A non-alcoholic, sugar-free Margarita doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time. But on the night I visit Redemption, a vegan, teetotal “gastrobar” in Shoreditch, people are knocking them back. And the place is packed, mostly with thirtysomething women chattering away over zero-proof Fitbeers, kale salads and Activated Coal Martinis. I can’t quite bring myself to order a Pious Piña Colada, but I do have a Margarita and, to my surprise, it isn’t half bad.
It’s easy to scoff at Redemption but places like this may end up having the last laugh. Because the bar and its ilk are now at the sharp (or should that be “soft”) end of a new industry that’s catering for the growing number of Brits who are choosing to drink less, less often or not at all.
Around one in five adults in the UK is now teetotal, according to the Office for National Statistics. Among 16- to 24-year-olds, the number is even higher at just over one in four — about 8 per cent more than 10 years ago. And many more adults of all ages are trying to cut down: Alcohol Research UK estimates that 4.5 million people took part in Dry January this year.
The UK’s drinking habits are changing for many reasons: greater ethnic and religious diversity, more health-conscious lifestyles, the rise of the free-from movement (which also encompasses veganism, non-dairy and gluten-free) and changes in the way people socialise.
Social media may have a role to play too: anecdotal evidence suggests that a growing number of young adults are now anxious about letting their hair down in case they wind up getting Instagrammed when not camera-ready.
None of this is news to Redemption’s co-founder Catherine Salway, a former brand director for the Virgin Group who spent 17 years forecasting consumer trends before leaving to launch the first Redemption in Notting Hill in 2015. “When I told people I was going to open a non-alcoholic cocktail bar, they said: are you mad?” says the 44-year-old (who is not teetotal). “I think we were possibly a bit too early. It was a real slog at the beginning.” Salway saw a business opportunity but she also had personal reasons for starting the business: “I was dating an alcoholic at the time and there was nowhere we could meet that was safe.”
Redemption is now in the process of raising £300,000 of Crowdfunding money to help finance two more sites — in Covent Garden and South Bank — which it hopes to open before the year is out.
The no- and low-alcohol market has traditionally been a pretty dreary one. Lately, though, the choice of products has improved dramatically, as drinks companies recognise there’s money to be made from moderation.
Take beer. The no- and low-alcohol market for it grew 20.5 per cent to £34.7m in 2017, buoyed by a raft of new product launches, including Heineken 0.0, Budweiser Prohibition and Guinness Open Gate Pure Brew lager, which are all 0.5 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV) or less (low-alcohol is defined as 1.2 per cent ABV or less, and alcohol-free as 0.05 per cent ABV or less, although the often-confusing terminology is currently the subject of a public consultation by the Department of Health).
The craft scene is also seeing the emergence of a new generation of breweries that only make no- and low-alcohol beer, such as Big Drop, Nirvana and Small Beer Co. “You can make low-alcoholic beer in two ways,” says Viktor Danckwardt of Danish craft brewery Mikkeller, one of the first companies to make alcohol-free or low-alcohol beer cool. “You can make a ‘normal’ beer and then remove the alcohol, which is how most low-alcoholic beer has been made before. If you do it this way, a lot of the flavour disappears. What a lot of new breweries do — and also what we do — is to use special yeast strains that do not produce alcohol when fermenting but still add a lot of flavour to the beer.”
Mikkeller’s excellent wheat beer Energibajer isn’t just alcohol-free; the Mikkeller Running Club find it so nutritious that they use it as an isotonic recovery drink.
The trend for more gentle drinks has also seen shandy make a comeback. Artisan soda company Square Root does a great range, including the tangy Brick Brewery’s Kaffir Lime Leaf and Tamarind Sour Beer, which is not only 0.5 per cent alcohol but also contains 40 per cent less sugar than a Coke.
Wine is another story. I really wanted to recommend an alcohol-free wine but the 15 or so I tasted were all horrible, either toothachingly sweet, or thin and sour. Most had a whiff of burning plastic, which, I suspect, has something to do with the de-alcoholisation process. Only the 0 per cent Leitz Eins Zwei Zero Riesling (£6.99 from Waitrose) had a flavour that even remotely resembled a wine.
But that hasn’t stopped people buying the stuff. Waitrose, which stocks eight non-alcoholic wines, says sales for the first week of February were up 56 per cent year on year. Aldi also expanded its range last year, while Tesco launched a trio of own-label, 0.5 per cent ABV wines, priced at £3.
One of the early indicators that grown-up soft drinks were set to become a “thing” came in the summer of 2016, when the world’s biggest spirits company Diageo announced it was buying a minority stake in the zero-alcohol botanical spirit Seedlip. Styled like a craft gin, priced on a par with a luxury spirit and distilled in a copper-pot still from a tantalising list of spices and herbs, this 0 per cent ABV, sugar-free distillate injected a new glamour into teetotal cocktails. The two varieties can be a bit “Marmitey” — some find them overly perfumed — but these days you can find Seedlip everywhere, from Tesco to The Fat Duck.
Seedlip’s signature serve is with tonic, but the result tastes nothing like a G&T (partly because Seedlip contains no juniper). If you want to scratch that itch, a better choice would be The Duchess, a new “virgin” variety from South Africa which has a satisfying, juniper bite.
Another good newcomer in the bittersweet department is Britvic’s cherry-red Monte Rosso aperitivo, which is a bit like a Campari soda (Campari also does its own teetotal aperitivo, Crodino).
Last year, Monte Rosso was just one of 50 products that took part in the UK’s first Mindful Drinking Festival, a one-day alcohol-free knees-up in Bermondsey Square that was attended by 2,500 people. The event was organised by Club Soda, an online community and resource for people looking to give up drinking or simply cut down a little.
