Sugar and mixers: Michael Butt on the Sugar Tax

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Location: England, Scotland, Wales

The move away from sugar is having a positive effect on the world of mixers


Sugar is not bad. But too much sugar is. Regardless of the fact that glucose is the fuel for respiration in every one of our 37 trillion cells, it is now beyond doubt that, despite the wailings of the confectionery industry, sugar in our diets is something we should be concerned about.

This column isn’t about wellness. In fact, it is generally against holier-than-thou pronouncements, including, in fact, the word ‘wellness’ itself. As pointed out in the last issue of Imbibe, the drinks industry has much more pressing health issues for its members in terms of addiction, and for most the job is active enough that a cheeky lemonade won’t hurt.

Our interest in the debate stems from the fact that an unfortunately large proportion of spirit consumption is a spirit and mixer, ranging from the ‘half vodka/half coke, serve in a plastic bottle and chug’ so beloved of pre-loaders, to the finest G&T served in cut crystal on rock ice.

Fears about sugar, or rather, fears about legislation and falling customer confidence, are causing soft drinks manufacturers to rethink their business. Not necessarily by launching new ‘healthful’ (aaargh) products, although there have been many – in fact Coca-Cola owns 3,500 brands and expressions of soft drink – but by considering their core brands.

The Vimtos, Tizers and Lucozades of this world, mostly untroubled by thoughts of mixing, let alone mixology, are facing potential taxes that the government is using as a nudge towards a healthier diet for the populace. Luckily for them, most of the alternatives are still sweet – unless exempted, most juices and almost all smoothies would also qualify for the surcharge.

They will fight for their piece of a declining total market, probably retaining similar market share. Reductions in sugar and switches to non-sugar sweeteners (the word ‘artificial’, like ‘chemicals’ is rendered meaningless in adult discussion) will be adopted by the market as a whole, as competition and customer preference demands.

Conversely, tonic water and its brethren have direct alternatives such as wine (lower in sugar! Nutritious polyphenols!) and cocktails (delicious! Vitamin C!). This means that their mixed-drink end of the soft-drink spectrum is much more volatile and we are seeing a number of changes, which, serendipitously, are all great for the drinker. These include:

Reducing sugar Sweet is only one band on the graphic equaliser of your senses. If other areas of the palate and olfactory system are being stimulated, less sugar is required to produce a pleasing character and level of intensity.

This discovery has led to the hand-in-hand rise of craft gin and newer tonic brands. Consumers immediately note the difference – improving both parts of the already sublime mix of G&T creates a circle of positive feedback.

Reducing serve size 250ml cans are replacing 330ml. The fact that less mixer means more ice, and that consumers now accept that 150ml has become the correct quantity to serve with a double spirit (thanks Fever-Tree) means the standard of all spirits and mixers has improved.

Increasing price Just like the Tippling Act, increasing the tax component of a product tends to drive the quality of a product upwards as the producer seeks to maintain a worthwhile margin. Products use better ingredients to justify the increases in price, making the drinks better.

Unlike in the wine world where the quest for dryness has led to the loss of some delicious wines from the public consciousness, the sugar problem is actually improving the life of the spirits drinker. If only all public health policy were so (accidentally) successful.

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Michael Butt

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