Customers everywhere are looking for more – and better – non-alcoholic options from their drinking-out experience. Robin Honhold tells you why – and how – you should make the most of the booming zero-abv trend
There came a turning point for me a year or two ago, when the pure joy I felt in sampling lots of different drinks became outweighed by the physical side effects. Now, no one forced me to drink enough to bring on a hangover, but when even the second pint was guaranteed to cause grief, the choice didn’t seem particularly fair.
To my despair, the slow slide into my 30s was presenting a real issue for me in social settings: revel in flavour of beer, wine and spirits and pay the price the following day(s), or drink just enough to be tantalised and then switch to sugary, childish, flavourless soft drinks.
Other semi-abstainers I’ve talked to have described the very odd situation of feeling guilty for not drinking, and it was enough to give me serious doubts about going out in the first place.
We’ve been under-serving 20% of the population. That’s an awful lot of people on whom we get the chance to make a great impression
The alcohol-free pairing menu at The Clove Club is legendary. The venues closest to my heart, Dandelyan (RIP) and Cub, both consistently received commentary from customers surprised at being so wholly included in the experience when normally their drinks choices left them isolated. And it’s this point that upsets me.
We go to excruciating lengths to impress our customer with our ingenious offering, we spend hours tinkering and training to make sure that the customer journey is perfect from entrance to exit. Our business is trading in first impressions and anticipating customer needs.
Yet when a customer wants a soft drink their choices so often go from a selection of over 20 cocktails, 30 beers, 50 wines and 100 spirits down to maybe five sodas and two carton juices (plus three mocktails if they’re lucky) that are pretty much the same everywhere you go.
Particularly distressing is that this disdain disproportionately affects distinct groups: those who abstain for cultural reasons, for health reasons (including pregnancy), or for communal reasons such as being the designated driver.
What we have now, though, is a real opportunity. Because the thing about doing something badly in a bar is that when you start doing it well, with modesty rather than pretension, customers are delighted, surprised... even joyful.
Serving for sobriety
If you consider that we’ve been under-serving 20% of the population, that’s an awful lot of people on whom we get the chance to make a great impression; a whole slice of the population whose loyalty is up for grabs. The flipside to this easy win is that as more people cater to the non-drinkers, you can’t afford not to.
There have been a huge number of alcohol-free cocktail options to hit the market recently, with varying levels of success. Here are three of my favourites
A pale gold, saffron-infused aperitif. This is an elegant, bright, delicate liquid that has enough bitterness and flavour to stand up against bianco vermouths. The mission here is more than one of flavour – the sourcing of ingredients is used as a tool to promote environmental and social progress.
There’s a distinct cola-botanicals flavour to it and this adds a great mature confectionary note to a drink. Everything about it lends itself to the aperitivo hour. Serve this long with white grapefruit juice, sugar and soda, or Paloma-style if you’re a whizz at making grapefruit soda.
£18/50cl, Everleaf Drinks, everleafdrinks.com
Up there as one of the best of all the products I’ve tried when served neat, Caleño is a tropical party starter. Lots of flavour is packed in, but not so much that it overwhelms when used in larger quantities. Everything about Caleño is geared towards vibrancy and fun, with the star ingredient, inca berry – which tastes like pineapple, mango and lime – bringing the noise.
Bright and fresh is a great place to start.
Serve it long, with lots of ice and plenty of bubbles whenever you need something to keep you in the mood or fire you up.
£24.99/70cl, Caleño Drinks, calenodrinks.com
Dark, brooding, slightly warped, Three Spirit is oddly moreish with its earthy palm sugar molasses nose and hint of coconut vinegar. It reminds me of a Daim bar with added bitter, herbal funk.
With its carefully curated selection of ingredients promoted as social aids, Three Spirit tries to close the gap between alcohol and zero-abv, providing herbal encouragement rather than Dutch courage.
It works well in places you might normally find rum and dark fruits. Shake this with a relatively sour blackcurrant or blackberry cordial, some of your chosen protein (egg/chickpea/lecithin) and top with soda to make a badass fizz.
£24.99/50cl, Three Spirit Drinks, threespiritdrinks.com
I’m not sorry to say I’ve blacklisted venues when they refuse to take even a baby step towards the new normal. Let’s find a way to also care for the 20% of customers we’re currently consigning to the ‘unprofitable’ or ‘boring’ bin.
Thankfully there’s a lot of support for this from industry, and we have more options for serving them than ever before.
Several businesses have been working on, or have already launched, liquids that step into the void left when you remove alcohol from a regular drinks list. The void that’s left, more than anything else, is one of flavour. Particularly depth, complexity and quality of flavour.
