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SB Voices: Non-alcoholic ‘spirits’ need transparency

As the popularity of low- and no-alcohol drinks starts to show longevity, it’s time for those so-called non-alcoholic ‘spirits’ to be more open about their products.

Seedlip Nogroni
The Seedlip Negroni – bartenders are embracing the non-alcoholic ‘spirit’ movement, just like consumers

We’re in the midst of a behavioural shift towards alcohol, spearheaded by generation Z and millennials, so we’re told. As monthly campaigns such as Dry January and Go Sober for October gain traction, the low- and no-alcohol trend has also been taking hold.

Earlier this week, a new study published in the medical journal BMC Public Health showed a clear decline in alcohol consumption among the under-25 demographic, with 29% of 16- to 24-year-olds choosing to abstain from alcohol in 2015 – up from 18% in 2005.

But it’s not just young people opting to take a healthier approach to alcohol – the study revealed “almost all sub-groups” were demonstrating a greater number of non-drinkers, suggesting non-drinking is becoming “more mainstream”. And as time passes, it’s becoming more apparent that a lower alcohol intake is a long-term lifestyle choice, rather than a passing trend.

As an industry that has been pedalling a mantra of ‘drink less, but better’ for years, to finally see this message catching on has got to be a welcome achievement for all. We are all aware of the harmful effects that can arise from alcohol, but also how enjoyable, social and delicious it can be when enjoyed in a responsible manner.

The rise of abstention and low-alcohol interest has also created an offshoot “spirits” category – that of the non-alcoholic distilled “spirit”. Seedlip was the first brand to really captivate an audience with its inaugural product Seedlip Spice 94, followed by additional expressions Garden 108 and Grove 42. The aim of the brand was to offer a “sophisticated alternative” to alcoholic drinks.

Since Seedlip’s launch, others have ventured into the non-alcoholic distilled spirits sector, including most recently Ceder’s, which gained distribution in the UK through Pernod Ricard earlier this year, and Stryyk, launched by the founder of Funkin cocktail mixers this summer.

Each brand has disclosed details about botanicals and distillates used, whether they be orange peel, juniper, rosemary, cloves, cucumber or camomile – all flavours commonly seen across alcoholic spirit brands. Though as of yet, the nitty-gritty details about how non-alcoholic ‘spirits’ are made have been kept under wraps. “The botanicals are distilled,” we’re told – but distilled how, with what? Water? Neutral grain spirit (NGS)? Something else?

A spirit is alcoholic, so to attach this word onto the end of a zero-proof product could be misleading, particularly if no further details about how the liquid is manufactured are disclosed – and even more so if no alcohol was ever present to begin with in the production process.

I recently spoke to brands including Seedlip and Ceder’s, which do use NGS at the start of production to macerate their botanicals, which are then distilled individually to remove the alcohol, leaving behind a non-alcoholic distillate.

But for those brands that put water and botanicals into a still – which is essentially a kettle in simplistic terms as I’ve been told on many a distillery visit – are consumers being duped into buying a very expensive flavoured water that’s simply been heated up in fancy apparatus, condensed, bottled and then sold under the guise of a ‘distilled spirit’?

The cynic in me does wonder. And if this non-alcoholic, low-abv trend is really here to stay, consumers deserve the same level of transparency as they would with any other ‘spirit’.

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