The past few years have seen our drinking as a nation take a dive: we’re becoming more health conscious, sober curious and a 2018 study found 30 per cent of young people never drink at all.
It’s no surprise then that the “low and no” movement has grown exponentially in that time; no longer are teetotallers stuck with a soda and lime or dodgy alcohol-free beer.
Alan Sherwood, previously of cutting-edge London cocktail bars Scout and Three Sheets now owns the north London bar Little Mercies that specialises in low ABV drinks and agrees the scene has changed a lot.
He says, “We have always had softs on our menu, but with the recent changes to the drink line up we have had a huge increase in people ordering non-alcoholic drinks; we’ve seen an increase of people asking about the strength of our cocktails. Thankfully we are fans of easy drinking numbers, and the average across our entire menu is less than 10% ABV per drink.”
And what are people looking for in a low proof drink now? “Flavour is key. Instead of fruity, simple alternatives, people are looking for flavour… they expect something balanced and interesting. Also, appearance is important; they don't want to be singled out so non-alcoholic cocktails need to be indistinguishable from their alcoholic siblings. Sugar carries flavour in cocktails the same way as alcohol in beer, so with non-alcoholic beers having neither it’s hard to give the same profile, though Lucky Saint have managed it."
Indeed, we are quite overwhelmed with soft serves: in testing we encountered zero proof spirits that look, smell and taste the part, to refreshing craft ciders and all sorts of botanical wonderment – that’s not to mention the extremely impressive mixers, spritzers and kombuchas we had no space for in this piece.
It’s just the alcohol-free wines that seem to be lagging; the really low or no stuff tastes of grape juice in our experience – you have to go up to the 5.5-7.5% zone to really find something enjoyable (check out thefizzcompany.com for some great examples) so do let us know if you find something lower that’s good. In the meantime, we’ll cheers to these…
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Lucky Saint beer, 12 x 330ml bottles: £25, Lucky Saint
Lucky Saint has really made itself known in the low and no arena over the past year or so as we’ve had lots of recommendations for this one with 0.5% ABV. It’s a very good light, easy drinking lager from a 400 year old brewing background that manages to retain all the characteristics of a boozy craft beer so there’s no FOMO for going dry. An unfiltered blend pilsner malt and light, bright hops all rounded off with a super-smooth – almost too smooth – brioche-like citrus note, this goes down a treat any night of the week.
Stryyk not gin, 70cl: £16, Ocado
There have been a lot of alcohol-free gin contenders coming on the market and we’re not sold on all of them; there tends to be a cloying sweetness and not enough of that signature “burn” you crave from a real gin. However, this new Not Gin is sugar free and the herby, botanical flavours of coriander, sage, basil and that classic juniper come through in bounds making it a good pretender to a London Dry Gin. It’s zero proof but we thought it was quite convincing as a gin; and certainly more so than other more expensive alcohol free gins we’ve tried. PS. we used a higher spirit to tonic ratio than we’d usually pour and it hit the spot.
Scavi & Ray alcohol free sparkling wine, 750ml: £8.99, Dry Drinker
As we mentioned, alcohol-free wine is a tough gig but this is one of the best examples we’ve found that doesn’t taste solely of grape juice, so it’s extra impressive that it is 0%. It’s almost a convincing prosecco alternative and is just missing that definitive yeasty note that comes with proper fizz, but we’d drink this – and enjoy it – if we were abstaining from the real stuff. Overall, a straightforward sparkling non-wine that tastes pleasantly lemony, apple-y and is reminiscent of a basic prosecco: will do the job for a celebration.
Drynks smashed citrus beer, six bottles: £9.99, Wise Bartender
This zippy, zesty alcohol-less lager is pale gold with a nicely balanced blend of hops, malt, lemons and lime on the palate. We don’t think you’d immediately notice the lack of ABV, and that probably comes down to the fact that Drynks uses a cool vacuum distillation process in the making of all its Smashed range, which gently infuses the alcohol out of beer and cider so they taste the same as the alcoholic equivalents. Apparently it’s the most expensive and time-intensive way of doing things, but it tastes like it’s worth it. Smashed Citrus is its brand spanking new one – and our favourite of the bunch – but you can also try Smashed Cider (not boozy enough for us), Smashed Hops and Smashed Berry.
Celtic Soul spirit, 70cl: £20, Sainsbury’s
Dark spirits are having their turn for an alcohol-free makeover now and this latest one is a pretty impressive attempt. It smells fabulous: smokey, peaty and downright whisky-like (though they don’t bill it as any one spirit in particular). The taste doesn’t quite deliver the fiery burn you’ve come to expect from the whisky aroma – instead think vanilla, spices and a subtle woodiness – but it makes a great alternative to booze when mixed with ginger ale and garnished with a twist of your chosen citrus. It’s completely alcohol free too.
