Not so long ago, not drinking was considered borderline deviant behaviour unless it was January. Then came Sober October, turning the “party season” – two months of overindulgence – into the decadent filling in a wholesome sandwich of abstinence. Over the same period, drinking habits began to adapt, moving from cycles of boom and bust to a more measured form of mixing your drinks, seeding your evening with a few zero-alcohol choices. Last year there was strong demand for no- and low-alcohol options through what’s traditionally seen as the party season; people wanted to enjoy going out, but no longer saw alcohol as an essential part of the experience.
So, now what? How do we feel about not drinking as we embark on a month or more of lockdown, at a time when we are used to having drinks in gleaming bars and dinners with friends to light up the cold, dark evenings?
If we deployed emergency crisis management strategies at the start of round one, my soundings suggest that this time we are digging in with a longer-term view. That means we do want wine (and cocktails), but in moderation.
And that interest in no/low options continues. I had wondered if sales of such drinks might take a knock this year, when people who had only recently got into the habit of ordering them in pubs, bars and restaurants – or when socialising – took the cheaper option of reaching for the kettle, or simply turning on the tap, at home.
But the figures tell a different story. Sales within the no/low category have continued to rise, growing by 30 per cent year on year, according to Nielsen data, in part as a result of increased sales of existing brands and in part as a result of more brands entering the market. Alcohol-free and low-alcohol beers have been among the biggest winners, and deservedly so: they really work as drinks.
Carlsberg reported that sales of its alcohol-free brands increased by 29 per cent year on year in the three months to September, while Heineken said that its no-alcohol Heineken 0.0 achieved double-digit growth in the third quarter this year.
At Waitrose, says no-and-low buyer Alex Valentine, “We are seeing really strong growth in no-and-low ale (up 54 per cent over the past 52 weeks), helped by the launch of Doom Bar Zero earlier this year. The new Guinness 0.0, which launched last week, is already off to a flying start.”
One of my favourite low-alcohol beer producers is Big Drop Brewing Co, whose founder, Rob Fink, says: “In terms of a rise in sales, we’ve been growing at 15-20 per cent, quarter on quarter, consistently over the past couple of years and that has continued through lockdown and since.”
Big Drop has a strong restaurant presence and Fink puts its ability to succeed this year down to a rapid pivot back in March. “My business partner is very techy. Back in March, we could see what was coming and he built an e-commerce shop in 48 hours and that more than compensated for what we had lost through the on-trade.”
Fink also says that supermarket sales “for us remained fairly static” but that Big Drop did see a “significant uptick” through the online food delivery company Milk & More. What’s really interesting, though, is that drinkers are proving happy to trust the brand and buy “12 or 24 cans of new releases they’ve never tried before”.
Big Drop’s newest releases include its first single-hop style – the luminous, honeyed, citrusy, Fieldhopper Golden Ale (0.5%, £22 for 12 x 330ml bottles, bigdropbrew.com) – while its biggest seller is Pine Trail Pale Ale (at the time of writing, out of stock on Big Drop’s own website but available at £1.99 for a 330ml bottle at milkandmore.co.uk).
Stuart Elkington runs the Dry Drinker website, which specialises in – you’ve guessed it. He says, “I started originally as a beer company, so that’s still what we sell most of, but we’re seeing more and more interest in wines and spirits.”
A lot of frankly poor zero-alcohol “spirits” pass over my tasting table, but one I do enjoy is New London Light made by the Salcombe Distilling Company (whose gin I love). It is made with juniper, cardamom, ginger and sage, among other botanicals, and has a layered fragrance that works very well in this context. The sage is a particularly clever move – its sweet fragrance brings something unexpected. It’s available from Amazon, John Lewis, Master of Malt and salcombegin.com for around £27.50.
I also like Everleaf, a botanical infusion built to be drunk with tonic. It has just been relaunched in much better packaging. The original is now called Everleaf Forest and, as before, is flavoured with, among other botanicals, sweet orange blossom, gentian, saffron and vetiver. It’s excellent, though I can’t really get on board with the two new flavours, Everleaf Marine and Everleaf Mountain.
Wine, in my view, still struggles to do low/no with conviction. Thomson & Scott Noughty Alcohol-Free Organic Sparkling Wine (0%, Holland & Barrett, £11.99) does better than most, but a more luxurious choice would be to go for one of the truly delicious new wave soft drinks now available. Square Root Soda (squarerootsoda.com) is based in east London and makes a brilliant range of flavoured sodas (including some explicitly designed to sub in for your favourite cocktail). It offers free delivery on all orders over £20 and you can mix your own case: I recommend ordering a mixed box and hunkering down.
I’ve also fallen in love with Two Keys mixers, which come in four beautifully packaged flavours: black tea, green tea, lemon and pink grapefruit. They are really too good to mix. I particularly enjoyed the two tea flavours for the combination of effervescence and refreshing tannin. You can buy them over at twokeysldn.co.uk. Prices start at £6.95 for a four-pack of 200ml bottles (lemon or grapefruit) or £7.95 (the tea flavours).
Speaking of sparkling tea, I’ve written about them here before but Saicho’s sparkling cold-brewed teas are really good. Finally, now we’re all at home so much it’s a chance for the tea cupboard to get more interesting – but that’s a column for another day.
Wines of the week
Morrisons The Best Cahors Malbec 2018
France (13.5%, Morrisons, £8)
New into Morrisons’ range this autumn, this is a malbec from Cahors, in south-west France, where malbec has long been king. While the most traditional cahors can be too tough and tannic for drinking while they’re young, this one is made in a modern, fruity style, though it still has a touch of earthy savour.
M&S Classics No. 4 Pinot Grigio 2019
Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Italy (12.5%, M&S, £7)
Friuli-Venezia-Giulia is the region in the north-east corner of Italy that abuts the border with Slovenia. It’s a good place to look for crisp, clean Pinot Grigio like this one.
Rustenberg Grenache Blanc 2020
South Africa (13.5%, Waitrose 32 stores only, £9.99)
You don’t often see wines made from 100 per cent white grenache, and this one is particularly pleasing. Fresh and bright – it’s made from grapes picked this year – yet also textured and airy. There’s no oak here, just vestigial flavours of pear and orange blossom.