Get low (and no): What challenges does the no- and low-abv spirits market still face?

Kate Malczewski

Kate Malczewski

16 December 2020

The market seems primed for non-alcoholic spirits to continue their meteoric rise. However, no-abv spirits brands have a few major hurdles to overcome. Kate Malczewski reports

When Seedlip launched its ‘non-alcoholic distilled spirit’ in 2015, the product was the first of its kind. To some the concept seemed oxymoronic, but other bartenders and drinkers recognised the need for alcohol-free options beyond sugary softs and ‘mocktails’ concocted from mysterious mixtures of juices. The non-alcoholic spirit provided a canvas for a new kind of boozeless cocktail, and a category was born.

Five years later, there are more than 90 non-alcoholic spirits and aperitifs on the market. Seedlip now belongs to spirits behemoth Diageo, corporate giants like Bacardi and Pernod boast their own no-abv brands, and small independent producers have pushed the category forward with products in a range of styles.

The size of the non-alcoholic spirits category still pales in comparison to other no and low drinks. In the year leading up to February 2020, sales of non-alcoholic beer reached nearly 73,600 hectolitres and a value of £65m in the on-trade, compared to just 212 hectolitres and £3m for non-alcoholic spirits. But what sets the non-alcoholic spirits category apart from the rest is its rapid growth: those sales figures represent an astounding 437% increase in volume and a 460% increase in value year on year (CGA).

More bartenders are saving space on their back bars for no-abv spirits, viewing non-alcoholic cocktails as a business opportunity to cater to previously overlooked occasions. And with 8.6 million UK drinkers aiming to reduce their alcohol intake (Mintel), consumers are interested, too.

The market seems primed for non-alcoholic spirits to continue their meteoric rise. However, no-abv spirits brands have a few major hurdles to overcome before they can stand up to other non-alcoholic drinks, much less steal any significant market share from traditional spirits – that is, if we should be comparing them to boozy counterparts at all.

Name game

At present, there are two broad types of no-abv spirits: brands that market themselves as booze-free analogues of specific spirits, and brands that use the more general terms of ‘non-alcoholic spirit’ or ‘non-alcoholic aperitif’ to define themselves.

Strategic sidestepping of direct comparisons to specific spirits could be crucial for the longevity of the category

There are benefits and drawbacks to both approaches. Making direct comparisons to gin, whisky, rum and vodka helps consumers understand what the product is trying to achieve and gives them inspiration for how to use it. ‘To someone who loves to drink cocktails and loves a Mojito but wants to cut down on alcohol, having a non-alcoholic rum option is amazing,’ says Camille Vidal, founder of the mindful drinking platform La Maison Wellness.

However, the drinker is more likely to measure the quality of that no-abv rum against alcoholic rums they’ve had in the past – and that often doesn’t work in the non-alcoholic rum’s favour. ‘If you take out the thing that makes it the thing, it cannot be the thing,’ Seedlip founder Ben Branson told Imbibe in an interview last year. ‘It can’t be a rum or whisky, it just can’t. So why try?’ (Unsurprisingly, Seedlip states that it is ‘not a non-alcoholic gin’ on its website.)

Consumers may need a bit more education before buying into brands that use general language, but the strategic sidestepping of direct comparisons to specific spirits could be crucial for the longevity of the category – and not just because the flavours of gin, whisky, rum et al are so difficult to replicate.

Christine Parkinson, Brimful
Christine Parkinson, Brimful

‘There are both legal and marketing issues [around the naming of non-alcoholic spirits], and these really need to be sorted out, and soon,’ warns Christine Parkinson, founder of no and low drinks consultancy Brimful. ‘Both the consumer and on-trade operators like names that relate to alcoholic categories, such as “non-alcoholic gin”, but gin producers rightly claim that these products are not, and never have been, gin. The sooner everyone faces up to the fact that such names will never be legally permitted, the better.’

Feeling the burn

By the very nature of the category, all non-alcoholic spirits are, to some extent, mimics. They are not ‘the thing’, and they ‘cannot be the thing’. And the difficulty of recreating certain aspects of alcohol is where issues of quality come in, not just for analogues of specific spirits, but for products across the entire non-alcoholic spirits category.

An important characteristic of booze, says Anna Walsh, head bartender of alcohol-free bar The Virgin Mary in Dublin, is ‘the mouthfeel that alcohol gives’: ‘Nevermind the actual [intoxicating] effects – it's more the sensation as you’re drinking it.’ This ‘sensation’ involves texture, and a certain burn and flavour-carrying capacity, too. Frankly, few brands have done it well.

You need to find ways to put retention [into a non-alcoholic spirit], so you don’t down the bottle, so you pace yourself and it’s not like a soft drink

Camille Vidal

‘There’s room for improvement in many things,’ comments Vidal. ‘You need to find ways to put retention [into a non-alcoholic spirit], so you don’t down the bottle, so you pace yourself and it’s not like a soft drink. There aren’t many ways to do that.’ Some producers attempt to bring an alcoholic sensation through menthol, which cools the mouth but often overwhelms other flavours; likewise, capsicum – chilli – is also used to deliver a burn, but as Vidal points out, it tends to build up until ‘you’re like “OK, my mouth is on fire now”’.

