The End of the Hangover: The Rise of Low-ABV and Non-Alcoholic Drinks

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Not drinking has very much become A Thing. In fact, so many people are cutting back or making the decision to abstain that it’s forcing the drinks industry to find new ways to seduce these wannabe teetotallers into not giving up booze completely. You could say that low-ABV and non-alcoholic products are the latest trends in the spirits world – how’s that for irony? But just what are they, and why would you indulge?

ABV (alcohol by volume) measures how much alcohol is contained in a given volume of alcoholic beverage. Put simply, the higher ABV a drink has, the more potent it’s going to be. Traditional spirits normally pack quite the punch. Whiskies are usually around 45% but can go as high as 68%; gin ranges between about 38% and 50%; while vodka can be as much as 90% ABV. Translation: not only will you be pretty merry after a few drinks, but you’ll probably have quite a hangover the next morning, too.

In recent years, though, consumers – especially millennials – have been drinking less than ever before, leaving alcohol brands trying to figure out how to woo back these buzz killers. The answer? Low-ABV and non-alcoholic drinks.

low abv

These are nothing new. Low-ABV drinks have been around for centuries – just think of sherry (about 15% ABV) and vermouth (between 16% and 18%), and wine-based drinks like sangria (6-11.5%) – but they’re now going even lower. Non-alcoholic spirits, however, are a newer phenomenon. The distinction between the two is simple: low-ABVs still contain small amounts of alcohol, while non-alcoholic spirits are completely dry. While both styles cater to consumers looking to cut back on their drinking, non-alcoholic products allow full-on teetotallers to indulge in sophisticated cocktails that aren’t the usual sickly-sweet, juice-driven mocktails.

With demand for low-ABVs and non-alcoholic spirits at an all-time high, they’re finding favour with traditional alcohol conglomerates like Diageo and Pernod Ricard, and top bars and restaurants around the world. Even bartenders are taking the opportunity to turn their skills to creating cocktails that are booze-free while still showcasing elegance and complexity.

The Case for Booze Without Punch

But why has low-ABV drinking taken hold at this point in time? As already mentioned, there’s been a large-scale societal shift towards drinking less. Mixologist Marko Petrovic of Felix at The Peninsula Hong Kong believes a growing awareness and focus on health is a big reason for this.

“The drinks industry is currently focusing on a health and wellness-driven drinking culture, and that’s definitely one of the reasons why low-ABV products and cocktails have been one of the leading trends in the last two years. Low-ABV spirits and cocktails offer a wider range of options for guests who wish to enjoy their drinks in a health-conscious way.”

Seeing the potential in this market, Pernod Ricard brought Ceder’s Gin under its umbrella. The “alt-gin” combines exotic South African botanicals like Rooibos and Buchu, and combines it with pure Swedish water; the three products from Ceder’s line all contain juniper – a legal requirement for the gin appellation – but they’re all non-alcoholic.

Craig Hutchison, one half of the husband-wife duo that created Ceder’s, believes people that choose not to drink alcohol still deserve a chance to enjoy a good drink.

“Non-alcohol drinkers, as well as adults looking to reduce their alcohol intake, still enjoy adult, social, convivial occasions and deserve refined, sophisticated, intriguing drink experiences. Until the last few years, these adults were only offered children’s drinks and few options. Thankfully this is changing rapidly as we are seeing excellent quality, non-alcoholic adult brands entering the market.”

For bartenders, low-ABV products offer the chance to get creative with booze-light drinks. Daniel Eun, owner of Hong Kong-based speakeasy The Wilshire, says, “[Low-ABVs] allow us the freedom to be creative in flavour choices and has brought a lot of notes that were difficult to come by without using booze to create drinks.”

Seedlip

Suraj Gurung, head bartender of Maximal Concepts’ hidden whiskey bar, Stockton, agrees. “Low-ABV spirits give us an opportunity to try more flavours and new drinks with different textures…while using normal spirits, we focus on the core or base of the spirit while trying to bring out its flavour profile. With low-ABV it’s the opposite – it gives us a new format to think about flavours and how to balance them.”

So What’s Different?

You mean apart from the fact that these drinks don’t pack a punch and won’t leave you with a hangover? While low-ABV and non-alcoholic products are produced in a similar fashion to their boozier counterparts, the production process requires a little more finesse.

“Non-alcoholic spirits require much more craft compared to conventional alcoholic equivalents,” says Hutchison. “Each area of the production and manufacturing process, from agriculture to distillation and extraction, to blending and filling, is more complex, more challenging, more time-consuming and more expensive.”

Lyre

For Mark Livings, CEO of Australia-based Lyre’s, the path to creating a range of non-alcoholic spirits was not an easy one. It took three years, several trips around the world and several trial-and-error recipes to create Lyre’s range of 13 non-alcoholic products which mimic popular spirits like gin, whisky and vermouth.

“It actually took me around the world more than once to work with one of the world’s leading beverage technology companies and draw from the world’s largest library of natural ingredients to make our beverages,” says Livings. “We had no guarantees that we could get them right, either, and I wasn’t prepared to launch something sub-standard, so it could have been a gigantic waste of time and cash, but we managed to crack it.”

Pricing is also an interesting consideration, especially with non-alcoholic products. Australian retailer Dan Murphy’s offers all Lyre’s products at AU$44.99 (US$30.50); for comparison, an Australian-produced (alcoholic) gin could be priced between AU$29 (US$19.65) for a low-end expression and AU$150 (US$102) for a Navy-strength gin by Noosa Heads; while a De Bortoli vermouth retails at US$10.70.

Get in on the Trend

So you’re ready to cut back on boozing and get on board with low-ABVs and non-alcoholic drinks? No problem – you’ll still be able to drink great spirits and sophisticated cocktails.

Aperol

Of course, Lyre’s and its 13 non-alcoholic spirits is a great place to start. Their gins, vermouths, liqueurs and other products can be mixed up into booze-free versions of classic cocktails like negronis, old-fashioneds and martinis.

For gin lovers, Ceder’s three products are a good base for non-alcoholic gin and tonics and traditional gin-based cocktails like gimlets.

Another popular choice is Seedlip, a distilled non-alcoholic spirit that has been popping up on bar shelves all over the world. Since its launch in 2015, Seedlip has found a space at iconic spots like The Savoy’s American Bar and New York’s Eleven Madison Park. You know a spirit’s taken hold when Diageo demands a piece of the action, and the alcohol behemoth now owns a stake in Seedlip.

Eun says Seedlip’s advantage lies in bring ahead of the curve and providing unique products. “I’ve always been a big fan of Seedlip. They’ve been at the forefront of pushing the movement and while they’re easy to substitute into a standard or classic cocktail, they also offer unique combinations of botanicals to create a new experience altogether.”

whyte and mackay

Players in the low-ABV market include Whyte & Mackay Light, a Glaswegian whisky-like spirit bottled at 21.5%; Trinity25 by Spirit of Bermondsey, a botanical spirit at 25% ABV; and “session” ciders like France’s Eric Bordelet Cidre Tendre.

Of course, you can always rely on low-ABV products which have been around for a while – think Campari and Aperol, which can be combined into mixed drinks to create low ABV concoctions. If all else fails, try light cocktails like white wine spritzes, bellinis, or the much manlier Americano (vermouth, Campari and club soda).

So there you have it. Just because you’re “not drinking” doesn’t mean you have to miss out on all the fun.

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About Author

Always ready for her next adventure, Gayatri Bhaumik took her first flight at 10 days old and hasn’t looked back since. After long stints in Bangkok, Melbourne and London, she now based in Hong Kong.

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