Soft drinks producers need to be more creative with sugar reductions, says Michael Butt

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There’s no shortage of creativity when it comes to list creation – it’s just a shame soft drinks producers can’t follow suit


Prepare for a bifurcated column this month, like unwound yarn heading in different directions but hailing from a common thread: innovation.

First an apology for an error, something of a recurring theme among my predictions; Nostradamus I ain’t. In last year’s May issue, I waxed lyrical about the possible positive effects the sugar tax would have on the soft drinks market, particularly in the area of spirit-and-mixer and highball drinks. I was wrong.

Some of the potential has been realised, with a wide selection of new brands bringing lots of great new flavours to the market. The leviathan that is Coca-Cola has made the predicted step, adroitly for such a big beast, to a 25cl can. This has ensured they can keep their classic recipe the same, preserving brand equity and reducing people’s sugar consumption by a meaningful percentage.

Unfortunately, many brands have taken the easy way out and simply removed the sugar and replaced it with acesulfame K, sucralose and aspartame. These artificial sweeteners are all thoroughly tested, absolutely safe and taste rank.

The Paloma in particular has suffered as a result of these changes. A cocktail that has existed in the UK for less than my bar lifetime, it is impossible to make a Squirt substitute from grapefruit and soda.

Pampelle and Briottet Pamplemousse Rose are tasty, but nowhere near concentrated in flavour enough to act as a cordial, so only when Ting was launched just over a decade ago bartenders and consumers alike were finally able to enjoy the soaring perfection of this tequila dove.

When San Pellegrino began importing Pampelmo, fans of the agave spirit, having thought they had reached Nirvana, realised they had just been waiting at a bus stop on the highway to heaven.

To wails of anguish, both Ting and San Pellegrino have reformulated their recipes with artificial sweeteners. Neither tastes nearly as good. Paloma fans are switching to tequila and tonic, which, with London Essence’s Grapefruit & Rosemary Tonic in particular, are delicious, but not the same.

When Ribena had to add polydextrose to its product to keep the ‘gloopiness’ of the reformulation the same regardless of the flatulent effects of this liquid starch, it was clear that the innovation I was hoping for has actually been subsumed under the weight of corporate cowardice.

Perhaps some of the risk-averse product planners should have hired a modern mixologist.

I’ve read many menus of late, having slimmed down the masses of very good entries for Imbibe’s Drinks List of the Year to a selection of truly excellent menus for the shortlist (p.58). I feel confident saying there is rarely a menu these days that doesn’t feature an ingredient new to the world of drink.

There is a danger that some take it too far, forcing an ingredient or combination that doesn’t have merit into a drink just for novelty and individuality. Still, this seems to happen less than it did in the past.

Mise-en-place techniques and, more importantly, pieces of equipment that were the sole preserve of the kitchen are now widespread this side of the pass. We are rapidly catching up with chefs in this style of ingredient development and we should look forward to this continuing.

Where the bar is indisputably the king of innovation, however, is in the presentation of the menu itself. Hélène Darroze’s Solitaire is a clever idea to allow a diner’s preferences to design an individual tasting menu, but this leading light of the culinary world is left in the shade by the bar world.

Original concepts, beautiful artwork and photography and elegant presentation have become the norm in cocktail menus. Drinkers have never had it so good. It’s just a pity they cannot put that same level of innovation and creativity in a can.

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Michael Butt

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