It’s quite mesmerising to have laid bare just how important the fermentation, distillation and ageing processes are to flavour. What’s unique to pretty much all of these products is that they look to directly replace an alcoholic product, even if they say they don’t. Like same-same but different and less woozy. Yet in reality most are same-same but different, and a few polyphenols short of a repeat purchase.
Of all the no-abv drinks categories out there, the area that’s been really interesting has been abv-free ‘spirits’, ‘aperitifs’ and ‘digestifs’, all kicked off by Seedlip.
The language around alcohol-free drinks is itself a clear indicator of our societal view of those who choose them. The space dedicated to them on menus and in fridges makes it clear they are a second-class option.
The thing is, demand is changing. Customers are seeing consideration applied in even everyday settings. The phrase ‘gastro pub’ has dropped out of common circulation because there are so many now. Everyone has a ‘concept’, and with so much skill on offer, there’s less room to hide when we don’t quite get a part of our offering right. The same thing, I’d suggest, is now happening when it comes to non-alcoholic drinks.
According to a study by University College London, between 2005 and 2015 the number of people aged 18-24 in the UK who stated they hadn’t drunk alcohol in the previous week rose to 46%, while those youngsters who didn’t drink at all rose to 27% from 19%. In the same period, the number of people across all ages who stated they were teetotal rose to 20.9% of the population. That’s one in every five, or 10.6 million UK adults, eschewing alcohol.
In London, less than half of respondents had drunk in the previous week, the lowest response in the country.
Our future customers are drinking less, and 73% of pub managers sampled for a study written by Club Soda’s founders believe soft drinks are an area of sales growth for them. There are a decent number of venues that have understood this need from their customers and stepped up to the plate.
The complexity and layering of the ingredients by Seedlip embodies the super-additive nature of fermentation and distillation, showcasing a product that can become the central column of a drink. Without this support, a cocktail without alcohol tends to be one-dimensional.
Herein, I believe, lies the reason that we struggle to create drinks without alcohol that can match up to the satisfaction provided by the flavour of a booze-laced cocktail. We’re taught as youths to worship the flavours of distillation and often don’t move on to creating our own layers of flavour. We also get the opportunity to swap one gin out for another and know roughly what to expect. Not so in the fledgling world of abv-free.
There are a few copycat brands, but even they are wildly differing in intensity of flavour and indeed core flavours. One boozeless ‘gin’ cannot be substituted for another. Each new product needs to be looked at with a fresh set of eyes. We need to start appreciating them as tools in our chest, one of a set of flavours that can be added together to create a whole. I’ve pulled together six key points to help you as you enter the world of no-abv.
Each new product needs to be looked at with a fresh set of eyes. We need to start appreciating them as tools in our chest...
This is only a starting point and every venue is different. You may find your best value is in overhauling the carbonated drinks offering: with all of the hundreds of independent brands now out there, you might quickly find too much to choose from.
There’s a deep-seated love in me for flavour, as there is in many of you who serve drinks for a living. Let’s use the hard work and passion of these new products to start being inclusive of everyone who also wants something that tastes great.
Your six step programme to booze-free nirvana
- Start by building your list of abv-free drinks in the same way you would build a menu of alcoholic drinks. It’s this level of consideration that will inform the rest of your creativity. There’s decades of experience in what makes a balanced menu for you to draw from. Think what distinct styles of drink you need to cover to meet with the most common occasions. Something super fresh, slightly bitter for someone who’s about to go for dinner, something to stand in for the celebratory glass of champagne, a pensive after-dinner drink…
- It’s important to note that the emotions and situations that we’re used to pairing alcoholic drinks with aren’t voided because someone doesn’t want to drink alcohol. The flavours and textures do transpose.
- Taste your products, and consider where they fit in among this menu. Different products have different levels of intensity so be careful how you use them. Remember that there’s no obligation to use a particular volume, large or small. More important than how much you use is what the drink tastes like at the end. If a dash is all it needs, then a dash is all it gets!
- Don’t be afraid to expand the horizons of ingredients you normally use. Remember that when you take booze away, a lot of cocktail menus read like the ingredient list of a gelateria. Teas, kombuchas, spices, seasonings and herbs all have a place in drinks. Customers are a lot more open to these and if you have a clued-up chef, a worldly barista or an articulate sommelier, see if they’ll give some advice for complementary flavours. I like to pester patissiers and pastry chefs. But a word of caution: less is often more with these ingredients.
- Most of the abv-free spirit products on the market are inherently flavour-forward to try and fill some big shoes. You can use this to your advantage by using them in alcoholic drinks as well to give you even more experience with them. Often the flavours can add a whole new dimension to your favourites.
- Not drinking alcohol often goes hand in hand with a wider desire to drink less sugar and to shy away from artificial flavours. There are some great no-sugar, no-nasties sparkling waters out there at the moment (such as Dash) which work really well with this. If you want to bump up the profile, drop in a touch of a fruit shrub to round it off.