Hamish Anderson: The rise of no abv calls for a new kind of somm

Hamish Anderson

17 July 2019

The growth of no abv is radically changing your drinks take – and the people who sell it, says Hamish Anderson

I spent Easter on holiday in California travelling between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It was a family trip, so while there was plenty of wine, it was in restaurants rather than wineries. One of the best meals was at Angler in San Francisco, with lovely food cooked over charcoal in the mould of Brat or St Leonards.

It was lunchtime, and it was just me and my children, so there wasn’t much scope to do justice to the exceptional wine list. The sommelier was brilliant, winning me over when replacing the original half bottle of Chardonnay I ordered with something priced 50% more for the same amount, as my choice was out of stock and the list had not been updated.

What really struck me, though, was how exceptional the restaurant was at extracting, in the nicest possible way, drink spend from my children. The sommelier flipped naturally from discussing what style of Chardonnay I liked to what kind of soft drinks my kids preferred – delicious, beautifully presented and requisitely priced homemade versions then appeared.

Being on holiday, my guard was down. Before long another round was ordered. When the bill arrived, we had spent as much on non-alcoholic drinks as wine.

The rest of the restaurant was full of adults and, as it was lunch, there were not many bottles of wine on the tables. There was, however, tea, beer, homemade kombucha and lots of what appeared to be cocktails – most of which almost certainly had no alcohol in.

These drinks were all delivered and recommended by a well-drilled front-of-house team, with the sommeliers at its heart. I would have loved to have seen the sales report at the end of service.

The average wet spend would have, I am sure, been good, with non-wine items making a significant contribution.

While wet sales still account for almost exactly the same percentage of the total turnover in our restaurants at Tate as they did a decade ago, the sales mix within it has changed dramatically. First it was craft beer and cocktails that ate into wine’s share, but now we are starting to see the effect of people drinking less alcohol. Indeed, the future (recent research by University College London found 25% of 16-24 year olds classified themselves as non-drinkers) will see a significant proportion of our customers drinking no alcohol at all.

There will always be restaurants with a strong emphasis on wine that require a classical sommelier whose sole focus is all things vinous. But such a focus will, I think, become increasingly niche, while the demand for other kinds of drinks specialists will grow.

These are people who can put together, and manage the delivery of, a profitable beverage offer. They take the values of a great wine list – interest, balance, provenance, breadth of flavour – and apply it to the whole drink spectrum.

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