Alcohol-free spirits and aperitifs target a fast-growing market of people who want a mixed drink minus the booze. Read our review of the best bottles, including ready-mixed sodas.
The second wave of non-alcoholic drinks for grown-ups are here! Are you excited? The first wave was spearheaded by Seedlip, and consisted of liquid marketed and priced to ape gin. They proved very popular especially among bars looking to sell drinks to people who previously might have just plumped for fizzy water.
If gin was the inspiration for Seedlip et al, the next wave are more like vermouth or Campari. They're sweeter, fruitier and fuller-bodied, and balanced with strong bitter flavours. For my money, these new drinks are more distinctive and interesting than their predecessors, though some aren't ideal if you're trying to cut back on sugar.
Also quite sweet are the rash of fizzy drinks aimed at grown-ups. They use grown-up flavours like beer, tea and spicy ginger, albeit with less sugar than in more mainstream sodas (around 4g per 100ml compared with Coca-Cola at 11g). Some use pungent additives like kombucha and vinegar to give them a savoury bite.
I tried all the spirit and vermouth-style drinks with a range of mixers including orange juice, sparkling water, tonic and ginger ale, as well as the serve recommended by the manufacturer. I must say, I was surprised how good some were – there were drinks here that made 6pm on a booze-free day a genuine pleasure.
Spirit, vermouth and wine-style drinks:
Everleaf (from £18.75 for 500ml)
The creation of London bartender Paul Matthew, this is inspired by a Middle Eastern drink called Salep. Everleaf has a strong vanilla, cream soda character that quickly gives way to bitter herbal notes. A versatile mixer, it worked with tonic water, and a fruit juice and fizzy water combo.
Three Spirit (£24.99 for 500ml, Three Spirit)
Three Spirit is made with the help of a team of bar industry stalwarts. It contains active ingredients that are meant to mimic the positive effects of alcohol. I can't say I noticed any special feelings but it does have a distinctive taste that majors on malt and liquorice, and chimes well with ginger ale, adding bite and richness.
Aecorn Aromatic (£19.99 for 500ml, Aecorn Aperitifs)
This one is part of a range of three vermouth-style drinks produced by Seedlip. I tried them all and admired their pungent grown-up flavours, though you do need to be careful about mixing them as the bitterness levels are high. The Aromatic version worked beautifully with tonic water, creating a Campari-like taste, but fizzy water just made it taste unpleasantly bitter.
Senser Power (£25 for 500ml, Senser Spirits)
Joy, Love and Power are the three varieties that make up this range, which is so new you might have to wait a bit for your bottle to arrive. Power was my favourite. It gave tonic water a deep fiery taste with spice, bitter orange and vanilla. It also worked really well in a cocktail with orange and lemon juice, and fizzy water.
¾ Tonic Maison (£5.99 for 24cl, Waitrose)
From Canada, this is a bitter syrup (so it contains lots of sugar) which you use like Aperol or Campari to make a low-alcohol spritz, or a measure turns an orange juice and soda into an occasion. I can see this becoming a regular purchase, especially as it's less than half the price of some of its rivals.
Atopia, spiced citrus (from £24.45 for 700ml)
Because this does contain a little alcohol (0.5%), this is the odd one out – and there's a little sugar added, too. But Atopia is the best gin substitute I have tried. Adding it to tonic gives a distinct hit of juniper followed by floral notes, cinnamon and lemon. You could probably give this to your gin-loving friend and they would never suspect that there's almost no alcohol in here.
Feragaia (£28 for 500ml, Feragaia)
Here's a botanical drink from Scotland that has just been launched. Despite its lack of sugar, it manages to carry its distinctive flavours well with no unpleasant bitterness. There's a winey, vermouth-type quality with refreshing citrus notes and a fiery finish that is accentuated by the tonic water.
Nine Elms (£16.95 for 750ml)
This is aimed squarely at the restaurant trade for people to drink instead of wine. It's made from a mixture of fruit, herbs and spices. Neat, it's pleasant with raspberry notes and a little tannin. It's also a good mixer which I tried in in a few cocktails as well as in a simple spritzer with sparkling water and a slice of lemon.
Lo Bros, lime, lemon & bitters kombucha (£2.39 for 330ml)
Adding kombucha (fermented tea) is a great way to bring interesting flavours into soft drinks. Lo Bros is another brand I was very impressed by, especially the Lime, Lemon & Bitters with its sharp vinegary note. A lesson in how to do grown-up flavours in a soft drink.
Buy now from Happy Kombucha
Shrb, cinnamon apple (£14.99 for a case of 6 x 330ml bottles)
Shrb is a producer based in Walthamstow, London, who are reviving the ancient art of shrub-making. Shrub is a kind of non-alcoholic drink made with vinegar that was popular in 18th-century England. This version tastes like apple pie, and who doesn't like apple pie? You also get a tang from the vinegar.
Genie, live soda, lemon & ginger (£2.25 for 330ml, Farmdrop)
Genie make a range of sodas using live cultures (containing bacteria) and kombucha. This one has a nice freshness about it with lots of bite from the ginger. It tastes like it was made that morning in someone’s kitchen.
For those not cutting out alcohol altogether
I just wanted to mention one product that you should try if you're not trying to avoid alcohol altogether, called Hayman’s Small Gin (£26, Haymans). It’s a full strength gin (43% ABV) but so strongly flavoured with botanicals that you only need a thimbleful. The result when mixed with tonic is a G&T that tastes as good as the standard Hayman's gin but only 0.2 units – about a fifth of the alcohol of a standard one. Very clever stuff. It'll be interesting to see who copies it.
What's your take on non-alcoholic 'spirits'? We'd love to hear your recommendations. Leave a comment below...
This review was last updated in May 2020. If you have any questions, suggestions for future reviews or spot anything that has changed in price or availability, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.