'Tis the season to be sober: The best soft options for an alcohol-free Christmas
Thursday 10 December 2009
Any night out, particularly at this time of year, is a potential minefield for the non-drinker, whether you're driving, pregnant, in recovery, as I am, or simply teetotal. At first, the choice of non-alcoholic beverages appears to be very large. Supermarket shelves look like sources of unfathomable bounty, and some pubs emphasise their tolerance of the sober to the point of actually displaying herbal tea on the bar. But, as so often in our society, choice is to some extent an illusion.
When I go out nowadays, I always start my evening with a cup of tea. Walking around parties and networking events with a mug of Tetley's is a good icebreaker, as people really cannot believe you're doing it. It makes them feel quite uncomfortable, as if they should all be in bed. It amuses me, anyway, and there is a little hit from the caffeine which helps while everyone else's real drinks kick in.
But you can't drink tea all night. So the next thing I do is move on to fruit drinks and mixers. Lime and soda is the default concoction here. It is interpreted differently by all barpersons, and is usually very cheap. Sometimes they'll even give it to you for free. Half-and-half cranberry and ginger ale is a good one. Also a decent virgin mary at lunchtime. Ready-mades such as JO are also fine. However, it's best to avoid orange juice because, after a while, it starts to taste of sick.
One of the big problems for sober drinkers is sugar. I am by habit a label-starer, but the only thing that sticks in my head afterwards is "no added sugar", which, as I'm sure everyone knows by now, is a legal-weasel way of telling you that sugar has in fact been added. Soft drinks of all kinds make your mouth feel like the lair of gonks, and they actually damage your teeth quite badly. We have only recently started to grasp the concept of decent dentistry in this country. Once it was seen as cool, by some, to have teeth like the dead sea scrolls, as long as people thought they were damaged by heavy drug use rather than, say, an excess of Angel Delight, but this is starting to wear a bit thin. Your dentist can tell if you've had too many soft drinks, and fizzy water doesn't help either.
The same goes for the caffeine-based soft drinks, Coke, Diet Coke and Red Bull. These are standard fallbacks for when you get bored of fruitiness and want to stay awake. I once did a job covering a mass dating event in a huge club. The photographer was incredibly late and I spent two hours wandering around alone, dodging drunken hoorays and nearly having my eyes poked out by those sets of wings that tiny women who can't hold their drink like to wear. Being caught in possession of these should be punishable by death, or at least an Asbo. My mistake that night was to drink three or four cans of Red Bull in succession, and by the time the photographer came, I was ready to kill. With the Jack Daniel's or vodka removed, you realise how few of these you can drink without turning into John Wayne Gacy. The same goes for coffee at the end of a long meal. It can give you the kind of hit you might once have obtained in a pub toilet with three of your mates.
I feel obliged to mention non-alcoholic beer and wine, but only as a data point. I have never touched this stuff because, as far as I'm concerned, it's one step away from the real thing and might tempt me back. A quick straw poll of friends tells me that de-clawed beers really don't float their boats, but some put in a word for Kaliber and Cobra. An American wine writer friend tells me that "The Ariel de-alcoholised wines made by the California vintner J Lohr are surprisingly good." I am always prepared to be proved wrong and alcoholfree.co.uk has a huge selection.
The problem is that, exactly like these well-meaning but castrated drinks, the sober night out is so different from the drunkscape as to be almost unrecognisable. Time doesn't go wonderfully fast the way it does when you're boozing, when you emerge from the dull chrysalis of your everyday self. De-alcoholised anything is a kind of zombie version of the original. Someone, somewhere, might even create an alcohol-free gin, but the entire depressed-and-horny effect will be lost.
For Christmas parties, though, I can highly recommend booze-free mulled wine. There are many recipes around. The one here comes courtesy of my friend Kim. Some drinkers may go "ugh", but they are probably the ones who make theirs with the cheapest rust-flavoured Rioja, rejected even by winos, and who vainly hope to disguise their meanness with a slug of cooking brandy.
Finally, toasting. I have raised enough dirty water-glasses to various positive issues to know that it doesn't matter that much what you drink during a toast. Just as long as you look the person in the eye who you're chinking glasses with, because if you don't, you'll have bad sex for seven years, apparently. For those more formally inclined, there are many fizzy herbal substitutes for champagne. These are the children of the now discontinued Aqua Libra, which I can remember from the Eighties, at least when I could get the taste of Elnett out of my throat. It has many clones, such as Purdey's and Amé, and has spawned a generation of elderflower and other champagnes, which are all very pleasant and drinkable, but I bet you can't stay on them all night.
