Sobriety is on the march. Ask anyone who works in the wine, beer or spirits industry and they’ll tell you — no- or low-alcoholic beverages are the future. It’s the growing market, they all say, without slurring their words. The facts suggest they are right.
The British spent an estimated £34 million on non-alcoholic beer last year, for instance, up 17 per cent on 2016. Diageo, the huge booze conglomerate, has invested in Seedlip, the English non-alcoholic botanical spirit, and has also brought out a non-alcoholic Guinness.
Millennials are behind the trend. They don’t drink. Narcissism is their drug: instead of hangovers and alcohol-induced anxiety they prefer posting Instagram pictures of themselves in the gym. They’re anxious enough already, poor lambs. And more broadly, as a society, thanks in no small part to Public Health England and its increasingly fascist guidelines, we seem to be moving towards a culture not
just of moderation, or what NHS leaflets used to call ‘responsible drinking’, but widespread teetotalism.
I imagine most good Spectator readers will, like me, not welcome this news. We appreciate transient pleasures such as wine and cheer and are rightly suspicious of anyone who wants to take them away. But let’s try to keep a fair mind. Alcohol is bad stuff, and the British have drunk too much for too long. Generation Xers like me binge-drank our way through the 1990s and 00s and can’t really remember if it was fun. If fewer people are annihilating their livers and brains then good, perhaps.
You do wonder, though, what is the point of fake alcoholic drinks. Why simulate? There are lots of drink alternatives that already don’t contain booze — elderflower cordial, for instance, any soft drink, or water. Are people so vulnerable to social pressure to get sloshed that they must pretend to be drinking alcohol when they aren’t? And if so, shouldn’t they change their friends rather than their drinks?
Alcohol-industry people claim their new non-alcoholic drinks offer variety and taste. People become bored with soft drinks, apparently, and now refined brewing techniques mean companies can make alcohol-free beer that is as good as the real thing. Well, that last bit is a lie. Alcohol-free beer and wine are revolting. The truth is people don’t like real booze when they first try it. We learn to enjoy it because it is a drug. To drinkers, the deliciousness of alcohol stems not from taste so much as the fact that, on the subliminal level, we know we are depressing our nervous systems and briefly making ourselves feel better about the world. Drinking isn’t happiness, but it can make us happy. That’s why killjoys down the ages have demonised it.
For this article, I tried a number of non-alcoholic drinks and I found them all undrinkable. The beers, which I drank first, were the least bad, but still horrid. Brewdog’s Nanny State (credit where due for the name) is said to be the best low-alcohol lager, but it offended my tastebuds. It offers that hoppy flavour that craft lager enthusiasts all bore on about, only to rip it away when the burn of the alcohol doesn’t kick. Your palate is left only with a metallic staleness. Heineken’s 0.0 was less vile, but bland and lifeless. It just tastes of chemicals.
Next, the wine, the most hideous of all. The so-called Cabernet Tempranillo was sickly — grape juice, essentially, only I normally like grape juice. This stuff was rank.
Did you ever make the mistake of drinking leftover dregs of cheap wine the morning after a party? If you did, you’ll be roughly familiar with the taste of Tesco’s low-alcohol Cab Sauvignon. The rosé was no better, sweet as hell and, without any alcoholic redemption, sickly.
I moved on to low-alcohol Tesco gin and tonics, a diet one and a full fat one, both of which actually made me retch. Who really buys this stuff? The answer, surely, is recovering alcoholics who miss the days when they used to throw up on themselves.
Lastly I drank Seedlip. The label has a slightly satanic green rabbit on it, but the bottle is an elegant shape. I found the taste grim. It was quite pleasing going through the ritual of fixing the drink, but one would be better off mixing cordial, tonic, and throwing in a slice of cucumber. At £27.95, it’s a rip-off — remember there is no alcohol duty, so the mark-up must be obscene, even if they use the finest ‘botanicals’ known to man.
Small wonder Diageo wants a slice of Seedlip’s action. The whole ‘booze-free’ drive may well be a sham to make booze-makers feel more virtuous while securing profits. In which case, yucks all around. Give me binges and memory loss any day, and make mine a double.