Not drinking alcohol, for whatever reason, can be a total pain in the backside.
Being openly teetotal (temporarily or permanently) tends to involve lots of tedious explanation, a stream of ‘friends’ trying to convince you otherwise and the realisation that the sheer volume of liquids involved in a night out just isn’t as enjoyable when you’re facing your seventh pint of Coke.
It’s even more fun if you’re trying to conceal the fact you’re laying off the booze: sipping that gin-free tonic you had to somehow surreptitiously order under the watchful gaze of some smug bugger who didn’t believe your antibiotics line makes a strong case for staying in.
Then, whether in or out, you’ve got the choice of beverage itself. Low- and zero-alcohol drinks have traditionally not been up to much. While soft drinks have improved beyond lame squash and sugary fizz with many an elderflower presse and rose lemonade about, alcohol substitutions tend to have consisted of watery lager and too-sweet ‘wine’.
Read more: The fun nights out that don’t require booze
But the tide is turning. Non-alcoholic cocktails are starting to appear on high-end menus, crafted with as much precision and care as their boozy cousins, while several at-home drinks have appeared on the market of late, including tasty beer, interesting wine and even distilled, botanical spirits, all with little to no alcohol.
So read on for our pick of non-booze booze. Whatever your usual tipple, we’ve found alcohol-free swaps to suit.
In search of sophisticated flavours or needing something that actually tastes and looks like the real thing to fob off other people (or yourself) for a while? Trying to have a break, cut down or just need some variation in your teetotal life? You’ve come to the right place. It’s your alcohol cupboard 2.0.
Instead of sweet mixers/alcopops
Thomas & Evans No.1 has been created with steam-distilled green fruits, citrus peel and botanicals and filtered through silver birch charcoal to make a premium carbonated 0% drink (£3.95, 330ml). We found it fairly sweet with summery top notes, so it’s a good replacement for those who like alcopops or spirits with sweet mixers.
For fans of lager top or shandy, Foster’s Radler – premixed lager and cloudy lemonade – isn’t alcohol-free, but it’s significantly lower than a usual bottle at 2% (£2.50, 4x300ml).
Instead of beer
Beer fans probably have it best at the moment, as the low- and zero-alcohol range is getting bigger and better all the time (though do always check the label, as alcohol-free isn’t the same as low or reduced alcohol).
A personal favourite is Brewdog’s Nanny State – a hoppy bottle (using Centennial, Amarillo, Columbus, Cascade and Simcoe hops) widely available and that tastes the most like an actual beer of any we’ve tried, despite coming in at 0.5% (£1.29, 330ml).
We’ve heard mixed reviews on St Peter's Without, but we found it drinkable: it could be a good option for those who specifically don’t want a lighter, lager-y taste as it’s darker, with plenty of noticeable malt (£13, 8x500ml). It’s classed as alcohol-free at 0.05%.
Also on the darker tip, Big Drop Brewing Co. has brought out Milk Chocolate Stout – it looks convincing if you’re after a fake and tastes like a very light stout; sweet and smooth to begin with, with chocolate notes and a slightly bitter finish (£29.98, 12x330ml). A good choice for those who like stout flavours but find them too heavy to drink too much of.
Instead of gin
The UK’s first spirit at 0%, Seedlip’s Spice 94 has drawn comparisons to gin, being a botanical, distilled product with complex flavours such as cardamom, oak and cascarilla bark (though gin’s go-to botanical juniper is not involved). In fact, it’s been so successful that the team has brought out a second expression, Garden 108, with notes of hay, rosemary, spearmint and thyme (from £23.95).
Gabriella Thorpe, wine and spirit aficionado and founder of Vintage Velvet Vodka, is a fan of Seedlip and also points out that spirits such as vermouth have lower ABVs than many of the usual suspects, tending to be below 20%, compared to standard vodka and gin etc (which are usually around 40%): “Vermouth can be used as a tasty alternative, and tastes delicious on its own over lots of ice.”
In fact, many aperitif spirits are pretty low: Campari comes in at 25% and Aperol at 11% (around £15). A 50ml Aperol with your mixer of choice, for instance, adds up to about half a unit.
Instead of brunch booze
Virgin cocktails are a winner because hair-of-the-dog brunch beverages tend to be light on the alcohol anyway (unless you’re talking a Corpse Reviver, in which case we can’t help you). Aperitivo di Passata is an Italian Virgin Mary and Napolina has an easy recipe for it here, using Napolina passata tomato puree, chilli, lime juice, nutmeg and seasoning.
Of course, you can use the usual Bloody Mary-style seasoning or switch it up with basil leaves.
Instead of cocktails
Several top UK bars do stunning lists of alcohol-free cocktails, but if you don’t fancy shelling out £15 for a drink, there are some at-home versions. While your standard frozen cocktail might taste of nothing more than too-sweet strawberry ice without booze, we liked the Rocktails range – it works well with spirits, but has flavours sophisticated enough to stand on their own, such as The Thyme Collins with lemon and thyme, and The Mockito of lime, yuzu and mint (from £9 for three sachets).
The aforementioned low-ABV spirits (vermouth, Aperol etc) are also worth bearing in mind for one-shot cocktails.
Instead of wine/Prosecco
We can’t lie: you may struggle to find a palatable zero-alcohol still wine. Of the ones we tried, Eisberg’s alcohol-free Cabernet Sauvignon (£3.50, 75cl) tasted the most like wine to us rather than the odd fruit juice many taste like, while the Sauvignon Blanc (£3.50, 75cl) from the same brand was sweet and divided office opinion.
There are some lower-booze options out there with good ratings: we were recommended 5.5% Little Snapper from M&S (£6, 75cl) and 5.5% First Cape Light Pinot Grigio (£3.50, 75cl). If you’re a regular wine drinker, it’s likely these won’t quite hit the spot, though if you need something to pass for an evening, you could do worse.
However the experts tell us go sparkling if you want something more like the real thing. Vintage Velvet Vodka’s Gabriella Thorpe says: “I recommend the sparkling options as they are slightly more interesting in taste and lower in calories. For example, the Echo Falls 0% Sparkling Tisane (£3.50, 75cl) combines a mix of grape juice and green tea, making it slightly on the sweeter side.
“Tesco also has an alcohol-free sparkling Chenin Blanc in the Finest range (£2.75) that is very reasonable and flavoursome.”
Instead of cider
We were pretty taken with 6 Somewhere, a French sweet cidre with less of a punch at 2.5%, but enough flavour (£45, 6x75cl).
A more mainstream option, Kopparberg’s alcohol-free cider (£1.29, 500ml) in pear or mixed fruit flavours isn’t bad either (if you already like sweet ciders you’re fine), while on a slightly dryer note, Stowford Press Cider (0.5%) seems to get good reviews too for its “refreshing” taste (£14.99, 12x330ml).