concoctions are worth exploring.
The absence of alcohol might make it a bit challenging to enjoy no/low spirits neat as they could feel a bit thin and lacking in depth. But as the alternative components in mocktail recipes they can provide the basis for delicious, warming and very festive drinks. Outstanding branding and packaging add to the sophistication and respectability with which these products have claimed their corner in bar shelves across the world.
Perhaps the least exciting of the no/low subcategories is dealcoholised wine – especially if you’re looking for a drink with gastronomic appeal. The challenges of producing a complex and balanced alcohol-free wine are many. The dealcoholisation process removes important flavour and structural components (aroma compounds, tannins etc) along with the alcohol. And the latter is itself a good bonding agent, vehicle and preservative for such components, meaning that, in its absence, they are not likely to remain or be as expressive in the final product. Producers are investing in new and better technology but alcohol-free wines still pale in comparison with the base product.
If you’re staying away from alcohol as a part of a general effort to build a healthier lifestyle, you should also consider that alcohol-free wines and spirits are significantly processed products to which artificial sugars (and other additives) are often added. So perhaps you are better off enjoying the health benefits of moderate drinking? Something to consider ahead of your New Year resolutions.
It’s also worth exploring the no/low alternatives that do not rely on dealcoholisation and/or emulation of an obvious alcoholic twin. Where before there was not much more than juices and kombucha, you’ll now find complex and flavourful creations, favoured by sommeliers in virgin pairing flights.
Among them are sparkling teas, often – but not necessarily – made bubbly through fermentation with kombucha cultures. While tasting for this piece these truly stood out for their structural and flavour complexity. Not least as they are the only non-alcoholic alternatives offering something that will appeal to wine lovers: natural tannins.
So dive in and explore; there are plenty of ways to enjoy an alcohol-free Christmas without boredom or disappointment. The key is to think differently, not trying to find the alcohol experience where it cannot be.
Eight alternatives for alcohol-free festivities:
Cold-brewed sparkling tea – 0% abv
The brainchild of husband-and-wife and fellow Food Science doctorates Charlie and Natalie, Saicho is a superb collection of cold-brewed sparkling teas. The project was catalysed by the couple’s love for food and fine dining and Natalie’s severe intolerance to alcohol. The pair embarked on a research project to find suitable non-alcoholic pairing alternatives.
The three labels in the range are all balanced, nuanced and sophisticated, underpinned by the quality and natural complexity of the teas used. I was particularly taken by the refined tannic structure and delicious umami character of the Green Sencha tea-based Hojicha. Complex and persistent, it is the perfect pairing for festive seafood spreads.
£15.75 (75cl) from The Whisky Exchange
L.A. Brewery Sparkling English Rose
Sparkling tea-based kombucha – 0% abv
One for lovers of aromatic, fruit-driven white wine, this Kombucha-fermented blend of black and green eea is infused with organic rose petals for a fragrant and delicate nose. Aromas of rose, jasmine and apple blossom mingle with zesty lemon and lime, ripe Asian pear and melon. A hint of elderflower and gooseberry gives it a Sauvignon Blanc-like edge. Pair with poultry, smoked salmon or quiche Lorraine.
£10 (75cl) from L.A. Brewery and Ocado
REAL Royal Flush
Fermented sparkling tea – 0% abv
Another sparkling tea of note, equally enjoyable on its own, as an aperitif, or alongside grilled fish, smoked mackerel, charcuterie & cheese platters or tapas. Lovely nose, bursting with ripe stone fruits, red apple fruits and crunchy blackcurrants. The first flush Darjeeling used as a base adds umami and smoky nuances. The palate is refreshing, with rhubarby sourness, fleshy peach and pink grapefruit zestiness.
£9 from Waitrose
Small Beer Dark Lager
Beer – 1% abv
From its small brewery in Bermondsey – the London epicentre of all things cool in craft beer, cheese, wine, coffee and beyond – Small Beer brewery produces one of the most interesting ranges of low-alcohol beers in the market. Having researched traditional brewing techniques and created a bespoke brewing kit, the company seems to have nailed it, delivering in flavour, complexity and typicity. Velvety, toasty and malty, this is a proper dark lager that reflects the quality of the brewery’s wider range. Perfect pairing for turkey, roast beef and shepherd’s pie. Yum.
£3.25 (35cl) from The Wine Society
Lucky Saint Unfiltered Lager
Beer – 0.5% abv
Founded only a few years ago by Luke Boase, Lucky Saint quickly became one of the alcohol-free beers of choice among UK’s sommeliers and pub owners. The Bavaria-inspired unfiltered lager has a lovely weight and balance. It delivers what any lager would: biscuity deliciousness, orchard fruit crunch and ripe citrus zestiness. It’s a lovely beer, regardless of any alcohol level considerations.
£18 (12 x 33cl) from Majestic
Torres Natureo Rosé
Dealcoholised wine – 0% abv
The most accomplished of all the dealcoholised wines tasted for this piece, Torres’ Natureo Rosé preserves an interesting crispness and food-friendly crunch. Refreshing and lifted, with juicy softness. Aromas of cranberry and rhubarb dominate, with a streak of pink grapefruit underneath. Soft and fruit-forward but with a lovely tail of coriander. Will not disappoint fans of fruit-forward, soft rosés. A great aperitif that will also pair well with canapés, tapas or fresh seafood.
£6 (75cl) from Tesco
Three Spirit Nightcap
Botanical and herbal elixir – 0% abv
A smart, spicy concoction with a very wintery and festive soul. The warming combination of sweet and savoury spices lifts, with fiery vibrancy, a luscious core of maple syrup and chestnut honey. Smoky nuances of tobacco, cedar and sandalwood add depth. Very enjoyable on the rocks, as a digestif, mixed with tonic or ginger ale for a flavourful aperitif, or as a stand-in for whisky and cognac in cocktail recipes.
£25 (50cl) from The Wine Society
Dealcoholised gin – 0.5% abv
Sipsmith is one of the leading brands in the alcohol-free spirits category, and this FreeGlider helps to understand its success. The beautiful, evocative packaging allows it to sit proudly on any bar display, for a sophisticated mocktail experience. Very classical gin nose, with juniper, lemon balm and white grapefruit zest. The palate, while lacking the vividness and energy of an alcohol-full gin, has all the flavour needed to use it as an alternative in a classic G&T.
£17 from Majestic