Thankfully, it’s not all breath mints and ghost peppers. The most successful products, in this writer’s opinion, are aperitif-style drinks, some of which manage to deliver great bittersweet flavour and a satisfying texture. ‘Aperitifs naturally having a bit of sugar and acids really helps to deliver [depth of flavour and texture],’ explains Paul Mathew, bartender and creator of the no-abv aperitif range Everleaf. ‘I think with the term “aperitif” you get more freedom to play with stuff, whereas if you call yourself a non-alc spirit, you’ve got a little bit less wiggle room to add complexity to your flavour.’

This is a challenge that bartender Simone Caporale experienced first-hand when developing the non-alcoholic spirit Zeo over the course of three years. ‘There is difficulty in extracting flavour without alcohol,’ he says. ‘It is an incredibly complex process, which also makes it costly.’

The price is right?

Indeed, costly production methods – not to mention the expense of trial and error – often end up translating to the no-abv spirit’s final price tag. ‘Consumers automatically assume that a non-alcoholic product will be a lot cheaper than an alcoholic one,’ explains Parkinson. ‘In fact, the ingredient costs can be high, and the economies of scale much less, meaning that no and low products can be fairly pricey. This can deter people from trying these products.’

The ingredient costs can be high, and the economies of scale much less, meaning that no and low products can be fairly pricey

Christine Parkinson

Perhaps in the future, new and innovative methods of production will allow brands to price their liquids more affordably. At present, smaller formats and non-alcoholic spirit-and-mixer RTDs give entry-level access points to the category. ‘It's being able to get people to try stuff and see if they like the idea,’ says Mathew.

But the key to selling no-abv spirits at a premium price is to recognise the category’s real target audience, Mathew explains. ‘If your reason for not drinking is partly the cost, that’s not solved by an expensive alternative. [The consumers who buy non-alcoholic spirits are] people who have five or six different bottles of premium gin and want something to drink on the nights they don't want to drink alcohol.’

The on-trade knows this: it’s why the UK’s best bars now offer thoughtfully crafted non-alcoholic cocktails on their menus. Bartenders recognise that no-abv cocktails are perfect for booze enthusiasts seeking a reprieve from alcohol – bartenders are that enthusiast. But brands still need to step up their education efforts and transparency to help on-trade professionals advocate for the category. ‘I think the [non-alcoholic] world could benefit from sharing the creative process,’ says Kaitlin Wilkes Back, bar manager of Blue Bar at The Berkeley in London, which has non-alcoholic options throughout its list. ‘The more we can teach and have people understand, the more we can justify price behind quality.’

Camille Vidal, La Maison Wellness
Camille Vidal, La Maison Wellness

Platforms like Camille Vidal’s La Maison Wellness and Club Soda, the organisation behind the Mindful Drinking Festival, are important resources. The latter recently launched a training course for venues ‘looking to create a mindful space and bring in low and no alcoholic drinks’, as well as a free course for hospitality staff ‘who want to change their drinking habits’. ‘The sector needs to talk about drinks that suit an experience, as well as how they can benefit health,’ says Club Soda founder Laura Willoughby. ‘It is a totally new skillset and mindset.’

The non-alcoholic spirits category’s rapid evolution has caused some growing pains, but there are passionate bartenders, drinks experts and brand owners dedicated to ensuring these products have a place in the on-trade for years to come. ‘It's a very exciting category, and one that is not a trend,’ promises Vidal. ‘This is a movement that is growing, and it’s going to be part of the offer and the way we drink and celebrate.’

IMBIBE RECOMMENDS

Everleaf

No-abv aperitif range Everleaf now has three expressions: Forest, Mountain and Marine. Made with botanicals including gentian, saffron and cassia, Forest is sunshine in a glass, delivering vanilla, tropical fruits and almonds on the nose and warming spices on the palate, with a silky texture from acacia gum. Mountain is floral and delicate yet aromatic, delivering flavours of cherry blossom, bittersweet rosehip and a kiss of strawberry, while umami-driven Marine gets savoury notes – and excellent texture – from dulse and kelp seaweed.

RRP £18/500ml, Everleaf Drinks, everleafdrinks.com 

Zeo

Bartender Simone Caporale sought creative ways to conjure the mouthfeel and flavours of alcohol when developing Zeo. The clear Botanical Dry expression gains character from botanicals including caraway, cubeb, orris root and peppermint, and cleverly uses fermented rye extract for depth of flavour. Amber-coloured Spiced Oak takes inspiration from the world of whisky, with charred oak extract, vanilla and cacao husk; glycerol brings a smooth texture.

Botanical Dry, RRP £25/700ml; Spiced Oak, RRP £27/700ml; Zeo, feelzeo.com

Wilfred’s

Another successful non-alcoholic aperitif – bittersweet expressions are certainly the ones to watch. Wilfred’s recalls the flavours of Italian classics, with a whack of orange zest complemented by rosemary and rhubarb. Made for a Spritz, but you could certainly lighten up a Negroni by swapping Wilfred’s for the red stuff.

RRP £18/500ml, Wilfred’s Drinks, wilfredsdrinks.com 

Three Spirit Livener

Bartender-favourite brand Three Spirit’s three expressions, Livener, Social Elixir and Nightcap, each use ‘functional’ ingredients with the aim of inducing specific feelings like euphoria or calm. We’re partial to Livener, which delivers red-berry notes, some bitterness and a touch of tang from apple cider vinegar, backed by heat and tannin from guayasa and guava leaf.

RRP £24.99/500ml, Three Spirit Drinks, threespiritdrinks.com

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