TRIED & TESTED / Message in a bottle: Designer drinks hold out the promise of health for body and soul, but how good do they actually taste? Our panel gives its verdict

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The Independent Culture
They are called New Age beverages, conjuring up images of fragrant herbal extracts to purify the body and soothe the spirit. In reality the prototype, Aqua Libra, was the brainchild of marketing managers at the multi-national spirits giant International Distillers & Vintners Ltd.

Cottoning on to the fact that fewer people were drinking alcohol, IDV spotted a market for a soft drink that was more sophisticated - and expensive - than Coke or Seven Up. Eight years later, scores of other manufacturers and supermarkets are launching 'me-too' versions of fruit and herbal drinks aimed at the body-conscious. Many contain ginseng, which has been proven both to give people a boost and to calm 1 them down, although whether these drinks contain enough to have any effect is questionable. Another common ingredient is guarana, originally used by Amazonian Indians, which gets its stimulant effect from caffeine: a substance that many of the health-conscious people buying these drinks may be trying to avoid.

Setting aside the woolly claims to enhance well-being which are made for some of these drinks, are they an enjoyable alternative to wine or to other soft drinks? We asked a panel of drinkers - comprising wine experts and people with an interest in healthy drinking - to try out a selection of nine of them and give us their recommendations.

THE PANEL

Kathryn McWhirter, Independent on Sunday wine writer; Charles Metcalfe, wine writer and TV presenter; Clarissa Dickson-Wright, food and wine bookseller and teetotaller; Annie Tomlinson, education officer, steering clear of alcohol in her fourth pregnancy; Colin Cooper, investment banker and captain of Havant hockey club.

THE TEST

Panellists marked each drink for sweetness and on how refreshing, fruity, spicy, herbal and acidic it was, how complex the flavour, how attractive the packaging, and how much they liked it overall. The scores were converted into a star rating.

***SAO RICO

pounds 1.60 / 75cl Apple, melon and peach

juice base, 24 cal in 100ml

Popular, reasonable price, spicy

It's probably not a coincidence that the main ingredient of this drink is apple juice. It's made by cider manufacturer Bulmer and despite the bottle's Brazilian look - some of the labelling is even in Portuguese - the recipe originated not in the depths of the Amazon rainforest but in Hereford. The drink's spiciness - in particular a smell and taste of ginger - is distinctive. Kathryn McWhirter said: 'A bit like ginger ale.' Annie Tomlinson commented: 'It smells as though it's waiting for a measure of Scotch to keep it company. Refreshingly different.'

**PURDEY'S ELIXIR VITAE

99p / 25cl Apple and grape juice base

39 cal in 100ml

Pricey; scored well but not

a favourite

Made by the same manufacturer as Aqua Libra, this drink costs a lot for a small bottle. 'The taste was yeasty and strong, a little like tree bark, but refreshing,' said Colin Cooper. Most of the panel liked the drink, but Clarissa Dickson-Wright said: 'It smelt like a hospital slop room. It must be good for you as it has an unpleasant medicinal taste.'

*SORELLE

pounds 1.89 / 75cl Apple, peach and

passion-fruit juice base

19 cal in 100ml

Less distinctive than others

This wasn't a favourite with most of our panel. 'Colour a little reminiscent of a hospital sample,' said Colin Cooper (although this could be said of many). 'The taste was a little sickly and the aftertaste was palate- numbing.' 'First mouthful OK, declines rapidly thereafter,' said Clarissa Dickson-Wright. Worth a try if you want a low-calorie drink. With some of the others, you don't get many fewer calories in a glass than you would with Coca-Cola.

***AME (WHITE)

pounds 1.95 / 75cl Grape and apricot juice

base, 35 cal in 100ml

Snapping at the heels

of Aqua Libra

This drink came a very close runnerup. The panel found it refreshing and not too sweet. 'An attractive smell, delicately apricotty. I would drink this as an alternative to my favourite, Aqua Libra. Nice, fruity, predominately apricot flavour,' said Kathryn McWhirter. The red version of Ame, which has a strong taste of elderberry and elderflower, was not nearly so popular.

**** AQUA LIBRA .TX.-( ORIGINAL)

pounds 1.99 / 75cl passion-fruit, grape,

apple juice base, with melon extracts

28 cal in 100ml

The favourite; complex blend

of flavours

To judge by our panel, Aqua Libra has little to worry about from most of its imitators. The panel found it the most refreshing and very fruity with a distinct herbal taste, without being too sweet. 'Balanced, refreshing blend of fruits and herbs, no predominant smell or taste. Surprised to discover how much I still enjoyed it after trying so many facsimiles' said Annie Tomlinson. 'The daddy of all these drinks and still performing very well in the line-up,' said Charles Metcalfe. The panel didn't like the dry version of Aqua Libra so much, although it still performed well.

*TESCO VITA ESPRIT

pounds 1.59 / 75cl Apple, melon,

passion-fruit juice base

31 cal in 100ml

Fruity, less complex taste

than others

The panel was not particularly enthusiastic about this drink, although they did think it tasted very fruity. 'Over- ripe cantaloupe - overpowers the other ingredients,' said Annie Tomlinson. 'The smell was of mouldy elderflower. I had the feeling it was going to taste very sweet, but in fact it was pleasant,' said Colin Cooper. Tesco also sells a concentrate which you dilute to make your own fruit and herbal drink. Made up with Tesco spring water, a tumblerful works out at about half the cost of Vita Esprit. The panel found it pleasant but nothing special, with little herbal taste.

**SAINSBURY'S CASCADE

pounds 1.49 / 75cl Apple and passion-fruit

juice base, with melon extract

25 cal in 100ml

Reasonably priced; fruity and quite sweet

The panel found this rather sweet and thought the melon taste predominated. 'Slight toffee smell and taste. Doesn't taste as natural as Aqua Libra, and has a stronger, less subtle flavour,' said Kathryn McWhirter. 'Fresh, perfectly acceptable but not exceptional. Goes down well,' said Clarissa Dickson-Wright.

*MARKS & SPENCER

SPARKLING WATER HERBAL

FRUIT DRINK

35p / 25cl apple and lemon juice base

33 cal in 100ml

Thumbs down, except for the sweet-toothed

This was the least popular of all. Sugar is the second largest ingredient after spring water and the panel found it the sweetest by far. 'Smell akin to chewy sweets and sticky fingers,' said Annie Tomlinson. 'Much sweeter than Aqua Libra, less acidic. Less of a wine substitute because it has a less winelike balance of constituents - in particular lower acidity,' said Kathryn McWhirter.

*GUSTO LEMONADE

99p / 25c1 apple and lemon

juice base, 40 cal in 100ml

Lemony with high acidity

The panel found the cloudy appearance of the drink, which contains guarana, a bit off-putting. 'Murky, like something from an Amazon swamp,' said Charles Metcalfe. None the less, some liked it. 'Taste very good and refreshing, without an aftertaste,' said Colin Cooper. Clarissa Dickson-Wright was not impressed, however: 'Indigestible. Is one supposed to mistake flatulence for a trip?' A second Gusto drink, Gusto Original, costs pounds 1.69 for only 25cl. Gusto says it contains expensive ingredients such as ginseng and 'Mind Peak', a blend of Chinese herbs. It fared worse with the panel than the lemonade. 'Very medicinal,' said Clarissa Dickson-Wright.

Next Week: Self-assembly shelf units

(Photograph omitted)

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