The hipsters of Shoreditch have a new choice of tipple. Spiced CBD Sours, Tropical Spritzes, Silver Linings and more – heady concoctions containing everything from petal tea, cannabidiol and kombucha to spirits distilled with cardamom, Inca berries and borage.
So far, so normal, you might say. Hipsters have always worn their choice of drink like badges to show how adventurous they are.
What will raise eyebrows is that none of these tipples (selected from Hubbard & Bell’s new Sober as a Judge menu) contain a drop of alcohol.
They’re part of a new wave of alcohol-free drinks filling Britain’s glasses. Seedlip, whose Spice 94 variant is the key ingredient in the aforementioned CBD sour, claims sales of 1m bottles last year. Caleno, which gives the Tropical Spritz an Inca berry and juniper kick, is aiming to shift 5,000 cases in its first year.
So, is this a fad or the future? What role will mainstream pubs and bars have in the rise of this nascent category?
And can drinkers outside of well-heeled Hoxton and the like really be pursauded to splash out £8 a pop on sophisticated booze-free options?
“The drinks industry is reaching a turning point,” contends Franck Duval, head of bars at hotel operator Ennismore, which owns Gleneagles and the Hoxton chain, home to the Hubbard & Bell bar and grill in Shoreditch.
“Consumers are changing. People are drinking better but less. When they’re not drinking at all, they want something more special than juice or Coke from a syrup. That’s why we launched our new non-alcoholic cocktail menu alongside our classics in March.”
Sales have been good across the Hoxton chain, which spreads from Shoreditch to Chicago, adds Duval. “It’s not just Millennials,” he says.
“In Paris and Amsterdam, we’ve people coming in for business lunches, working on their laptops or coming in after work. It’s no longer a given that they’ll want to drink alcohol.”
It’s not just urbanites, either. “I often get asked whether this is just a London thing,” says Shilen Patel, co-founder and non-alc lead at Distill Ventures, the Diageo-backed accelerator scheme that owns a stake in Seedlip, the UK’s first major alcohol-free spirit brand.
“It’s not. I was at the Pilot Inn in Dungeness, Kent, at the weekend and they had three non-alcoholic spirit offerings behind the bar.
“There’s a macro consumer trend towards people wanting to live healthier lifestyles and drink less. They want more sophisticated non-alcoholic offerings. We’re just scratching the surface.”
There’s been an explosion in new launches. Pernod Ricard is now UK distributor of Ceder’s, Funkin cocktail mix founder Alex Carlton has launched Stryyk (rum, gin and vodka-like liquids) and Borrano, a spirit with edible flower borage, has hit the market, to name a few of the past year’s landmarks.
The sector is now moving beyond spirits designed to be mixed with tonic or used in cocktails. Non-alcoholic aperitifs are also gaining space.
Everleaf, a bitter-sweet aperitif with an ingredients list as exotic as any witch’s brew, is a favourite of Ennismore’s Duval, for example.
Then there’s Britvic brand incubator Wisehead Productions’ Monte Rosso, a lightly sparkling RTD that takes its cues from Italian spritzes such as Aperol, and Seedlip’s new Æcorn Aperitifs range, inspired by 17th century English herbal remedies, which launched on 6 May.
“All this is the crescendo of what’s been bubbling up for 10 years: the health and wellness trend, the internet connecting the world, social media making everything public and the death of the days of it being cool to get drunk and fall into the house at 3am,” says Seedlip founder Ben Branson, who began distilling Seedlip’s prototypes in a kitchen still in 2014.
“In the past year or so, there have been 40 new entrants from 15 countries. We now sell in 25 countries and employ 30 people here in the UK and 30 people outside.
The UK is the most established market. That’s evidenced by the dedicated low and no-alcohol fixtures in the supermarkets and growing ranges in the on trade.”
Some contend the off-trade is leading the on-trade when it comes to alcohol-free spirits. Tesco was the first to list Seedlip back in 2017 and Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, M&S, Ocado and others have since followed suit, although Branson does mention Fuller’s Group, Premium County Pubs, Carluccios and Côte as strong supporters of the movement in the on-trade.
Ellie Webb, founder of Caleno (distilled with 10 botanicals including Inca berries, juniper, coriander and cardamom) suggests the grocers have been successful in tapping demand for more sophisticated soft drinks by making the category a destination in store.
“We launched in Sainsbury’s in March and it’s been going really well – they’ve really got behind the category,” she says.
“In the on-trade, if you just put one bottle behind the bar, you’re probably not going to sell much. If you put a range of non-alcoholic spirits, beers and wines on your menu, that’s when you see the uplift. The tide is turning.”
Meanwhile, Punchy Drinks, a range of 0% and 4% rum and Tequila punches, is winning growing space behind Britain’s bars. “We’re probably slightly more on-trade-focused,” says founder Paddy Cavanagh-Butler, who launched the brand last summer.
“In January, we launched on tap and that’s been really good because of the speed of service and the visibility it gives us. That was really the big breakthrough.
We’re now in Incipio Group (operator of the Prince in West Brompton, W12 Studios and others) and the Three Cheers Pub Co and we have new listings on the cards.”
There’s clearly an opportunity for pub operators to add value to their non-alcoholic offerings by convincing designated drivers and abstainers to trade up from bog-standard pop to more sophisticated offerings.
Caleno and a mixer sells for upwards of £6 in the on trade and the Hoxton’s new alcohol-free cocktails goes for as much as £9 a pop.
Widening such drinks’ appeal to the mainstream requires education, adds Seedlip’s Branson. “People think we’re making crazy margins but we really are not – we’re the most expensive spirit to make in any back bar around the world,” he says.
“We individually macerate each ingredient in water and alcohol and distil it twice to get rid of the alcohol and concentrate the flavour.
“This is a new category and education is required at every level: consumers, the trade, bartenders – criteria and guidelines for the category need to be drawn up.” Let the lessons begin!