Wait, before you jump in with outrage and ask: "why on earth would I want to pay almost as much for something with no alcohol in it?" I have something to say. I felt the same way, but closer investigation has shown me that the demand for alcohol-free spirits goes way beyond the age old question: to drink, or not to drink. It is, for many, a health need, for others a pragmatic one and, most importantly, a personal one.
The rise of alcohol-free drinks has seen astronomic over the past five years. According to Nielson, the no- and low-alcohol sector has grown by 506 per cent since 2015. By "alcohol-free" I don't mean soft drinks, juice or soda water. These are carefully crafted spirits that contain no alcohol, but often have a comparable price point to their ethanol-soaked counterparts.
In spite of the top-shelf price point, the alcohol-free spirit market in New Zealand continues to grow at a rapid rate. Research has shown that New Zealanders are drinking less overall, with 36 per cent of those surveyed stating that they did not drink at all. In a country with a long and proud booze-loving history, a decision not to drink can be socially ostracising, which is just one of the reasons for the burgeoning alcohol-free market.
I decided to delve into this alcohol-free world to see what it was all about and investigate why these options might be something we all need, even if we don't realise it.
Why are people turning to alcohol-free spirits?
UK brand, Seedlip, was the world's first alcohol-free spirit, and saw a meteoric rise in Britain when it launched in 2015. Seedlip then landed on New Zealand shores at the beginning of 2018 and for a long time it was the only one of its kind on the market. Now there are designated sections in supermarkets for no-alcohol options, with multiple zero per cent spirits to choose from. There is also a broad social term for this growing interest in alcohol-free options; it is referred to as the sober curious movement.
New Zealand no-alcohol gin brand, Ecology + Co, was founded in 2018 by Diana Miller. An avid gin drinker, Diana's body was suddenly less able to process alcohol after giving birth to her first child. In response to her change in circumstances, her husband started tinkering in the kitchen and their first alcohol-free gin was born. After a trial tasting session, before their product was even in production, they had hundreds of orders from interested customers.
Talking to Miller, it becomes clear that there are many reasons that make people curious to try a product like hers. Of her customers she shares: "They're not who you think they are". These are not teetotallers who hate alcohol and everything to do with it, these are people who like alcohol but are looking for choices. "Lots of people who are going through cancer treatment, people who have had strokes or heart attacks ... we get lots of stories from people like that who adopt our products," says Miller.
In New Zealand the prevailing culture is one where alcohol consumption is directly linked to socialising, which can make not being able to drink a very lonely experience. Being able to pour yourself a drink of something that looks, tastes and feels like alcohol, stops those awkward, intrusive questions and makes sobriety look a lot more appealing.
What are they so expensive?
The process of infusing botanicals without alcohol is a complex and costly one. In fact, without alcohol to stabilise and preserve the herbs, spices and other botanicals things get rather tricky. Some non-alcohol spirits have had the alcohol chemically removed, but Ecology + Co, like Seedlip before it, is distilled without any alcohol at all, which is a complicated and labour intensive process. In addition, without the expected alcohol buzz, customers are more focused on taste and high-quality botanicals aren't cheap.
What are they really like?
My gin-loving colleague and I decided to put our taste buds on the line and try some of the alcohol-free spirits we had been hearing so much about. We wanted to really put them to the test though, so we decided to pit them against a classic alcoholic gin in a blind tasting. Would we be able to taste the difference? Would this be a key turning point in our lives that we looked back on in years to come, thinking "that was the moment that changed everything"?
We took a bottle of Ecology + Co London Dry, a bottle of Seedlip Grove 42, a bottle of Brunswick Aces Spades Sapiir and a trusty bottle of one of our favourite NZ gins, Scapegrace Dry, and got to drinking.
From an Australian brewing team who started on their alcohol-free distilling journey back in 2017, Brunswick Aces is new to the NZ market. The Brunswick Aces guys have since opened a dry bar in Melbourne which is going very well, so these guys really seem to know what they are doing.
This particular alcohol-free spirit doesn't call itself a gin, but rather a sapiir. A sapiir refers to a process – dating back to the Middle Ages – of preserving the flavour of fresh botanicals so that they could be enjoyed all year round. So, like others on this list, it is botanicals, without the booze. It is also the most affordable on our list at $59.99.
