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The rise of low- and no-alcohol serves

Low- and no-alcohol drinks are not just for Dry January; consumers are looking for healthy alternatives all year round. SB finds out what bars are doing to cater for this growing need.

Duck & Waffle’s low-alcohol Cucumber cocktail

*This feature was originally published in the February issue of The Spirits Business

Those in the hospitality industry – restaurants, bars and pubs – are familiar with the January lull, when business is a little quieter after Christmas. However, the trade faces an even more substantial struggle with the increased popularity of Dry January, whereby imbibers ditch the booze for the entire month. The practice gained popularity after British charity Alcohol Concern promoted it in 2013, and it became a government­backed public health campaign the next year, aimed at improving health.

According to a YouGov poll, this year at least 3.1 million Brits attempted to abstain from drinking alcohol for Dry January. No surprise, then, that many bars are adapting to the trend, adding carefully curated non-alcoholic and low-­abv libations to their lists. “We all tend to take it slightly easier and healthier after indulging over the holidays, so it’s a great chance for us to recharge after a busy season,” says Walter Pintus, bar manager at Serge Bar at Serge et le Phoque in London.

NEW BEGINNINGS

Ryan Chetiyawardana (aka Mr Lyan), founder of bars Dandelyan and Super Lyan, is also positive about the movement. “The new year marks a point of new beginnings so it’s always great to do something positive to kick things off, and often this follows the excesses of the holiday period, so a ‘cooling off’ period always seems attractive. But it also spells a ‘vice’ side to the idea of alcohol, which it should never be to people,” he says.

The trend for low-­ and no­-alcohol shows no sign of going away come February. London cocktail bar Nine Lives started running weekly booze-­free parties, partnering with non-alcoholic spirit Seedlip on its Soda Sessions, which run every Tuesday throughout the year. “[Dry January] has made us address the non­alcoholic offering within the venue,” explains Tom Soden, co-­founder of Southwark’s Nine Lives and Clerkenwell’s The Gunmakers. “In the case of Nine Lives, we’ve introduced Soda Sessions, showcasing a range of non-­alcoholic cocktails, many with additional health benefits such as probiotic-fermented drinks such as kombucha and water kefir. We want to show people you can have fun without the booze.”

Ryan Chetiyawardana
Ryan Chetiyawardana created Superfly in partnership with juice brand Firefly

Rich Woods, head of spirit and cocktail development at London’s Duck & Waffle, agrees. “Dry January is not the only time these styles of drinks are served. They should be a regular on any menu, as there are always occasions when someone may just fancy one.” Woods created a list of 10 such drinks, called Low & No, described as “deliciously diverse cocktails with no alcohol, but maximum taste”.

Far from being a step back from “proper drinking”, low­-alcohol cocktails offer a full spectrum of options that have been enjoyed since the cocktail’s earliest days. So how do bartenders go about creating alcohol­-free drinks with as much appeal as their boozy counterparts?

For Duck & Waffle’s Woods, flavour is key when it comes to these serves. “Flavour for the most part is carried better through alcohol, so more flavour where possible is added to a low­- or no­-alcohol drink. It actually takes more creativity, as there is more to consider. Flavour, for one thing, does not stand up as well; the tiny molecules of wonderful, bursting richness are carried better in alcohol, so you have to work harder to retain as great a flavour with no alcohol.”

Time and consideration is also apparent in Mr Lyan’s bars. “We try to make sure we cater to every guest – cocktail drinkers, but also people who drink beer, wine and non-alcoholic serves,” says Chetiyawardana. “They get the same care and attention as anything we include in the venues.”

ATTENTION TO DETAIL

Chetiyawardana spent nine months developing the Boozeless section at Dandelyan, as well as a Boozeless set menu at Cub, the drinks-­led sustainable restaurant above Super Lyan, which has “the same stories, balance and attention as the alcoholic”. He also spent eight months developing Superfly, a limited-­edition drink containing kola nut, cascara syrup and green coffee, created in collaboration with botanical juice brand Firefly.

This move away from sugar is key when it comes to attracting audiences into the no-alcohol market. Pintus says: “Nowadays, you have very knowledgeable customers who often ask for healthy sweeteners and alternative raw sugar, such as stevia, or organic honey. We’re happy to cater to these needs as much as we can.”

Soden agrees. “The key in my mind is the reduction of sugar content and the development of drier flavours with the use of tannins, for example. My personal favourite is water kefir. Akin to kombucha, it’s a fermented drink but when it ferments it converts the sugar into lactic acid rather than acetic acid, so you don’t get a vinegar flavour.”

Nine Lives’s Seedlip Garden

And just how educated are consumers when it comes to health and alcohol? JJ Goodman, founder of multi-­venue bar brand London Cocktail Club, says: “Consumer awareness of the effects of alcohol is undoubtedly increasing, with more and more people taking an interest in exactly what ingredients are going into their cocktails. Yes, there are questions from a handful of customers who are concerned about alcohol content, but consumers are more scared off by sugar levels than the abv.”

However, Nine Lives’s Soden believes that consumers aren’t particularly aware of the health implications of alcohol on a night out. “Consumers are far more health conscious within an off­-trade location than they are in the on-­trade. You can walk around a supermarket checking calorie and sugar content but you’d never do that in a bar with your tonic water. When you’re out with friends, you’re often letting your hair down so you don’t have such a clean intention.”

Bobby Hiddleston, managing director of London’s Swift, is optimistic. “Consumers are becoming more knowledgeable every year. They care where their spirits come from, and their health effects. There are still a couple of common misconceptions that exist, but I have complete confidence that, over time, the guest will become just as knowledgeable as the bartenders.”

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