Rising from the ashes

Many consumers have been manifesting a desire for a life free from alcohol, whether it’s a permanent choice or not. The industry has listened: alcohol-free options are evolving!

Rising from the ashes of the past couple of years, non-alcoholic options have been capturing the attention of many drinkers. As it has been frequently stated over the past few months, consumers are now eager to find the best alternatives to alcoholic serves. Whether it is a choice coming from the desire for a healthier lifestyle, or just the need for a little break, bar operators must ensure a variety of tasty options that will not take away from the experience. In particular, a whole new range of mocktails has been in the making for a while. These new offerings will be very distant from the old concept of non-alcoholic drinks – mixed juices on their own, mostly, that didn’t really look or taste like a cocktail.

Karina Sudenyte, Founder and CMO at Flawsome! Drinks, says: “The pursuit of wellness in the COVID-19 era has further boosted consumers’ desire to look after mental wellbeing. They wish to be healthier and have embraced alcohol-free lifestyle initiatives, such as Sober October or Dry January. It is now imperative that brands and retailers offer these alternatives to their consumers.”

To overcome this challenge, mixologists and brands around the world have been working on new creations, looking for a way to make non-alcoholic offerings much tastier and definitely much more attractive.

The cocktail category has taken a huge turn over the last five years, showcasing incredible creativity and supporting ongoing trends that started outside the trade, such as sustainable solutions – the amount of ingredients reused for other purposes is substantial, and it’s a way of doing business that will only grow in the future in the attempt of relieving the planet of some of its problems. Not to mention the premium drinking phenomenon, which has shown to be one of the main factors for hospitality to be able to get back on its feet – and it is easily applicable to non-alcoholic options.

“Elevating soft drinks from everyday thirst-quenching products, to an experience worth paying more for, offers licensed outlets an opportunity to drive spend per head,” says Katy Watts, Head of Channel Development (Foodservice & Licensed) at Britvic. “There are some great initiatives to satisfy guests’ need for a full experience,” she continues, “simple things like elevating the serve through glassware, garnish or enticing menu descriptors, which can really enhance the guest experience.”

As the cocktail category expanded its horizons, it was only a matter of time until the mocktail culture found its pace – and now it’s all about innovation in the field!

Adam Wild, owner of Drinks by Wild, shares one of the many trending novelties: “Bitter flavours used to be something exclusive to aperitivo and amaro liqueurs – like Campari, for instance – for a long time. Now, I see more non-alcoholic bitter spirits on the market as well as a growing popularity of bitter sodas from Italy, such as San Bitter stateside.”

Cocktail Photographer, Stylist, and Mixologist Jes Gutierrez-Switaj, known as ‘The Sauceress’ on Instagram, adds: “Recently I have seen 0% ABV spirits moving away from just trying to impersonate another kind of alcohol. They don’t aim to taste exactly like gin or whiskey, they are doing their own thing. I think this affords much more versatility and some really interesting flavour profile opportunities. I’ve seen ingredients used in these bottles that I’ve never seen anywhere else, and that really excites me!”

Of course, Low & No spirits are a natural companion for soft drinks, juices, and mixers. Put them together, and you’ll get all the likes of a cocktail, starting with taste. All kinds of bars are progressively expanding their menus, ready to serve all their customers independently from their drinking habits. Consumers are not after the ‘drinking to get drunk’ experience anymore, but rather a ‘drinks and chill’ type of vibe. They are much more informed compared to last decade, and it is only right for businesses to reflect this maturity.

Adam stresses the importance of having a vaster variety of non-alcoholic options: “As a small business owner and content creator, I think it’s important to be accommodating of everyone. I’d love for more people to try my drinks, so I always have at least one non-alcoholic option on my menus, and share my recipes on different platforms for my guests to recreate their favourite serves at home.”

On the same line of thought, Jes says: “I think that inclusivity is one of the most important reasons. As we all try to slowly move back towards ‘normal’ everyday life, being able to make sure that abstaining friends and guests feel comfortable and welcome at social events can really make a big difference in their experience. It’s undeniable that alcohol plays a large part in social occasions, but it shouldn’t also exclude those who choose not to partake.”