Brunswick Aces Spades Sapiir promises: "notes of green cardamom and parsley, perfectly balanced by sweet citrus and native American lemon myrtle, with distinct Tasmanian pepperberry. "
Paired with Fever Tree Refreshingly Light Indian Tonic the flavour was subtle, fresh and slightly sweet. Overall, the experience was pleasant but a little light on flavour, definitely drinkable but a slice of lemon or orange would have really bumped up the flavour.
Undeniably the biggest success story in the alcohol-free spirit game, Seedlip had a lot to live up to. Although it had never called itself a "gin", Seedlip is a botanically infused non-alcoholic spirit, which we decided is basically a booze-free gin.
The Seedlip guys have their packaging and bottling game down so this is an alcohol alternative that really looks the part. In addition, Seedlip is easy to come by as it is available in most supermarkets in New Zealand. The price point is high though with 700ml setting you back $69.99.
We tried the Seedlip Grove 42 which boasts itself as "a zesty and warm blend of orange, lemongrass and ginger." We paired it with Fever Tree and the result was a fresh, citrus-forward drink that was very reminiscent of a boozed-up gin. We really liked it.
Ecology + Co
Having fallen in love with the gorgeous designs on the Ecology + Co bottles and loving the authentically Kiwi start-up story behind it, we were excited to give it a try.
This one has another high price point of around $67, so expectations were high. We opted to pair the Ecology + Co London Dry once again with the trusty Fever Tree so we could fairly compare the flavour profiles.
The London Dry promises a "traditional blend of juniper, coriander and lemon, with floral and pine notes". When we popped the lid we got a bit of a surprise, there was a really strong smell that took a bit of getting used to. Now, mixed with the Fever Tree, we took a sip. The flavours were strong, this was not a drink that was taking its flavour promises lightly but for us the flavour just wasn't gin-like, which is what we were really looking for. That being said we did taste this one last in our tasting session and it ended up falling just after the boozed-up Scapegrace so perhaps that had an impact on our experience.
Our verdict overall?
As one of New Zealand's stand-out distillers it probably wasn't fair pitting our non-alcoholic test subjects against Scapegrace. In the end the boozy gin was our favourite, but it wasn't by the landslide I expected. We preferred the Scapegrace in terms of overall flavour but only marginally above Seedlip, with Brunswick Aces not far behind. My colleague really liked the Seedlip and happily took the bottle home at the end of the day, vowing to work it into her drinking routine. Another thing worth noting about Seedlip is that they have a cocktail collaboration with Black Pineapple Co. coming out that has some wonderful flavours such as a spiced pumpkin sour and an espresso-no martini.
Having journeyed down the alcohol-free spirit path a little further now I see there being a really important place for them in society and I vow to make a place for them in my life too. I have taken home the Brunswick Aces and am really enjoying it with the Fever Tree Mediterranean and a slice of orange.
Are alcohol-free spirits for you?
With Dry July rapidly approaching many of us are taking an honest look at our liquor cabinets and wondering if a month off is a good idea. According to the Dry July Foundation, giving up alcohol for a month can improve your sleep quality and as a result your mental health could improve. Not to mention a good chance of reducing calories and losing weight, reducing cholesterol and lowering blood sugar. Not to mention the fact that alcohol dehydrates us so cutting it out of our diets can even improve our skin and overall appearance.
Giving up alcohol for a month is harder said than done for many. Alcohol triggers dopamine receptors in the brain, giving us a happy buzz that can be hard to go without at the end of a stressful day. This is where alcohol-free spirits can come in handy. The ritual of mixing a booze-free drink and then sitting down and sipping it can have a similar effect to an alcoholic beverage. I am not saying that the experience will be intoxicating per se, but if, just for a month, you lie to yourself a little as you mix a not-gin and tonic, your brain might just believe you.
A study into the placebo effect of alcohol-free spirits showed that in a bar setting, drinkers who consumed non-alcoholic versions showed the same signs of intoxication as those who received the traditional control drink. The study, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, explored using non-alcoholic spirits in this way to reduce alcohol harms as they give the "experience" of drinking without any of the adverse health outcomes.
With alcohol misuse estimated to cost New Zealand society over $7 billion each year, jumping on the sober curious band wagon and giving non-alcohol spirits a try might just be worth it, for the greater good.