Lockdown came at a pretty poignant moment for me: the government announcement was made just a few weeks after I decided to quit drinking alcohol, for the benefit of my mental health. People stop drinking for all kinds of reasons, of course, from pregnancy, to being on medication that doesn't mix well, to save money or to lose weight, the list goes on...
But for me, it was the intense, soul-shredding anxiety that accompanied every hangover that made it no longer worth it. Ditto making decisions I never would sober – some of which left me shaken up when the booze wore off – and the memory loss after night outs (which in turn lead to more anxiety... as I tried to fill in the blanks with what I might have said or done, even if most of the time my friends said, "Nothing, you were fine!").
The fact I could never quite pinpoint which drink had tipped me into memory loss territory either (was it the third tequila, or the fourth?) became cause for concern too. It was that feeling of not being in total control of myself, the cloying regret that I might have majorly overshared, or offended someone, without even being able to remember it the next day, that left me picking at my skin.
So, for me, lockdown has been devoid of quarantinis come Friday night and white wines during Zoom quizzes with friends. My first novel was published in April and I celebrated with... a Diet Coke. That's not to say though, that whenever my boyfriend sits out on the balcony with a gin and tonic, a part of me doesn't want to snatch it out of his hand and down the entire thing. But for now, the other voice that chimes in saying "You know it's not worth it!" is still the loudest.
I've used the last couple of months to get to grips with all the best non-alcoholic alternatives on the market, to help beat those "give-me-that-wine-right-now" cravings. I'm not sure if I'll go back to drinking in future, maybe I will – and if I do, this period of abstinence has still served as a great opportunity to claw back some of the lost control over it.
Undoubtedly, the real test will be when house parties resume or when I'm stood in the centre of a dance floor in a club that smells faintly of Red Bull, sweat and foot (an odour I never thought I'd find myself pining for but yeah, here we are, three months later). Naturally, I'm worried the invites will dry up or that people will write me off as boring, but if not drinking means my brain stays calmer, then so be it.
When our old lives do fully return, these are the bottles I plan to take with me when wanting to go incognito (which I think I'll probably do in order to swerve any awkward questions at pre-drinks/avoid those who seem to view other people's sobriety as a personal challenge and who insist on trying to make you down a double vodka):
The best alcohol-free wines
Eisberg Cabernet Sauvignon Red Wine (0%)
When it comes to non-alcoholic wines, I've found that reds are generally superior to whites or rosés (which are often a little too on the sweet side) – and Eisberg, a widely available, alcohol-free brand, more than know how to create a palatable one. Bonus: a large glass (250ml) of this cabernet sauvignon is only 56 calories. I also highly recommend Eisberg's new merlot and sauvignon blanc too.
Opia Alcohol Free Chardonnay (0%)
This one is a great shout for anybody who isn't a big fan of the taste of wine (shocking I know, but I actually do have a few non-sober friends who've just never vibed with a "large house white"). Whilst it looks the part, this Opia option from Vintage Roots is more like drinking a really fresh and tangy peach juice. It's extra delicious when chilled.
The best non-alcoholic gins
Bax Botanics Sea Buckthorn
There's a reason why this offering won a Great Taste Award – it truly does have a sublime flavour, as well as sleek packaging. Reminiscent of a gin, this fragrant spirit has notes of Mediterranean herbs (to me it smells of freshly picked rosemary) and berries. Another reason I love Bax Botanics is that it's a small, sustainably run business with a real passion for delivering high quality drinks at no detriment to the planet. Their other offering, Verbana, is also well worth checking out if something citrussy is more your bag.
CEDER's Pink Rose
A great alternative to a pink gin, Ceder's Pink Rose (available from Sainsbury's) smells just like an actual G&T when mixed with tonic and doesn't taste dissimilar to one either – just a tad weaker and minus the buzz of alcohol.
A citrussy alcohol-free 'gin', perfect when teamed with tonic and a slice of fruit. Pentire use plants found along the Cornwall coastline for this product, including rock samphire, sage and Cornish sea salt – plus a few 'secret ingredients'.
Salcombe Distilling Co.
New London Light by Salcombe Distilling Co. promises to be bold and refreshing, inspired by the same process that makes gin. They promise an "exceptional non-alcoholic spirit that doesn’t compromise on taste."
The best alcohol-free Prosecco
Nosecco (less than 0.5%)
For £3.50, you can't really beat this as a non-alcoholic sparkling wine option, especially if you're ducking into a supermarket en route to pre-drinks. It's sweet, Champagne-y and appley, plus the colour is close to the regular option too (unlike the Martini Dolce 0% that I tried, which is basically just fizzy apple juice in a fancier bottle – I'd say to avoid this one, unless of course that's what you're after). Best served cold.
The packaging is discrete, so you won't have to worry about sticking out like a sore thumb at a party (not that you should care anyway... but I know that I personally want my sobriety to blend into the background). Tastes fresh, bubbly and the rosé variety is decent too. Goes down far too easily.
The best alcohol-free Aperol Spritz
Lyre's Italian Spritz
The holy grail. Bet you never thought you'd see the day, right? Mix a splash of this with some non-alcoholic Prosecco and it's a) deliciously moreish and b) just like its boozy counterpart (only a tad sweeter and minus The Fear the next morning). Go, go, go!
The best alcohol-free beers
Lucky Saint (0.5%)
A dead ringer for real deal, this very low alcohol beer is a multi award-winning choice. I've never been much of a beer drinker but this was so great that my boyfriend even chose Lucky Saint over a regular lager on a couple of occasions. A solid ten.
Brooklyn Special Effects Low Alcohol (0.4%)
Hoppy, zesty and refreshing (again, that's coming from someone who drank relatively little beer before quitting alcohol). Apparently named Special Effects as it's so akin to a typical amber lager that the drinker will have to double-check the label.
The best alcohol-free ciders
Stowford Press (0.5%)
Like a lot of alcohol-free options, Stowford's offering is a little on the sweet side (despite containing no artificial sweeteners), but it's still a solid alternative for anybody wanting to keep a clear head.
Kopparberg Alcohol Free Pear Cider (0%)
Reminiscent of it's alcoholic sibling, this will beat any fruity cider cravings you may have in an instant. An excellent choice for picnicking and socially distanced park meet-ups, this one gets a big tick from me.
The best non-specific alcohol-free spirits
Three Sprit Drinks
The USP of this brand is that their spirits aren't only meant to fill the gap that quitting alcohol leaves, but to bring back some of the more welcome sensations too. The Livener drink is perfect for the start of the night (it contains energising guayusa, guava leaf and schisandra), whereas Nightcap includes ingredients that are deliberately designed to relax (plus it smells just like hot cross buns).
This bittersweet spirit isn't really comparable to any traditional liquors – to me, it tastes of cloudy lemonade with an 'adult' edge, or boiled sweets mixed with something-punchy-I-can't-quite-work-out. Extremely quaffable.
This Scottish-made spirit is possibly most akin to a whisky, because it's designed to be drunk on the rocks and feels ultra grown-up, smells a bit medicinal (in a good way) and feels a bit Mad Men-ish. One to pour after a long day of work, or when you're stressed and feel like brooding, minus the hangover.
Maria & Craig's
While Maria & Craig’s distilled botanical spirit doesn't contain any alcohol, it does have CBD in it - and promises an aromatic nose of juniper and fresh sage with hints of orange blossom. Perfect for when you need a little something at the end of a stressful day.
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