“Our aim is to create a world where no one feels out of place if they are not drinking,” says Club Soda co-founder Laura Willoughby MBE, a former Lib Dem councillor who now lobbies the drinks industry and government on issues around alcohol and health. Willoughby gave up alcohol several years ago, but her Club Soda co-founder, Jussi Tolvi, still enjoys the occasional drink. And Club Soda’s philosophy is very much about finding that third way.
“This is an issue that’s about diversity, equality, community, diet . . . so many things,” says Willoughby. “If we want to save our pubs and our social spaces, then these places need to offer more choice, to more types of people. If you get the offer right, then it is good for everyone.”
Pubs may have been slow to react, but many top cocktail bars now take their non-alcoholic cocktail lists just as seriously as their boozy ones. At Dandelyan at the Mondrian — winner of World’s Best Bar last year — four of the 16 cocktails on the avant-garde list have been engineered to work with or without alcohol.
“We don’t segregate our non-alcoholic cocktails because we want people to feel like they’re still ordering something adult, that they’re still taking part in that collective feeling of celebration,” says the menu’s creator, Ryan Chetiyawardana. “I think for a lot of bartenders it’s now a point of pride to have a really good non-alcoholic cocktail list.”
At Sager + Wilde in east London, beverage director Marcis Dzelzainis uses home-made ingredients to create mouth-watering teetotal drinks such as the Mint & Coconut, a Mojito-like blend of mint, verjus (tart, unripe grape juice), coconut water and earthy oak moss; and Strawberry, a sherbetty mix of pink peppercorns, verjus, orange oils and home-made strawberry shrub, served over a single block of ice.
“Doing non-alcoholic cocktails is a challenge because you don’t have the road map of a traditional cocktail,” says Dzelzainis. “You have to rethink the whole concept of the drink — the acidity, the tannin, the mouthfeel, everything. But that’s why I enjoy it.”
Sager + Wilde (which also has a wine bar on Hackney Road) will open its restaurant, Fare, this summer in the Barbican. One of the big attractions on the drinks side will be a list of home-made, low-sugar sodas that riff on sophisticated flavours including pine, sandalwood and coffee.
At the Michelin-starred Clove Club in Shoreditch, guests who don’t want their eight-course tasting menu paired with wine can now choose from two different non-alcoholic “flights” based around teas, juices and infusions. Pairings include Lincolnshire chicken with a glass of fennel juice and thyme, and a lemon dessert with osmanthus green tea. Hakkasan has also just launched The Orchard List, an esoteric menu of 29 non-alcoholic drinks including kombuchas, salted juices, cold-brew teas and wood-aged waters inspired by the flavours of the Far East.
There is, of course, one thing that even the most delicious soft drink can’t recreate, and that’s the warm glow of alcohol. But there may soon be an answer to that, too, in the form of Alcarelle, an “alcohol substitute” that’s now being developed by a team headed up by David Nutt, Imperial College’s head of neuropsychopharmacology.
“When you think about it, it’s bizarre that the only adult drink people have to choose from is one which kills more people in the world than all the other drugs combined,” says Alcarelle’s MD David Orren. “Our aim is to create a product that replicates the pleasure of a glass of champagne, but which won’t create dependency, or side effects like mood swings, impaired judgement, liver damage or hangovers.”
It will probably be five years before the first Alcarelle products hit the shelves, says Orren. In the meantime the company is looking to raise £10m of investment to fund further research.
The no- and low-alcohol market is an increasingly dynamic one — and the landscape is changing all the time. (Just as I was about to file this piece, Coca-Cola announced plans to launch its first alcopop, a low-strength mix of cola and shochu aimed at Japanese millennials.) It’s a category that raises all kinds of interesting questions about how and why we drink. I’m still not sure if it’s OK to give a child a non-alcoholic G&T, or whether you can have zero-proof Cabernet for breakfast. I hope to have more answers soon. But first of all, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to have a nice glass of wine.
Blackberry, apple and fennel sling
Marcis Dzelzainis, Sager + Wilde
Glass: Tall glass/hi-ball
Garnish: lemon wedge + fennel tops
Method: Combine ingredients in glass over ice
* To make approx 800ml of blackberry shrub
- Mash the berries using a pestle and mortar then transfer the pulp to a Kilner jar and add the cider vinegar. Stir thoroughly.
- Cover with cling film and poke a couple of holes in the top. Cover with a muslin cloth, fasten with an elastic band and leave to macerate for four days, stirring once a day.
- Then strain through a muslin, extracting as much juice as possible. Combine the juice and sugar in a pan and heat gently until the sugar is dissolved.
- Pour into a sterilised bottle, add the flower water, seal and put in an ice bath to bring the temperature down quickly. Store in a cold place and it should keep for at least a year
Alice’s favourite no- and low-alcohol drinks
- Small Beer Lager (2.1%)
- Duchess Virgin Gin & Tonic (0%)
- Surendran & Bownes Edition Labdanum (a botanical ‘spirit’ for drinking with tonic)
- Monte Rosso Non-Alcoholic Aperitif (0% ABV)
- No. 1 Rosemary Water (0% ABV)
- Mikkeller beers
- Big Drop Stout (0.5% or less)
- St Peter’s Alcohol-Free Beers
- Square Root Shandies
Many of these — along with more than 80 other non-alcoholic products — can be found on drydrinker.com
All cocktails mixed by Marcis Dzelzainis at Sager + Wilde
Alice Lascelles is a drinks writer and an FT contributing editor. Instagram: @alicelascelles
Get alerts on Next Act when a new story is published