In this writer’s opinion, the UK’s burgeoning no-and-low category has gained three of its most impressive products since the start of 2019: sunny, bittersweet Everleaf, a non-alcoholic aperitif created by The Hide owner Paul Mathew; vegetal Willow, a low-abv spirit from Ladies & Gentlemen’s William Borrell; and now, the new range from Æcorn Aperitifs.
Each of these manages to provide excellent flavour and a satisfying drinking experience without relying on booze. But Æcorn boasts an important point of difference from the first two – it’s the sister brand of Seedlip, the non-alcoholic spirit company that set us on this hangover-free path in 2015.
With this link to the biggest player in the market, it seems that Æcorn has the potential to take the non-alcoholic category to new heights. It helps that the range’s three flavours, Dry, Aromatic and Bitter, marry the trend towards no- and low-abv serves with the aperitif style of drinking that is currently dominating the cocktail scene. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the team behind Æcorn is helmed by industry veteran Claire Warner, former head of spirits at LVMH.
So how exactly does Æcorn plan to use its unique positioning to build the category? Imbibe sat down with Warner at Lyaness, the first bar to stock the Æcorn range, to learn about her vision for the brand as it launches to the on- and off-trade.
What did the development process look like for Æcorn?
We went into the history books and did a lot of research. We found a recipe for acorn wine in The Art of Distillation. It was basically a non-alcoholic English vermouth made with acorns, so we were like, ‘Oh, I wonder what acorns taste like’.
They're not delicious. They're super tannic, really bitter, very astringent. But as a British bittering ingredient, they're quite interesting. Most bittering ingredients used in amari or aromatised wine or vermouth come from outside of the UK, so here was an opportunity for us to resurrect an old British bittering agent used in the 1600s to open up digestion.
We also wanted to incorporate more of the ingredients used in the 1600s, mainly English grapes. When it was warmer here in the 1600s people made English wines. Then [our country] went through a cold spell and grapes weren't grown here anymore.
Now, because of global warming, there's this output of English sparkling wine. So we wanted to use those grapes as a base, and we decided to use verjus from Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay. Then, we aromatise with various botanicals from all over the world.
Why choose to make a range of aperitifs?
The aperitif category was quite attractive to us because there's so much variety. A lot of it is based on herbs and botanicals, which lend themselves to something non-alc. So we thought, how could we reinterpret that for a modern consumer, and also for someone who's not wanting to drink for whatever reason?
A lot of people feel that it's the alcohol that readies you for food, but it's bitterness that opens up the palate, and the bitter thread runs through all of [the drinks in the aperitif tradition]. That was where we took inspiration from. Here's something that respects that tradition but takes it into a different space.
A lot of people feel that it's the alcohol that readies you for food, but it's bitterness that opens up the palate
Are the three variants designed to go with the three flavours of Seedlip?
We wanted to create something that would complement Seedlip. But we also wanted to create something flexible and versatile that could work on their own and to create lower-abv cocktails too. So in a sense they work like modifiers. One naturally pairs well with Garden, another goes really with Grove, another goes really well with Spice, so that was a starting place, but we wanted to broaden our application of them. We wanted to create more choice.
So the range uses a verjus base and acorns as a bittering agent – can you tell us more about each of the three flavours?
First up is Dry. We think of it like a dry vermouth, but there's a very distinctive green note reminiscent of a Sauvignon Blanc. That pyrazine characteristic works beautifully when you think of pairing with food.
Aromatic is in more a sweet vermouth style. It’s rich, aromatic, quite indulgent and smoky. In here we've got kola nut, vanilla, clove, cassia, all of those aromatic sweet and warming spices. But those ingredients on their own can become a bit cloying, so we've added smoked cherrywood to create a bit more of an adult taste, and American oak to reinforce the vanilla for a lovely sort of tannic expression.
Then we have Bitter. We wanted to create something that really heroed the Italian amari tradition but still kept some of our British ingredients. We’ve used chinotto and quassia, balanced with lots of citrus: orange and grapefruit peel, and also sancho pepper, which is citrusy and spicy. Then we've got English oak. Because it’s so bitter, this one needs to be diluted with ice or a little bit of soda.
You mentioned food pairing. Have you found good matches for each of the expressions?
We’ve found Dry works with anything fresh and light. We like it with some salted almonds, and smoked fish works particularly well.
Aromatic is really great at the end of a meal, with cheese, chocolate or coffee. It’s sweet and indulgent, so it’s good as a pairing with something salty or with dried fruits.
Bitter is good for spritzes, so any antipasti works well – meats, cheeses, that kind of thing.
We talk a lot about cocktail bars using Æcorn, but what aperitifs do is open up that conversation around food and what you drink before you eat. We think they’re particularly good for restaurants limited in terms of space, or for places that don't have bartenders creating cocktails. Here's a range of products that they can use for complex flavours, and there's a lot of wine language to be used around them.
Seedlip has chosen to position itself as a non-alcoholic spirit rather than comparing itself directly to a specific alcoholic category like gin or vodka. Now Æcorn is doing something similar, choosing to identify as an aperitif instead of a vermouth or an amaro. Are there benefits in remaining vague about categorisations?
I’d put it this way: if we were to set out to create a non-alcoholic vermouth, then people come to try your product and expect one thing, and we'll never be able to create the same flavour profile as an alcoholic vermouth because we don't use the same type of botanicals.
There is value in creating something distinct that doesn't set the consumer up for disappointment when you say it's a non-alcoholic version
There is value in creating something distinct that doesn't set the consumer up for disappointment when you say it's a non-alcoholic version. Æcorn doesn't contain wormwood, so therefore they’re not vermouth. They’re more of an aromatised wine style, but they are their own thing. We'd rather people come to them with an open mind rather than saying this is going to compare to a vermouth. Ultimately it won't.
People want to categorise because it helps them navigate, and I think that's really important. But all we can do is help them navigate by giving them some signposts in terms of how to enjoy our products. We'll be very clear, these should be used spritz style, always using a wine glass – stemware is important because it indicates a certain occasion. We can orientate the consumer without having to say ‘we are this [specific spirit]’.