Can a gin-free cocktail really raise our spirits? | Alcohol

Source: www.theguardian.com

Justin Hicklin is describing first meeting his business partner, back in 2019. “I did think, ‘Oh God, that chap off Made in Chelsea.’ I was pleasantly surprised that he was charming and not at all a dick, as I was expecting.” Hicklin, 60, is a former advertising executive with the air of a man who happily admits he comes “from a generation that would go out three nights a week and down 10 pints and not think it unusual”. His business partner, Spencer Matthews, 32, the reality TV star, is sitting alongside him and laughs: “Maybe that should be our marketing: ‘Will make you less of a dick.’”

Looking relaxed in a sweatshirt and trainers he has lost, at his estimate, at least 15kg from his peak weight of 93kg, when he was on Made in Chelsea. In part, this has been thanks to quitting alcohol. “The calories you consume when you drink is crazy – it’s 240 calories in a glass of wine.”

It was after going sober that he realised there weren’t many no-alcohol options behind the bar – or at least nothing he fancied drinking. Which explains the product he and Hicklin have developed. Called Clean G, it is described on the bottle as a “low-alcohol botanical spirit”, and on advertising billboards as: “All of the gin taste, none of the gin hangover.”

Clean G is the latest in an increasingly long line of alcohol-free drinks to hit the market. I too had presumed that this was just a passing vanity project for Matthews: a fancy, overpriced, low-calorie liquid for Notting Hill types into “mindful drinking”. A bottle is £19, more expensive than either Gordon’s or Beefeater. And these full-strength gins have to hand over £8 to the taxman in duty – Clean G carries no duty. But Matthews is articulate, persuasive and fearsomely ambitious. “What we wanted was to invent Beyond Meat for alcohol,” he says referencing the Californian plant-based meat company, which launched its vegan burger in 2015 and was valued back then at $100m. It is now $10.7bn.

In January, after sales jumped by 580% compared with the previous month, Clean G announced it had raised a further £7m from investors, including Ursula Burns, a board member of Uber and former non-executive director at drinks giant Diageo, valuing the company at at least £35m. He has done his research. After a few years of strong sales of alcohol-free beers and wines, Matthews is confident that the boom is about to encompass spirits, too.

Kantar, a market research company that monitors our weekly shopping habits, calculates that sales of no- and low-alcohol drinks have nearly doubled in just four years from £98m in 2016 to £194m in 2020.

In January, Gordon’s launched a 0.0% alcohol-free version, just a few weeks after New London Light, a 0% spirit from Salcombe Distilling, one of England’s more successful gin brands, hit the shelves. There are now 269 different no- or low-alcohol drinks stocked in supermarkets, up from 170 four years ago. They encompass everything from tequilas to low-calorie wine cordials.

Headlines in tabloids, such as “Brits binge on lockdown booze” and “Wine O’Lock” have led many people to presume the UK has drunk its way through lockdown. But that’s not strictly true. Yes, 25% more alcohol was consumed at home last year, but that was almost entirely down to pubs and restaurants being shut. A far bigger boom – 38% – occurred in sales of no- and low-alcohol drinks, with Covid forcing consumers to reassess their relationship with alcohol.

Will Case, the buying manager in charge of beers and spirits at Sainsbury’s, said if any other category in the supermarket had reported those figures, “you’d be doing cartwheels down the street. It’s not just a flash in the pan either. It’s a long-term significant growth story.”

There are some who think this might just be a case of the emperor’s new clothes, that new drinks in swanky packaging are nothing more than expensive flavoured water. But Matthews, Hicklin and their rivals believe millions of Britons are ready to shun booze and pay premium prices for upmarket alternatives to alcohol.

“We could change the world if we do this properly, that’s honestly what we’re looking to do. We want to grow into a global brand,” Matthews says.

Spencer Matthews, smiling, reclining in a chair with a drink in one hand and a balloon in the other
‘We could change the world: Clean G’s Spencer Matthews

There is also something on the bottle of his Clean G that gives a clue as to how the market is shifting. Underneath the Clean G, it says “low alcohol – 1.2% vol”. It is not alcohol-free. “We’re not trying to hoodwink anyone,” says Hicklin, before Matthews adds: “There’s no more alcohol in this than in bread, in soy sauce, in anything that requires fermentation. But you’d need to drink 31 of these to have the equivalent of one full-strength gin and tonic.”

