Alcohol-free spirits: a sober trend takes flight
What are alcohol-free spirits? Does that product category even exist? And how is non-alcoholic gin produced at all? We give an overview of one of the most important and curious trends in drinking culture nowadays
If you’re in anyway associated with the booze business, you probably come across the slogan ”What to drink when you’re not drinking.” It’s the slogan of the British brand Seedlip. Whatever you think of the drink – whether good or bad – nobody will argue with the fact that they’ve virtually singlehandedly created a new product category.
“Alcohol-free spirits” have exploded onto the market, garnering a whole lot of attention and buzz with their health-conscious, booze free wings. More and more brands are launching products on the market that imitate the taste of gin, rum, or whisky. Just without the ingredient that makes spirits truly spirits – alcohol.
»Some manufacturers are trying to replace the astringent effect of alcohol with bitter notes or pungency.”«
The fate of the non-drinker
It’s a situation we’ve all faced. You’re sitting at the bar but an alcoholic tipple is out of the question. Maybe it’s because you’re on medication. Or you have to drive home. There’s also drinkers who simply do not like the taste of alcohol or who for other reasons, from religion to calorie control, have completely renounced the hard stuff
For those with a taste for complex drinks and the indelible atmosphere of a great bar, you’re often made to feel like the odd one out. Either you’ve had a tired cola pushed over the counter or you’ve had to sip on a sugary “mocktail”, often nothing more than an arbitrary mixture of several juices and sugary syrups. This is where the new category comes in, presenting drinks with the ostensible taste and complexity of spirits, but none of the booze factor.
The naming conundrum
In a legal sense, the category of non-alcoholic spirits does not exist at all. After all, a spirit in the European Union must have a minimum content of 15% ABV by legal definition. In the USA, the specific term “distilled spirit” requires a spirit to exhibit at least 40% ABV.
The aforementioned EU legislation also defines that a spirit drink must be produced by the „distillation, (…) of fermented products, the maceration or similar processing of plant materials in ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin, or by the addition of flavourings, sugars, other sweetening products or other agricultural products to ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin.”
In layman’s terms: the basis of a spirit is a high-percentage distillate of fermented matter or aromas, which are then converted into industrial neutral alcohol, before being diluted. This end product contains alcohol.
Alcohol-free gin: water with taste
Many of the new non-alcoholic spirit brands use essences and aromas obtained by distillation or maceration, but other ingredients do not meet the definition at all. For example, a bottle of an imitation gin consists primarily of one component: water.
This legal conundrum has not stopped the boom in this new type of bar drink. Almost every month – if not every week! – newbies are entering the market. In some cases, it’s established spirits brands trying their hand at a non-alc product, but a large proportion of the new products are coming from new companies too.
Are the many new alcohol-free spirits really “handmade”?
Many of the brands describe themselves as “handmade” and describe the elaborate manufacturing processes in detail. It’s worth nothing that behind many products are not individual distilleries, but aroma experts such as “Symrise”, “Döhler” or “Archer Daniels Midland”, who in turn purchase essences and flavors from other companies specializing in certain extraction processes.
Keep an eye on the courts, as many of the non-alcoholic spirit brands will disregard EU regulations in their labelling. Will many of the biggies defend their spirits with lawsuits? Many spirits experts are also critical of the emergence of this non-alcoholic “non-genre”.
»What to drink when you’re not drinking«
— the self-confident claim of market leader Seedlip
Rise of a new category
Our brand-monitor of non-alcoholic-products is constantly updated:
- 2014: Arkay
- 2015: Seedlip
- 2017: Ceders, Memento, Herbie Virgin
- 2018: Fluère, Stryyk, Siegfried Wonderleaf, The Bitter Note, Borrago, Berkshire Blend, Sea Arch, Silk Tree, Labdanum, Ginfree, Driver’s Tipple, Ginsin, No Ghost in a Bottle, Rumish, Ginish, Nona June, Chastity
- 2019: Everleaf, Slange Var, Three Spirit, Caleño, Celtic Soul, Æcorn, Lyre‘s, Nine Elms, Xachoh, Feragaia
How can you imitate the taste of a spirit?
Alcohol is a flavor carrier. This is also one reason why, for example, non-alcoholic beers often have a legally permitted low alcohol content of a maximum of 0.5% ABV. Only in recent years have an increasing number of beers with 0.0% ABV come onto the market – a rarity beforehand as the production remains technically extremely difficult.
In an attempt to create this flavor, some manufacturers of non-alcoholic beverages have tried to replace the astringent effect of alcohol – the slight contraction of the mucous membranes of the mouth when drinking – with bitter notes or pungency.
Getting crafty in the lab
What about the aromas? The different aromas of a spirit drink are recreated in these drinks by mi-xing essences. This process is no different from the so-called “cold compounding” process, in which so-called “spirit blends” are produced. The difference here is that the essences are either produced completely without alcohol or the alcohol was removed from them beforehand.
In addition to distillation with steam, as used in perfume production, methods for obtaining essen-ces also include percolation and cold pressing. In percolation, a liquid, such as water, removes the aromas from the solid substances by dripping or printing. Cold pressing on the other hand is used mainly for the extraction of oils.
Of course, there is also the artificial reproduction of flavors in the laboratory – something that defi-nitely can’t use the term handmade at all.
All things considered, there’s a lot of questions around this category. Is it even legally allowed to exist? Will Seedlip be usurped as market leader? 2020 will bring us a lot of answers. We can’t wait to see what happens next.