Soft drinks suited to a more mature palate may be late arriving to the innovation party, but as many drinks producers are proving, there’s plenty to celebrate in this category.
“There used to be such little choice for consumers so it’s not hard to see why soft drinks have not always been top of the list but that has changed now,” says Kieran Dougan, co-founder of ‘all-natural’ cola brand 40 Kola.
The three-strong 40 Kola range – 40 Kola Original,
Lemon Lime and 40 Kola CUT (a lower sugar and lower caffeine version of the original) – was developed by Dougan and friend Dan Young.
The pair were inspired by beer brewers when developing the product and packaging, resulting in strong on-trade demand for their drink.
“The consumer shift away from the standard ‘old school’ brands has created this demand,” suggests Dougan, who notes premium, adult-focused soft drinks have grown 75% year-on-year since 2016, making up 5% of the total soft drinks category.
“In comparison, premium spirits make up 26% of the alcohol category so there is room for volume and value growth by adding adult soft drinks to the range,” he adds.
Like Dougan and Young, former chef Duncan O’Brien saw an opportunity to develop a soft drink brand that would appeal to discerning consumers, so, in 2012, he developed fruit-based drinks company Dalston Soda.
O’Brien first sourced fruit from London markets to create Lemonade, Cherryade, Orangeade as well as Ginger Beer and Fizzy Elderflower.
“Our first drinks were born out of a challenge to make more ethical alternatives to mainstream brands,” he says.
In 2016, the company put its products in 330ml cans. “They chill down quickly, are fully recyclable, bounce instead of breaking if you drop them, and fit better than bottles in most fridges,” enthuses O’Brien. Earlier this year, the core range expanded to seven with the addition of Fizzy Rhubarb and Fizzy Blackcurrant, while launching two light sodas.
While the latest additions exclude sugar and sweeteners, all products in the range feature a third less sugar than mainstream brands.
“Our drinks appeal to non-drinkers who are coming round to the idea that they no longer have to make do with the sugary, chemical-laden soft drinks that are served from a spray gun and in a pint glass,” he adds.
Newly branded Martin Frobisher’s is marketing its Spectacular Sparklers range at adult non-drinkers seeking flavour without the sweetness, while hoping to “fill the gap in the market for sophisticated soft drinks,” according to head of brand, Jessica Waller.
Britvic’s adult soft drinks unit, WiseHead Productions, has gone a step further with its drinks offering, ‘a comparable drinking experience to their alcoholic equivalents’.
“Just because someone has chosen not to drink alcohol doesn’t mean they are necessarily happy with an everyday soft drink option,” says WiseHead co-founder Ounal Bailey. “Non-drinkers want something well-crafted, more adventurous and to feel that they aren’t missing out.”
WiseHead’s The London Essence Company's sodas proffer a new experience through flavour pairings like Rhubarb & Cardamom.
The company’s other drinks Monte Rosso – an aperitif – and T&E No. 1 – a white wine spritz – have a comparable drinking experience to their alcoholic equivalents, especially when served with style.
Presenting soft drinks in a similar manner to those containing alcohol is one way pubs can demonstrate they’re paying as much attention to this category as others, says Chris Jarrett, head barman at the Longstore in Cornwall, where he has devised a specific low and no drinks for alcohol-free seeking customers.
“Just because they’re not drinking alcohol, doesn’t mean they need to miss out on the theatre of having a drink made for them.”
Global Brands marketing director Jen Draper, agrees that non-drinkers deserve the same treatment as drinkers.
The company has recently added three new flavours to its Franklin & Sons range, including Fragrant Guava & Persian Lime with Root Ginger, and Exotic Pineapple & Aromatic Cardamom with Cracked Cubeb Pepper.
The seven soft drinks in the whole range, available in flavours like Wild Strawberry & Scottish Raspberry with cracked Black Pepper and Cloudy Apple & Yorkshire Rhubarb with Cinnamon, are also designed to partner with food.
“More space behind the bar is another advantage of ready-to-drink adult soft drinks,” adds Draper.
“Franklin & Sons Infused Sodas for example, combine all the complex elements of a sophisticated cocktail or mocktail, in a ready to serve bottle.
This gives them a clear space advantage over other types of non-alcoholic drinks, as all the unique flavours and creative infusions have already been produced and encapsulated in a premium bottle that is ready to serve.
“All publicans need to do is pour it over ice, in a tall wine glass, and add fresh fruit to garnish, saving bartenders time, but still delivering on high consumer expectations for experience.”