The search led to McGinn’s book, Teetotal Tipples, which was published in December 2016 and highlights a growing trend in adult drinking habits. The proportion of Brits regularly drinking is at its lowest (56.9%) since 2005, according to the latest research by the Office of National Statistics statistics. In 2017, 5 million people signed up to Dry January. Other campaigns such as Macmillan Cancer Support’s Go Sober for October, aim to encourage drinkers to abstain later in the year.
While researching for the book, McGinn came across non-alcoholic spirit Seedlip, the first of its kind. Around £25 per 70cl, Seedlip’s clear bottles, with names such as Garden 108 and Spice 94, could be mistaken for craft gin. And serving suggestions are similar to those you’d find for a gin cocktail – Indian tonic water being the preferred mix. “It’s such a clever brand,” says McGinn.
Seedlip’s founder Ben Branson, a non-drinker, made the first batch in his kitchen in 2013 when he was looking for unusual herbs to grow. “I come from a family of farmers; we’ve been farming for over 300 years. So that love of nature and growing things at home is pretty instilled in me,” he says. Searching online, he came across The Art of Distillation (first published in 1651), which explained how to make non-alcoholic drinks using copper pot stills. “I was kind of fascinated,” Branson says.
It took Branson around two years to hit on the perfect recipe. The production process is similar to that of making gin or vodka – first the ingredients are steeped, then distilled and filtered. There is no fermentation (so no alcohol is produced), but a small amount of alcohol is used to extract flavour and prevent the ingredients from going off. The alcohol is then removed before the drink is bottled.
In 2015 Branson’s drink won a listing in Selfridges, followed by Fortnum and Mason and Ocado. Last year, drinks giant Diageo took a minority stake in the company, through its corporate venture arm Distill Ventures; its first investment in a non-alcoholic drink. With this financing, Branson has been able to move production out of his kitchen and take on more staff. Seedlip is now stocked in around 400 bars and restaurants in the UK and is already being sold in European cities, the US and Australia.
While Seedlip may have been the first non-alcoholic spirit, the booze-free beer and wine market is more mature – an estimated 14% of Brits already drink alcohol-free beer, cider or wine. Steve Dass launched Nirvana Brewery in March to pursue this growing opportunity. Billed at the world’s first low and no alcohol brewery, Nirvana is based in Walthamstow, London and has three beers on the market so far – two pale ales and a stout, which are all less than 0.5% alcohol.
Dass says: “Everybody is saying ‘are you sure you’re not going to make normal beer [too]?’ But we’ve got over 100 breweries in London doing that. Being a bit different, we don’t have to fight for the same [pub] tap space. Over the years, I’ve seen how the craft industry has grown. But the alcohol-free beers have always just remained bland lagers. We were surprised people couldn’t put the same ideology [of craft brewing] into alcohol-free.”
Dass says his alcohol-free beer takes about the same time to brew as a normal beer – around two to three weeks. “Depending on the style of the beer, the procedures are slightly different, the temperatures are different, certain yeasts are different, and you have to confuse the yeast so it doesn’t turn sugar into alcohol.”
While only brewing alcohol-free craft beer may be a punt on Dass’s part, it does bring the benefit of no alcohol duty: the cut off is 1.2% ABV (alcohol by volume). However, Dass says Nirvana reflects this in its prices. Still in its early days, Nirvana is building its community with monthly yoga classes at the brewery, and is slowly building up stockists, starting with independent retailers and pubs. Despite its growing popularity with the public, non-alcoholic beer is not always an easy sell. “[Some shops] have initially said ‘I don’t know if our crowd is going to like this’,” Dass admits. “But we’ve worked with a few of them, we’ve given them samples, we’ve done tastings in store and they’ve said ‘ok guys, we’ll take a few cases’.”
On the plus side, competition among the no-alcohol craft brews is still fairly limited, with BrewDog’s Nanny State the best known. “We’re on an exciting journey,” Dass says. ”There’s a lot of educating to do – a lot of hard work to change perceptions.”
Nirvana’s yoga-goers may well have a crossover with the attendees of last month’s Mindful Drinking festival. The festival in Bermondsey, London, grew out of the mindful drinking movement, the followers of which aim to cut down their alcohol consumption. Attending and sponsoring the event was non-alcoholic wine brand Eisberg. The wine is one of the brands owned by Liverpool’s Halewood Wines and Spirits, that director Andrew Turner took responsibility for in 2015.
It was in that year that Turner considered how to answer an increased demand for low-alcohol drinks. He and his team worked with their wine makers in Germany to find a process that would retain the flavour wine, while minimising the ABV. Using vacuum distillation, they discovered they could warm the wine in a large glass cylinder to remove the alcohol. Most of their customers, Turner says, are looking to reduce the amount of alcohol they’re drinking (as opposed to being fully teetotal), so it’s been important to ensure the de-alcoholised version looks and tastes like normal wine.
Despite its research suggesting a broad market, stockists including major supermarkets, and the range’s variety – Eisberg has six non-alcoholic wines to choose from, including a red, whites, rose and sparkling options – Turner has found bars and restaurants are reluctant to stock it. “I’m quite disappointed and shocked at how difficult it is to break into some of these places. We are making inroads, but just not at the same pace as it has been embraced in other categories [such as retail].”
As custom for non-alcoholic alternatives is set to grow – driven by an awareness that McGinn suggests began with initiatives like Dry January – availability in bars and restaurants is likely to change. “More people are choosing to have a few more dry days a week,” she says. “I think that’s had a big impact on how we drink and how we think about drinking.”