Lowlander yuzu and grapefruit beer, 12 x 33cl: £27.95, Amazon
If you’re after something a bit different to your usual beer, take a look at Lowlander and its interesting flavour profiles. We are very into the elegantly spiced yuzu and grapefruit number, which is zesty, fun and complex enough that you don’t miss the alcohol at all. We weren’t so taken by the ginger and kaffir lime variety which we felt went too far with the aromats, but other testers were; suck it and see. Or try the 0% WIT for a good example of one with decent body.
Sassy Le Vertaux poire cider, 33cl: £3.40, Master of Malt
If you’ve tried alcohol free cider before and quickly thought better of it after the first disappointing waft of Apple Tango, then same. But this is a different beast entirely and one we’ll be ordering up for barbecues, picnics and all the other day drinking occasions where you’d like to maintain your sensibilities but usually fail to. It’s a higher volume than most of the low and no beers and ciders we’re looking at, at 2.5% but wow it is brilliant. A Normandy concoction of pears balanced with the perfect level of acidity and just a touch of sweetness, this is masterful stuff. We’re told that the Normans have it for breakfast and we’re not surprised.
Nine Elms no. 18, 75cl: £19.95, Master of Malt
For something completely different, take a punt on Nine Elms No. 18. It’s hard to categorise –it’s not a wine dupe, even though it looks the part – and is an infusion of 20 botanicals and four berries designed to be drunk with food (they suggest rich, savoury dishes). The experts agree, as you’ll now find Nine Elms No 18 on the menu at The Clove Club and The Standard hotel. We found it to be an unusual one; there’s the full body you’d find in a wine, and lots of the complexity too, but there’s also the bitterness of some aperitifs. Importantly it’s not sugary sweet or anything like a juice – thankfully, considering the steep price. Try it as a straight pour with dinner, or mixed in cocktails.
Holly Golightly cider, 330ml: £1.99, Wise Bartender
In a world where most soft ciders taste of fizzy apple juice, this is another good example of a grown-up-tasting beverage that has the bitterness you’d associate with a standard cider. There are plenty of apples in this Audrey-inspired one, obviously, but also a pleasant tartness, persistent bubbles and a welcome feeling that you are having a "proper drink" despite being less than half a percent.
Brutal Brewing a ship full of IPA, six x 330ml: £10.99, Dry Drinker
A good, solid, tangy IPA here that would have you inspecting the bottle for its alcoholic volume: somehow it’s 0%. Again, there’s that cool vacuum distillation involved which means this amber coloured liquid tastes remarkably like a standard alcoholic IPA. Lots of malt, loads of hops, a touch of sweetness and a refreshing finish makes this a reliable choice for anyone hankering after a beer without a sore head.
Hayman’s small gin, 20cl: £21, Waitrose
Bear with us for this one. It’s real gin and it has a stonking 43% ABV, but Hayman’s has done something clever here by dialling up the distinctive botanical characteristics of this English gin to the extent that just a 5ml thimbleful (thimble provided) of gin mixed with a good tonic will provide the full G&T experience with just 0.2 units of alcohol and 15 calories a pop. And it really does. Of course, this won’t be for everyone as the gin is gin, but an 80 per cent reduction in alcoholic volume is not to be sniffed at and would be ideal for weeknights or when you need to stay sharp.
Three Spirit, 50cl: £24.95, The Whisky Exchange
Another hard-to-categorise one here with Three Spirit, which is again made from a blend of botanicals but this time without the berries of Nine Elms’. Instead, there’s a prominent savoury note and an expressed bitterness making it a brilliant aperitif. With ingredients like lion’s mane mushroom, yerba mate, black carrot concentrate and coconut vinegar, this isn’t your run of the mill pre-drink and could prove divisive but we welcome the choice. The brand suggests to try with ginger ale and a slice of orange, but there are also espresso-martini-like serves if you want to get experimental.
The verdict: Low and zero alcohol free drinks
Non-drinkers are spoiled these days, we’re happy to report. Just like their alcohol-consuming counterparts, the success of all of these will come down to peoples’ individual tastes and preferences, but out favourite is the Lucky Saint for a great booze-free choice, and we surprised ourselves with how much we enjoyed Lowlanders yuzu and grapefruit with our Friday night curry.
We also highly recommend the Sassy poire cider if you can permit yourself the 2.5%; it’s the best example of a cider we’ve tried. Gin lovers deprived of their tipple at gin o’clock should enjoy Stryyk’s Not Gin thanks to the heavy juniper and botanical profile and a splash of bitters should help things along too.