Do low-alcohol drinks pass the taste test?

Priscilla Pollara is off the booze and on the hunt for decent low- and non-alcoholic beverages

The worst part isn’t when you’re handed a glass of water while you watch other party-goers sipping honey-hued champagne from coupettes. It isn’t either that most hosts disappointingly offer an array of their refrigerator dregs, ‘I have some orange juice the kids haven’t finished and some elderflower…. Actually it looks a bit more like ginger beer?’ No, it’s not that at all. When you’re not drinking, you just don’t want to drink anything at all.

There can be no denying that booze oils the wheels in social situations – especially when everyone else is imbibing freely and your jokes begin to fall flat. At some point, we have all been victims of ill-devised seating plans, where only the house white saves an otherwise one-way street of faltering small talk. 

And here begins my problem. Now expecting another little bairn, I’m back on the water.

I long gave up on the idea a host might know what made up a Shirley Temple, let alone actually shook one up (lemonade, a splash of grenadine and a maraschino cherry for garnish, if you’re asking), and while it is nice to imagine I might develop a sudden appreciation for juicing, I hold my hands up and admit that I can do little else but envy others when I am forced to be on that lonely wagon.

I am being somewhat unfair to the aisles of non-alcoholic drinks, because it doesn’t just have to be water after all. Enter Seedlip, the brainchild of teetotaller Ben Branson, who started his drinks business in his garden and now sees it sold in Selfridges. Blink and you mistake this smart looking thing for an expensive bottle of gin. And a booze-less gin is what it is best compared to: Branson began Seedlip, which he says solves the problem of what to drink when you’re not drinking, by distilling herbs from his rural idyll (in an eBay-bought copper still, no less), and experimented with a mixture of botanical flavours until he found the winning colourless formulae. Seedlip Spice 94 – that has a peppery, cardamom intensity to it – and Seedlip Garden 108 – a refreshingly fruity lighter pea and spearmint number, are the world’s first non-alcoholic distilled spirits. They taste herby, wholesome with a distinct hint of freshly cut grass in the country. It doesn’t disappoint at all, especially when mixed with tonic or straight up, on the rocks. (No fear of a headache there).

Drinks giant Diageo recently announced a stake in Seedlip, sending its profile stratospheric. Its rise has already taken shape: it is stocked in some of London’s smartest bars, and is now making its presence felt in delicious cocktails, such as the Seedlip Raspberry Martini. Seedlip aren’t alone. Britvic has its own version of 0% sophistication in the form of Thomas & Evans No1, a handsome meeting of lime, apple and grape juices mixed with a range of botanicals. It is a sweet number, but not as much as Luscombe’s booze-free tipple, their Damascene Rose Bubbly, where rose and orange blossom water are its star ingredients. Fentimans – they of ginger beer fame – offer some other choices. Opt for juniper berry-filled Sparkling Lime & jasmine for another nearly-gin experience, or the ever so slightly spicy, cola-coloured Dandelion & Burdock.

But the problem the Luscombe and Fentimans drinks unearth, for me at least, is that they seem to be upmarket versions of carbonated soft drinks we have all had for years. Also, at £3.95 for 330ml, Thomas & Evans No1 is pricey. Seedlip is no better, on Ocado it retails for £22.99 for 70cl. Perhaps beer is the answer.

When Beck’s Blue touches the palate, there is disappointment, especially on a hot day when you crave an ice cold one like those devoured in adverts by half naked people. It very generally sates the longing for beer, but something is missing, like when turkey is served without its gravy. If Seedlip is exciting, this is dull. Sold in almost every supermarket, however, this is a good standby when you need a quick hit. Do not try Foster’s Radler Zero – this cheap tasting fizzy pop is a total waste of time and money.

Another non-boozy beer gaining popularity (non-alcoholic beers by law, have 0.5% of the stuff in it), is Nanny State. Scottish craft beer company BrewDog has produced something which resembles beer in colour and appears like fancy ale given its classic brown shaped bottle. It looks cool, but its genius lies in that it does not stir up recollections of conventional beer, or taste like a twist on the original, because Nanny State has its own unique hoppy, citrus-based flavour and pleasing smoky bacon aftertaste. It is fairly priced at £1.40 a bottle, too.

When you’re not drinking because you’re the designated driver, child carer, or worse, looking after your lightweight spouse, social occasions flow less fluidly than you would like. With a growing trend in sophisticated non-alcoholic drinks trying hard to get us revelling in being smugly hangover free, there will soon be an increasing array of booze-less options in the fanciest bars up and down the land. But what to do in those dry moments at parties? Unless you take a six pack of your own tipple, it may be best sticking to water. For now.


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