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It’s hard to keep up with the headlines about alcohol. There was a study in the Lancet in August 2018 that came to the conclusion that there's no safe limit and yet many studies have shown that moderate amounts of alcohol help prevent heart disease. What is certain is that as a country we are drinking less. Rather belatedly, the drinks industry seems to have noticed that there is a large market for adult soft drinks. A few years ago a non-alcoholic drink festival would have been the punchline to a joke, but October’s Glasgow Mindful Drinking Festival shows just how quickly the category has grown. So we thought this would be the perfect time to have a closer look at what is on offer in the way of zero or low-alcohol beers, wines and aperitifs.
First the good news: low and non-alcoholic beers have improved dramatically, and though not identical to their full strength cousins, many are delicious drinks in their own right. With wine, however, things don’t look so rosy. Very few passed the ‘second glass’ test. The final category was a mixed bag with some excellent (if sweet) adult soft drinks as well as the new non-alcoholic distilled drink category, which I am not convinced by.
Before we get stuck in, don’t forget there are a few tried and tested homemade non-alcoholic classics such as lime and soda made with a mixture of fresh lime and Rose’s lime cordial, or just tonic water with splash of bitters (yes, it contains alcohol but you only need a drop) and a slice of lemon.
Best non-alcoholic beers
Some of these really impressed me and are likely to become regulars in our house. Low-alcohol beers can be made in two ways: some are brewed using special yeasts and low sugar malt to produce very little alcohol; whereas others have the alcohol removed. Alcohol doesn’t just affect you physically, it also provides functions as a vehicle for flavour and provides texture. To compensate for the lack of mouthfeel brewers can add sweetness – some of the big brand 0% lagers tasted of popcorn – or turn up the hops. The latter can work to an extent, but bitter hops without the warmth of alcohol can quickly get too much.
This was a real surprise – fresh and clean with no sweetness or strange flavours, and tastes very much like the alcoholic version. It contains about 1 gram of sugar per 100ml, which is less than some full-strength lagers. It's the best of the big brands and I’d buy again.
Gadds’ No 11 (1.2%)
I'm cheating a bit here as No 11 contains 1.2% alcohol, but it has to be my favourite beer in the test. Brewed by Ramsgate Brewery, this is a pale ale with lots of zingy citrus hops flavour, but not too much. Thanks to that tiny amount of alcohol, you do have some body.
Southwold Pale Ale (0.5%)
A bit light thanks to the lack of alcohol, but this has a great malt character on the nose – something like digestive biscuits – then hoppy and fruity on the palate. It’s made by Adnams Southwold in Suffolk, and though not a patch on their proper beers, it’s not half bad.
Erdinger Alcohol Free 0.5%
This has that characteristic banana smell that you get in a wheat beer. It’s certainly sweet but carries the sugar really well, especially if drunk with ice and a slice of lemon. Erdinger is widely available, so it’s a good friend if you’re driving to the pub.
Big Drop Stout 0.5%
Lots of stout character on the nose with notes of malt, dark chocolate and coffee, and nice and bitter on the palate with just enough sweetness to balance. This brewery is a master of low-alcohol beer, and their pale ale is also very good (for a low-alcohol beer).
Best non-alcoholic wines
A word of warning: these wines are sweet, much sweeter than conventional wines. A normal off-dry white will have around 4-7 grams of residual sugar per litre, and many of these have the same amount per 100ml – not good if you’re trying to lose weight. They're too sweet to cook with, too. Low or alcohol-free wines are made by creating a normal wine, removing the alcohol by using a spinning cone and then sweetening the resulting liquid with sugar or grape juice to give it some body. Many have a small amount of added flavouring in them, too. This was definitely the least satisfying category. The two that worked best were the prosecco and German riesling, perhaps because both are based on originals that are a) Sweet and b) Low alcohol. All prices are for 750ml bottles.
Rawson’s Retreat Cabernet
This is made by Australian wine giant Penfold’s. It has a dark spicy nose, and on the palate really tastes like wine, there’s some acidity, body and it’s not too sweet. Fades very fast though and then, poof, it’s gone. Less than 0.5% alcohol.
Leitz Eins Zwei Zero Riesling
Smells a bit funny initially with some earthy notes on the nose, but on the palate it really tastes like a German riesling with peachy fruit and that characteristic blend of sweetness and acidity. This actually made me want another glass.
Torres Natureo Muscat
Along with Rawson’s, the Natureo range from Torres, one of Spain’s biggest producers, are probably the best widely available low-alcohol wines. This muscat is unashamedly sweet with notes of honey and flowers. It tasted best in a spritzer with ice and sparkling water.
Torres Natureo Rosé
This rosé from Torres is also pretty good. Again, there's no doubt that it's sweet (4.7g per 100ml) but the sweetness suits it and the finish isn't at all cloying. If you like Mateus rosé (for those under 40, ask your parents), you’ll enjoy this.
Another very sweet one at 7g per 100ml but then again, most proseccos are sweet too and the taste isn’t confected. Give this to people ice cold and I’m not sure anyone would guess that it isn’t supermarket own-label prosecco. Great price, too.
Best non-alcoholic aperitifs
A whole new drinks category was created with the launch of Seedlip in 2015: non-alcoholic botanical drinks aimed at the gin drinker with packaging and pricing to match. These drinks cost the same as a premium gin but there’s no duty to pay. Apart from the outrageous prices, the other problem is, just as with beer, about transmission of flavour.
Without alcohol, too much botanical character will be aggressive but too little will be bland. I tried them all mixed with standard Fever Tree tonic water, ice and lemon, and two were completely overwhelmed by the tonic whereas one smelt like a granny’s boudoir. The ready-mixed adult fizzy drinks category is, for me, much more interesting. They do, however, tend to contain a lot of sugar and many are pretty pricey.
This was the best of the botanical drinks I tried. The botanicals, most noticeably cinnamon and orange, were strong and complex but not overpowering. When mixed with tonic water it made a harmonious and delicious drink. However, it's pricey.
Jeffrey’s Yarrow, Rosehip and Elderflower tonic
This stuff is brilliant. It’s a syrup to make your own tonic, and you just add sparkling water. For me, it works brilliantly without gin. You can play around with lime juice, bitters and dilution to make a sort of cocktail. It comes in lots of different flavours, all distinctive and delicious.
Thomas & Evans Sparkling Botanical Beverage
This functions a lot like a gin and tonic without tasting very much of gin or indeed tonic. It has strong distinctive grown-up flavours and doesn’t taste too sweet. A model for how to make an interesting soft drink aimed at adults.
Shrb, lime and juniper
A shrub is a traditional drink that was popular in Victorian Britain and America, made by mixing fruit, spices etc with vinegar. This company has lots of flavours, but this is the one that will appeal to G&T drinkers. I drank it with ice and lemon, and loved the sweet and sour flavours.
A great Aperol substitute. The flavour is halfway between child and adult tastes. Personally I would have preferred if it had a bit more bitter bite, but mixed with orange and grapefruit juice with lots of ice, it’s hard to resist.
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This review was last updated in November 2018. If you have any questions, suggestions for future reviews or spot anything that has changed in price or availability please get in touch at email@example.com.
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