This is technically correct. What constitutes an alcoholic drink is complicated. In the EU anything up to and including 0.5% can be called “alcohol-free”, but in Britain the labelling laws are more opaque. Voluntary guidance issued by the Department for Health suggests a drink needs to be as low as 0.05% before it can call itself “alcohol free”. Various studies suggest even at the higher 0.5% level your body can absorb the alcohol quicker than you can physically drink it, meaning it is impossible to get drunk on a 0.5% beer. A ripe banana can contain about 0.5% alcohol by volume (ABV), and Kikkoman, the leading soy sauce brand, says its product is between 1.2% and 1.5%.

Lucy Holmes, director of research and policy at Alcohol Change, says the UK’s labelling confusion needs to be cleared up, and some 0.5% “alcohol-free” beers need to be more upfront about their very small alcoholic content. “If you have chosen to avoid alcohol because, say, you are pregnant and trying to avoid any alcohol whatsoever, or if you have religious reasons to avoid alcohol, you do want to know if there’s any alcohol in it or not,” she argues. But this confusion has not hindered the industry, allowing it to develop a whole raft of drinks just above 0% and to rechristen this sector as “no-lo”.

Non-alcoholic drinks used to be bought by a small number of committed teetotallers. Now, a far larger group of consumers fall into the moderation camp. “Most people are what we call ‘blenders’,” says Stuart Elkington, 49, who owns the online retailer Dry Drinker. “They blend what they drink. They have a no or low drink during the week, in the confidence they can have alcohol at the weekend.”

One of those is Lucky Saint, a 0.5% lager started by Luke Boase, 39, a former City analyst who ended up working in the oil and gas industry before deciding he wanted to start his own business. He agrees with Elkington that the boom is not coming from teetotallers. “There aren’t that many people who are completely sober. Yes, the number is growing, but actually the much bigger growth in the category is coming from people who want to moderate to some extent. It’s the flexitarian approach to alcohol.”

Kantar’s analysis of shoppers’ baskets shows that 23% of all alcohol buyers also sometimes buy no-lo drinks, suggesting they are moderators. A mere 0.6% of those adult drinks buyers who buy no-lo only buy no-lo. “You can assume they are teetotallers,” says Richard Lee at Kantar. This partly explains the popularity of 1.2% spirits and 0.5% beers – most consumers are not that bothered if there is a tiny amount of non-intoxicating alcohol in their drinks.

But there is a more fundamental reason: in most cases, a small amount of alcohol is crucial in creating a good no-lo drink. “Alcohol covers all manner of sins,” says Boase. For him, stripping out all the alcohol makes for an unpleasant beer. “Alcohol tends to balance sweetness in the same way that it balances bitterness.”

There are two main ways of making no-lo beer. The first is to make a normal beer, but stop the brewing process early so that only some of the sugar in the grain has fermented and turned into alcohol. The other is to make a normal, alcoholic beer and then strip out the alcohol either through reverse osmosis or through vacuum distillation, which involves heating up the beer until the alcohol evaporates. Alcohol usually evaporates at 80C, but a vacuum means you only need to heat it up to 40C, destroying less of the flavour. “The equipment and the technology has been around for quite a long time,” says Boase. “But it is an art form using it because at different temperatures you’re extracting different flavour compounds and getting different things going on.”.

Boase spent a year trying to create a decent no-lo lager in Britain before he gave up and went to Germany, which has a long tradition of low-alcohol beer, to find a brewer to make it for him. “Vacuum distillation involves a really expensive bit of kit. It’s £20m.”

Lucky Saint has won a number of awards and does definitely taste like a pilsner-style lager, if a slightly watered down one.