In pubs and bars, things have improved dramatically on the availability front, but non-alcoholic orders are not always totally welcome. I can well remember a club bartender's face falling when I and a group of my sober girlfriends ordered four tonic waters with ice and lemon, as if serving us was an insult to his manhood. And there was a time when the teetotal really had to watch their bar bills in certain high-end establishments, as the dimwit gym bunny in attendance, choking back its resentment of the low-spending customer, was certainly capable of adding a double vodka or two to the bill. However, things have improved greatly, and most smarter places offer a range of quite interesting fruit cocktails.
One thing's for sure, though. The trouble with non-alcoholic drinks is that you get tired of them. There isn't a single one that you can stick to all evening. So, to hosts, I suggest you lay on a variety of stuff. Non-drinkers may well bring their own, conscious of not bringing alcohol, which is an etiquette discussion in itself. But there is nothing worse than turning up at someone's house for a long night, and finding you have the choice of orange juice or water. Then, tea will have to suffice.
As a non-drinker of seven years standing, I'll end by delivering some grumpy advice, to both hosts and drinkers. You may notice, when standing in the kitchen, deciding whether to have more red wine or move on to vodka and coke, that the person near you is pouring a pomegranate and fizzy water. This being Britain, you will ask them, with some surprise and concern, why they are not drinking alcohol. If they tell you that they have "given up drinking", please do not stare, and ask them "if there was a problem". The chances are there probably was – duh! – but it's none of your business. Festive sermon over!
Tania Glyde is the author of Cleaning Up, How I Gave Up Drinking And Lived
Non-alcoholic 'mulled wine'
2 litre apple juice
2 litre carton cranberry drink
1 stick cinnamon
1 lemon (unwaxed)
1 teaspoons honey (if you like your mull sweet, leave out if not)
Quarter teaspoon ground nutmeg
About 20 cloves
Slice the oranges into halves and scrape the rind off about half of the lemon and then quarter the lemon. Stud the orange and lemon rinds with the cloves – it looks great and will infuse wonderfully.
Pour one of each of the cartons of apple juice and cranberry drink into a large pan with all the other ingredients and put over the lowest heat you can get. Leave it to heat slowly until it reaches the point where it is starting to steam, then three minutes longer. This takes about 10 to 20 minutes in total – it should not boil at any point. Switch off the heat and serve into small glasses.
If it all goes down quickly – and it probably will – then add the second cartons of apple juice and cranberry drink and heat again, adding another quarter teaspoon of nutmeg and a tablespoon of honey (if you wish) and there you go. The botanicals and citrus fruit will easily keep going for several top-ups.
If you really want to create that booze-like quality add a handful of dried orange peel and a dozen or so juniper berries. These will not be as easy to get as the other ingredients but they form the core of the aroma of gin and will add another dimension to your mull.
Bottoms up! No-booze beverages
Belvoir Lime & Lemongrass Pressé 750ml
Winner of a Great Taste Award this year, Belvoir's pressé is crisp and refreshing, and is made from real fruit so you don't get any synthetic aftertaste. The fresh lemongrass gives an unusual aromatic quality, making this a more interesting option on the fizzy drinks front.
Ariel Brut Cuvee 750ml
Perfect for when you want to pop a cork and enjoy some bubbles with the rest of the party. Ariel removes the alcohol from this chardonnay cuvee through its patented method of cold filtration, meaning this fizz keeps its delicate flavour while having less than half of one per cent alcohol. Nice bottle, too.
Pomegreat Pure 500ml
Not only does this ruby-red juice have a distinctive, sweet yet refreshing taste, it's also thought to have health benefits too. Pomegranates have been proclaimed a superfood, and credited with improving the health of your heart and slowing the progress of prostate cancer. Drink up!
Fentimans Rose Lemonade 750ml
This floral take on lemonade boasts rose oil as one of its ingredients, adding a pink blush to make a pretty party pop. The Otto rose essential oil is rather exotic too – it's sourced from the Rose Valley in Kazanlak, Bulgaria, and steam distilled before being added to the lemonade.
Great Uncle Cornelius Ginger Beer 750ml
Blending juicy crushed ginger and squeezed lemons, this is a really refreshing drink with a fiery kick, proving non-alcoholic options don't need to be dull. It's fairly healthy too, as the Great Uncle Cornelius range uses pressed apple juice instead of sugar to give a tangy sweetness.
Sunraysia Tomato Juice 750ml
Another healthy option, Sunraysia's juice is made of pure squeezed tomatoes. Add a splash of Worcester and Tabasco sauces, and salt, pepper and lemon juice to make a Virgin Mary mocktail, or drink it straight up as a pure thirst-quencher.
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