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:
Gordon’s Ultra Low Gin and Tonic
Tesco Low Alcohol G&T
ABV: less than 0.5%
Calories per bottle: 68 (27 per 100ml)
The UK’s gin market is showing no signs of slowing down. Britons bought almost £1.4 billion worth of the stuff during 2017, equivalent to around 51 million bottles.
It seems we can’t get enough of that juniper. Fortunately, for those who love gin but don’t love hangovers, there are now a number of low-alcohol gin-based drinks to choose from. This latest offering from Gordon’s is one of the best.
According to the company, it was developed in their innovation laboratory in Hertfordshire and contains all the botanicals found in Gordon’s London Dry Gin, as well as a small amount of the gin distillate, some quinine, and a hint of fruit – either lime or grapefruit. That all sounds very interesting, but does it taste any good?
It certainly does. As soon as it’s opened, it smells like a good gin. It’s got the kind of body drinks normally get from alcohol, and doesn’t feel thin at all. You could easily mistake this for a standard strength gin-and-tonic. The version with lime is smooth, like a traditional GnT; the grapefruit is sourer, like a pink gin cocktail. Tesco’s premixed GnT is good. But this one is better.
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.
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.
ABV: less than 0.5%
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.
Ceder’s Classic and Crisp
Calories per 100ml: 8
Seedlip has a rival in the alt-gin market, and it’s one with a bit of a story behind it.
The Ceder’s name comes from the magnificent Cederberg region of the Western Cape – an area known for its rugged beauty and its unique plants, some of which have found their way into these new drinks. It’s all the result of an international partnership between Craig (from South Africa) and Maria (from Sweden), blending South African herbs like rooibos and fynbos with Swedish spring water. The aim was to create a “distilled non-alcoholic alt-gin that allows you to escape and find harmony”.
The two flavours we tried were the Classic – with juniper, coriander and rose-geranium; and the Crisp – with juniper, cucumber and camomile. Of the two, the Crisp was our favourite by a long way. It’s got a more complex flavour than the Classic – a nice fresh hint of cucumber, balanced by a certain bitterness. The Classic was more flowery, but overall seemed to us a blander drink.
Compared to Seedlip, the Ceder’s flavours are less powerful. If you’re looking for something smooth, try Ceder’s; if you’d like new and crazy flavours, maybe give Seedlip a go.
Much like Seedlip, in spite of the presence of juniper, neither of the Ceder’s drinks tasted much like traditional gin. This, of course, is one of the eternal questions about alcohol-free drinks – should they aim to be like their alcoholic equivalents, or should they just aim to be good drinks?
Ceder’s drinks have become a lot easier to get hold of recently, thanks to a distribution deal with Pernod Ricard. As a result, you can now get them in Sainsbury’s (as well via the Whisky Exchange online and in their London shops). With Diageo taking a 20% stake in Seedlip, it’s clear that the major players are taking alcohol-free spirits very seriously.
Both Seedlip and Ceder’s are priced towards the top end of the market. Seedlip is £26 for 700ml in Tesco, and Ceder’s is £20 for 500ml in Sainsbury’s. Since neither of these products is subject to the usual £7.52 excise duty on standard-strength spirits, it would be interesting to know whether their price is a genuine reflection of production costs, or if it’s a deliberate move to appeal to high-end consumers.
Teetotal Cuba Libre
Calories per 100ml: 36 (72 per bottle)
So far, the alcohol-free spirits market has been jam-packed with gin-type drinks. So it’s nice to taste something completely different.
According to legend, Cuba Libre (Free Cuba) was invented in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, when American troops fought to liberate the island from the Spanish Empire. The Americans also brought Coca Cola to Cuba, and with so much rum being produced on local sugar plantations, it was a cocktail waiting to happen.
Whatever the truth of its origins, it’s a drink that’s now recognised by the International Bartenders’ Association as a contemporary classic. It’s perhaps better-known by its more everyday name: rum-and-coke.
But if there’s drink where the absence of alcohol would be obvious, surely it’s this one? Apparently not, if you get it right! According to our friends at the Temperance Spirit Company, their Cuba Libre is made with “Caribbean flavours and selected spices”. Whatever those might be, they seem to do the trick. If you didn’t know it, you’d never guess it was alcohol-free. If rum-and-coke is your thing, buy this, plenty of it!
This has to be one of the most interesting additions to the alcohol-free spirits range. Caleño founder Ellie Webb took her inspirational from Colombia – a country that’s clearly close to her heart – to create this intriguing mix of fruits and spices.
Unlike many of the other drinks in this category, it’s nothing like gin. Although it has juniper in it, there are other flavours that come through more strongly – cardamom, lemon, and Inca berries. It’s got a lovely fruity flavour – not too sweet and genuinely refreshing. It’s a subtle flavour, and although the producers recommend serving Caleño with tonic, you might also want to try it with soda, as tonic can sometimes overwhelm it.
The packaging suggests this is a high-end drink, in a similar class to Seedlip, and you can probably expect to see it in bars that specialise in cocktails. It would be great to see it in a few supermarkets too, to add to the choice for consumers in this growing market.
M&S Sparkling Botanical GnT
Calories per 100ml: 33 (248 per bottle)
Marks & Spencer have been busy expanding their alcohol-free range, including this new GnT (amongst quite a few others).
It was created for them by Hamish Martin, head gardener at the Secret Herb Garden near Edinburgh. It is certainly jam-packed with interesting herbs: juniper, lemon balm, coriander, cardamom, yarrow, and calendula. Unfortunately, all these marvellous flavours don’t really come through. The drink taste first and foremost like tonic water, although one of our taste testers said it was like cucumber juice.
As always, it’s a matter of personal taste, and this may be just what you’re looking for. For us, it’s not the best alcohol-free GnT around.