Alcohol-free taste test: Which soft drinks will stand up to an evening of sober sipping?
Luke Blackall and his panel find out
Christmas and New Year cheer is often synonymous with drinking alcohol. But what about those who don't or can't? Be it for health, pregnancy, religious, driving, or age reasons – or simply that they don't like the taste – more and more of us are choosing to forego the booze completely.
NHS research earlier this year showed that 18 per cent of all women and 10 per cent of men in the UK don't drink. Those figures are likely increase in January as many now choose to have a "dry" month after weeks of festive excess.
But for both the non-drinker, and the host of the non-drinker, it can be hard to come up with something that can be sipped at social events, beyond water and the obvious juices.
The classic sweet soft drinks not only get consumed faster than alcoholic drinks, but they also often leave you with a post-sugar-rush hangover you hadn't bargained for.
We brought together a selection of the increasing number of the non-alcoholic drinks on the market for a taste test. On the panel of tasters, we had Lisa Markwell, executive editor of this paper and, for the last two years, a non-drinker, and Freya Gibbs, who at 17 is not yet (legally) old enough to drink and finally your writer, a semi-professional partygoer, who prefers his drinks with alcohol to without.
It's worth noting that if you're after complete abstinence, it's important to check the labelling, as in some cases it's not possible to completely remove the alcohol, meaning that some "alcohol-free" drinks actually have an alcohol content, albeit of less than one percent by volume.
Beers and ciders
Non-alcoholic beer has long been a staple offering to non-drinkers who don't wish to feel left out. And today there is a wide range to choose from. Bitburger Drive was "convincing and creamy", if a little too frothy and metallic. Erdinger, meanwhile, advertises (in German) that it is vitamin-filled, calorie-reduced and, like sports drinks, isotonic. In fact, in 2007, Spanish researchers reported that low-alcohol beer can be better at re-hydrating the body after hard exercise than water.
Despite the calorie-reduced credentials on its label, its bitter aroma gave way to a rather sweet finish.
Schneider Weisse was deemed "nicest of the beers" by Lisa, which was down to its smoothness and fine flavour. It was also judged to be a tipple that could last as long as its alcoholic counterpart. Dutch manufacturer Bavaria, meanwhile, produces three alcohol-free versions: a lager, a white beer and a shandy. It was the shandy that was a winner – extremely refreshing and moreish.
Also popular (with those of us old enough to drink) was Waitrose low-alcohol cider which, as it was just 1 per cent, was included in the test.
Lisa was struck by its "nice colour and aroma", and its authentically strong flavour meant that like the Schneider Weisse it was considered something that could be consumed at a steady pace over the evening.
It's very easy to dismiss alcohol-free wine as mere grape juice. But the first we tried, the Eisenberg Cabernet Sauvignon non-alcoholic red, from Waitrose, wasn't even as nice as grape juice. Its curious lack of aroma gave way to a weak, chemical flavour, and yet no aftertaste, and for a supposed "cabernet sauvignon", it lacked body, while Freya thought it "tasted like red wine vinegar". The store also sells a de-alcoholised Torres Natureo, which was on the other end of the spectrum in terms of quality. Drawing a full flavour from the muscat grapes, this was extremely appealing and felt much more like regular wine. Lisa suggested that you could serve this with desserts and people may not even notice they weren't drinking.
Feel Good drinks has a range of cocktail mixes made, say the bottles, from "fruit, water and no added sugar". And those who wish to switch from mocktail to cocktail can add a dash of the appropriate alcohol. The Mojito had an authentic lime flavour, but the mojito-ishness ends there. The panel also remarked on its rampant fizziness; it describes itself as "gently sparkling", though "ferociously bubbly" would perhaps be more appropriate.
The Buck's Fizz, meanwhile, was tangy at first sip, but there was little else to distinguish it, Freya said was like "orange juice mixed with fizzy water".
Devon-based company Luscombe's produces several organic drinks, aimed to be a credible adult alternative to alcohol. And its Elderflower bubbly was just that. Everything from the colour to the taste to the level of carbonation was perfect. Fruity and yet not too sweet like some elderflower drinks, it was a hit with the whole panel.
Luscombe's Lime Crush, meanwhile, is suggested for cocktail drinkers as a sort of alternative to a margarita. Like a margarita, it packs a punch.
Unlike a margarita, however, it's not a punch you are necessarily looking for, that's if you can get past the cleaning-fluid aromas.
The East India Company produces a range of cordials aimed at grown-up non-drinkers, and which, according to manufacturers, are popular with Muslim drinkers. The attractive bottles resemble bath oil, and so do the flavours – Lavender, Hibiscus, Jasmine, Poppy, Violet and Rose. It took a while to mix the hibiscus syrup properly with water, and when we did it was a very sweet affair. "It's like flavoured water," said Freya, while Lisa pointed out that it would work well as a crème de cassis-style mixer for champagne.
The Jasmine, while similarly sweet, fared better, though Freya said that it tasted "a bit like Haribo".
After 20 years in the bar industry and some time as an alcoholic, Peter Spanton decided to create a range of tipples for the discerning adult drinker. All three we tried were remarkable drinks and unlike almost anything else. Mint and bitters, everyone agrees "smells like after dinner chocolates". Lisa adds "It tastes more like something you would eat than drink." The very fizzy cardamom has a tonic-water quality and a hint, says Freya, "of swimming pool chlorine".
The Lemongrass had a sour, food quality to it, and smells like smart hotels in the Far East.
Last up was Clayton's kola tonic, in its original incarnation, as a drink brewed from African kola nuts in London in the 1880s and used as a mixer for gin. Production and the name then moved to Australia, before the company was revived again recently in Barbados. Medicinal in both colour and aroma (Freya likens it to Calpol), it's a daunting prospect in the glass. Lisa said it's "quite fresh, and not over sweet", and it gets better with each sip.
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