For some, however, stripping out the alcohol to create a no-lo beer is “madness”. That’s the view of Felix von Hurter, who last year co-launched Freestar. “The process is destructive to flavour and it’s often quite aggressive,” he says. He also adds that it is hugely wasteful. Freestar, in contrast, is made without any yeast or brewing whatsoever. “We have the same ingredients – we have hops, a really great malted barley and a secret sauce of natural ingredients that brings the complexity that the fermentation would otherwise bring. We blend those ingredients with a demineralised water, then we force carbonate,” – the term for adding bubbles to a drink. The end result is a 0% IPA-style lager, which von Hurter claims uses 80% less energy and 80% less water than a standard beer.

Some in the industry have queried whether you can really call it a beer if no brewing has been involved. “It’s basically lager-flavoured soda,” says Laura Willoughby, founder of Club Soda, a group that promotes no-lo drinks. But being 0% and the drink having never been alcoholic means it can be certified halal – “You can’t give a de-alcholised beer to a Muslim drinker,” von Hurter says – and it can appeal to those who hate the idea of even trace alcohol in their drinks. “You can’t call a bolognese vegetarian just by picking out the meat,” he explains.

This is a view shared by another new spirit on the market: Feragaia. Most of the no-lo spirits are ersatz gins, designed to be drunk with tonic. Feragaia is unusual in that it is amber-coloured, hinting heavily that it is a whisky substitute, without ever mentioning the actual word – its slogan is “Distilled in Scotland”. It is the brainchild of Jamie Wild and Bill Garnock, a Scotsman who used to be a salesman for a whisky and gin distiller in the USA. “I got burned out after selling booze every day,” he says. It is an undeniably curious drink using cayenne pepper, bay leaf and lemon verbena among others to create a “spirit” designed to be drunk either on the rocks or with a ginger ale. It is not cheap. A 50cl bottle costs £23.95. Would it not make more sense to have the ginger ale on its own, or a cordial?

“There’s a moment in the day when you want to switch off,” says Garnock. “I have a cordial at lunch, but in the evening I don’t want to have the same drink I had at lunch because at lunch I am in work mode, and in the evening I am switching off and I want a rocks glass with lots of ice. It’s about different drinking moments.”

For him, being 0% rather than 0.5% or 1.2% is a key marketing advantage. “We want to offer a true alternative to alcohol for those who choose not to drink. It can be for religious, health or personal reasons that someone does not want to drink so to be 0.0% is important.”

Alcohol, however, acts as a powerful preservative and without it the shelf life is dramatically reduced. So too if you cut out sugar, which most of the current generation of spirits do in an attempt to win over calorie-conscious consumers.

“It is a production headache for a lot of non-alcoholic spirits – how to achieve shelf life,” says Garnock. “When you have zero sugar, it’s a very fine balance to have taste and shelf life. You don’t want to have a liquid that tastes amazing, but only lasts for two weeks.”

Feragaia has a six-month shelf life once open, and uses potassium sorbate, a common, odourless salt to help with preservation, along with citric acid. Gordon’s 0% spirit recommends you store it in the fridge and use within two months of opening.

Producing a decent shelf-life is not the only issue with these drinks. “Ensuring the right juniper character for Gordon’s 0.0% alcohol free spirit was particularly challenging as juniper’s insolubility with water created significant challenges,” says Charlotte Gibbon, the British head of marketing at Gordon’s. The drink is made in a similar way to Feregaia: distilling in water, rather than in alcohol. It, too, uses potassium sorbate and artificial sweeteners. These help keep the drink down to a mere 6 calories per 50cl, compared with 104 for a full-strength Gordon’s. But they do give the drink the faint odour of handwash.

Clean G is, to my tastebuds, far more like a gin, with a juniper nose and heavy citrus tang. Is it indistinguishable from the real thing? Not quite. Matthews says trying to get even close to replicating a gin, with only a fraction of the alcohol, “is incredibly complicated.” His business partner is confident that with each tweak to the recipe – and they are on their third iteration – they’re getting closer.

Will they ever make a product that would fool someone in a blind tasting. “For gin? I’d say we’re five years away. For gin and tonic, I’d say we’ll do it in 18 months,” Hicklin says confidently. Matthews adds: “If you can make a plant taste like a beef burger, why can’t we do it?”

Why indeed not?

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