Pop goes the alco

RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT
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The Independent Culture
My14-year -old nephew Sam really couldn't stand the taste of alcohol, and his parents were getting worried. I solved the problem by dissolving sugar in one part vodka, adding six parts fizzy water and serving it ice-cold. Sam has started to think that alcohol isn't so bad after all.

The domestic crisis just described is imaginary. If it were real, and I'd patented the idea, I would have invented the alco-pop - sweet drinks with an alcohol content of around 5 per cent. And I would now be drinking Krug 85 (pounds 75.49 at Thresher) instead of lukewarm coffee.

Alco-pops are big business - pounds 50 million per annum. Studies by the Health Education Authority show that they rate third in popularity, among drinkers aged 13 to 16, after beer and cider. With new products being launched regularly, their market share seems to be set for further growth. Organisations like Drinkline Youth (0345 320 202) worry about their "invisible alcohol" content which is masked by their sweetness.

It's important not to demonise alco-pops. The motivations behind these revolting drinks are simple and straightforward - profit, and the need to boost flagging sales of spirits. And I've seen grown-ups ordering them in pubs. What's more, drinks of this kind have always been with us. Rum and Coke, vodka and Coke, Babycham - these are all alco-pops without the branding.

Nonetheless, it's plain that they are being aimed at - and consumed by - a predominantly younger audience. If this weren't the case, why would my local Sainsbury's hang a sign on the alco-pops shelves warn-ing that they're for over-18s only? They don't have that sign on wine, spirits, or beer. As a parent, I'm all in favour of teaching children how to drink responsibly. That means, first of all, drumming in the fact that alcohol is a drug. As far as the taste goes, I'm happy to expose them to real alcohol in the form of wine or beer. Give 'em a sip, watch 'em grimace. When they're old enough, they will learn to enjoy it. And if they don't, who (apart from the drinks industry) will be the poorer?

If you want your under-age drink-ers to take part in the social aspects of consumption, there are alternatives. Flavoured waters are one way to plug the alco-gap, and most (eg Oasis and Clearly Canadian) are inoffensive, if uninspiring. A cut above the rest is the quartet of Francere Spritzers, fruit-based fizz in champagne-shaped bottles. The flavours include peach and cran-berry, mandarin and passion fruit, lemon and elderflower and blush grape. The lemon and elderflower, less sweet than the others, is my favourite. But they're all pretty good and sell for pounds 1.69/750ml at outlets including Safeway, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Somerfield.

Home-grown kiddies cocktails are easier on the wallet, and when well- made, they are good enough for mature drinkers. They are no-where so popular as in American restaurants, where pere et mere sip their Bloody Marys while the heirs to the throne get a Technicolor tipple of fruit juices. Usually a parasol- decked cocktail stick protrudes from the glass; often a name like Shirley Temple gets in on the act.

Cocktails of that kind need not be disgusting. Here is one based on a recipe in the Trader Vic's Bartender's Guide (1972). It tastes a whole lot better than any alco-pop, and it doesn't carry a health warning.

QUEEN CHARLOTTE FRUIT PUNCH

25ml orange juice

15ml pineapple juice

15ml freshly squeezed lemon juice

15ml fruit nectar eg mango or peach

10ml grenadine or 5ml Ribena

fizzy water

1 sprig fresh mint (optional)

Mix the juices, nectar and grenadine or Ribena with ice in a tall glass. Top up with water, garnish with the mint leaf and serve with an absurd cocktail stick or slice of orange.

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