The growing demand for non-alcoholic cocktails has uncovered a fundamental problem: without the rich and varied world of booze, our larder of cocktail ingredients is relatively limited. Robin Honhold explains how we can expand our no-abv horizons with an eye to sustainability
Listen up. We’re all down with sustainability. It sounds like a good idea, yes? Good.
How about people wanting to drink less alcohol? Oh, you’re not so sure about this one. What will become of the cocktail bartender and the established publican if we all swap pints and Martinis for soda-lime and fresh orange?
Naturally you’re concerned that the business might struggle to hit targets if seats become occupied by one of the 20% of customers who doesn’t drink – although it’s better they don’t drink alcohol in your bar than in someone else’s, right? Maybe there's something we could do to upskill alcohol-free consumption?
Offering more-than-adequate options
There is a solution, of course. The craft beer market has already dived in with two feet. Many brewers in the new wave of British craft now produce an alcohol-free beer, and new players like Lucky Saint are insistently raising the bar on quality. Some have been on the job for a while, such as Kernel with its ever-changing low-abv table beer. This means that there’s at least one category offering a credible non-alcoholic alternative.
We’ve had a surge in options for non-alcoholic spirits and aperitifs that can help in the world of bars. But if these drinks are to present a genuine alternative to their booze-filled peers, the effort, prestige and underlying cost of any cocktail without alcohol needs to match up to the rest of the list, otherwise consumers will naturally feel cheated paying a similar price.
A limited larder
Which is why this shift to non-alcoholic cocktails has uncovered a major problem: Our traditional larder of cocktail ingredients is severely stunted. Outside of alcohol it consists largely of fruit, and pretty much only those fruits that you can get from the greenery aisle of a Tesco Express.
The issue with fruit is that, while delicious, the only drinks we could have as children were almost exclusively fruit-based, and made from the same limited list as our current larder. Take away the very ‘adult’ flavours created by fermentation and distillation, and we are left with the difficult task of producing something that satisfies a moderately mature palate.
Take away the very ‘adult’ flavours created by fermentation and distillation, and we are left with the difficult task of producing something that satisfies a moderately mature palate
And so, when it comes to alcohol free, the choices are limited to fruity, flavourless, bad or tonic for most bars and restaurants.
Produce a great tasting option that isn’t one of these usual suspects, and you’ll have very happy customers indeed, who feel they’re being treated less like children and more like grown-ups.
Sustainability, meet no-abv
But to achieve this we need a considerable expansion of the flavours we are familiar with.
Almost all of the most exciting things I’ve tasted in my life have come from exploring sustainable, local, seasonal and traditional ingredients and cuisines – and the idea that we can use the wave of people drinking less alcohol to be more creative and more sustainable in the ingredients we use is profoundly exciting.
The best place to look outside your usual arsenal of ingredients is within your country of residence. The huge wealth of seasonal produce is astonishing. And if you expand that range to the countries in your immediate vicinity, looking only at what’s in prime condition, you’ll find even more incredible ingredients, guaranteed.
And that’s just the fruits. Start looking into vegetables, fresh herbs, preserved ingredients and ferments as well and you can’t fail to be inspired. Layer in the accumulated knowledge of the world’s spice trade for an element of finesse that screams ‘adult’.
So my challenge to you is this: Use non-alcoholic drinks as an opportunity to explore what lies beyond, use them to explore the amazing flavours right in front of you, use them to source ingredients more responsibly and to be more creative. Your customers will thank you for it, as will the ground you stand on.