Is there such a thing as “alcohol-free” spirits?
Spirits depend heavily on alcohol for flavour. So, do alcohol-free equivalents work? Some brave pioneers have been finding out, with some very interesting results.
Here are the first three we’ve tried:
Tesco Low Alcohol G&T
ABV: less than 0.5%
Calories per can: 60 (24 per 100ml); and 12 per can (5 per 100ml) for the reduced calorie version
As the popularity of gin goes from strength to strength, so the number of alcohol-free versions grows too. But can the complex flavours of the nation’s new favourite spirit really be captured in a teetotal tipple? This latest offering from Tesco comes quite close.
Looking at the ingredients, it’s got all the essentials for a good gin drink – juniper (of course), plus citrus peels and angelica. It comes in two versions, one of which (in a silver can) has significantly fewer calories that the other (in a green can).
Let’s start with the green can first. Its smells like gin-and-tonic. It tastes like gin-and-tonic. It’s light, refreshing and not too sweet. In short, it’s pretty good. Not as good as the Yorkshire-based Temperance Spirit Company’s GnT, but certainly worth a go.
The low-calorie drink didn’t hit the spot in quite the same way. It seemed to have less fizz, less gin flavours (i.e. it was more like drinking neat tonic), and strangely, it seemed a bit sweeter. Unless you’re really looking to cut back on the calories, we say it’s best to go green.
For both versions, the can design is spot-on, with drawings of the three plants that give the drink its flavour, sending out the message that this is a decent drink first and foremost, and an alcohol-free drink secondly. More attractive packaging like this from other major supermarkets would certainly help alcohol-free options feel less like a product to put up with and more like a drink to enjoy.
Tesco also guarantee that both the drinks are suitable for vegans.
Seedlip Spirit 94 and Garden 108
These have to be some of the most unusual additions to the alcohol-free drinks world. And we’ll confess, we didn’t know quite what to make of them. They’re marketed as “the world’s first non-alcoholic spirits”. It may be a matter of how you define that, since drinks claiming to be alcohol-free whiskeys have been around since the 1990s (although not always well-received!)
Seedlip’s recipes are based on a remarkable 17th century text The Art of Distillation. The products have the look of artisan gins, and that’s what we thought they might taste like, but there’s not a sniff of juniper here. The two drinks have very distinct flavours:
- Spirit 94 is made with allspice, cardamom, oak, lemon and grapefruit, and it’s the oak that comes through strongest. This stuff tastes really woody – like sandalwood, maybe
- Garden 108 contains peas, spearmint, rosemary and thyme. Again, one flavour comes through most, and that’s the peas
Once we’d bought them, our next question was how to drink them. We tried them neat to start off with. This is obviously not how they’re intended to be drunk – the flavours are way too strong for that. They come with serving suggestions – premium tonic for the 94 and elderflower tonic for the 108 – so we had a go at that. The result is two very light, very clean drinks. We could imagine drinking them on a river-boat trip on a summer’s evening. This is not G&T. In fact, we’re still not sure what it is, but if you’re in the market for unexpected flavours, give it a go.
The bottle designs really set these drinks apart as top-end: two very ingenious graphics, using drawings of the ingredients to create images of a fox and a hare, two of the countryside’s most iconic animals and ones that are just a little bit mysterious too.
The price is pretty top-end too: £26 for a 70cl bottle in Tesco. Unless it really does cost close to that to produce, we’re guessing this was a deliberate decision to make this a premium brand. That may be smart business, but it puts it well out of reach of many drinkers’ pockets.
Looking at the nutritional information, they are calorie-free, so the only calories you might want to think about are the ones in your tonic.
Calories per 100ml: 26 (52 per bottle)
Launched in 2015, this is a very different drink to Seedlip – much more like a conventional gin-based drink. In short, it’s a GnT for people who are off the alcohol. According to the company, during their taste testing with more than 10,000 people, the vast majority of people could not tell that this was a non-alcoholic drink. Neither could we.
Unlike Seedlip, it comes premixed in 200ml bottles, matching the trend for ready-to-drink bottles and cans of spirits and mixers in the major supermarkets. It also seems well suited to pubs, where it should fit in as a more interesting alternative to neat tonic.
There’s a good backstory to this drink too, and to the Yorkshire-based company that makes it. A publican, a research chemist and an entrepreneur decided it was time to come up with an adult alternative to fizzy pop for people who weren’t drinking. The aim was to produce something as good as its alcoholic equivalent, using only natural ingredients and keeping the sugar content low – a drink that was “not too sweet, something which made you feel part of the party, but without the alcohol”. They may well have succeeded.