Major brands around the UK have caught on with the trend and have been working towards it! For Lee Hyde, Beverage Innovation Manager at MONIN, has made note of the changes in their audience and made plans for it: “Consumers are seeking excitement, so pique their curiosity with different styles from conventional handcrafted options to twist popular classics. As long as the focus is on quality, it’s open season when it comes to a soft drinks menu!”

MONIN are aware of the importance of overall aesthetics – with the majority of drinkers engaging on social media platforms, presentation is almost as vital as flavour: “Texture and colour are key to creating ‘Instagrammable’ content, and these drinks will help to achieve this.”

Nonetheless, mixers have now raised the bar – pun intended – as brands have found the best approach to cocktail making. The quality of soft drinks has considerably evolved: “Not all the brands are the same, of course, and the price can be a little higher sometimes, but it’s usually worth it,” says Santiago Vasquez Cuberos, CEO of AntiMixology Brand and known by the same name.

Mixers and soft drinks are now completely versatile: they can be enjoyed straight, with some ice, in cocktails and mocktails, and they contribute to that fresh, vibrant flavor with just the right amount of sweetness and bubbles. For that extra fizz, single serve bottles are the way to go!

Santiago has a few winning numbers when it comes to mixing: “I love classic tiki flavours, exotic fruits, spices and citrus. Consider a classic Don the Beachcomber, for example, with a combination of grapefruit, lime, and cinnamon. Then take Fever Tree grapefruit soda, fresh lime juice, cinnamon syrup and, a personal touch, a couple of drops of bitter. I call it a Beachcomber Fizz – the mix of citrus and spice is unmistakably tiki, but there is absolutely no alcohol in it!”

The Antimixologist also makes an interesting observation that shows how our culture has embraced the usage of alcohol way more than it was in the past. Sure, nowadays alcohol does taste much better, but at the same time history is forgotten.

“For zero-proof drinks,” says Santiago, “I tend to lean towards anything with a hearty infusion of spices and herbs: berries and thyme, grapefruit and vanilla, banana and basil, and more. Syrups, bitters, sodas, juices, fresh herbs – all these things were originally used to cover up the flavour of alcohol, not compliment it. We shouldn’t be of the mindset that, because liquor is missing from a drink, it’s somehow not as good.”

Karina adds: “I believe that alcohol-free drinks are meant to maintain, rather than dilute, the brain and body’s performance. You don’t need alcohol to have fun: you are funny, you are attractive, you are interesting, and you do not need alcohol to bring out your personality.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of alternatives get created every day. Amongst many, inspired by the growth due to innovation within the dark spirits category, Franklin & Sons added to their award-winning range with two flavour variants made to enhance the finest dark spirits; Pineapple Mixer with Almond which received gold at the Spirits Business Mixer Masters 2021, and Mandarin Mixer with Ginger. Creating limitless combinations with the likes of rum, whisky, tequila, bourbons and vermouth.

Lucky for our industry, there are seemingly infinite options available, from revisiting timeless recipes to whipping up something completely new. Lee supports this idea, but decisively pushes towards fresh views and creativity: “While traditional drinks such as the mojito remain popular, consumers are becoming more adventurous in their palate preferences and it’s vital to keep up with this ever-growing hunger for the ‘next big thing’. Other non-alcoholic versions of classics such as the Virgin Mary are also popular, but operators shouldn’t limit their offering to these. Interesting serving vessels and garnishes, quality flavours and ingredients, plus a concise, but varied selection will help create a buzz around non-alcoholic serves.”

There are clearly many opinions amongst experts in the trade. The growth in soft drinks, mixers, alcohol-free spirits and many other options shows a parallel growth in our society to be pursuing a healthier, more mindful lifestyle. The trade is here to listen to its consumers, and we have been listening.

The number of big and small businesses that have made an impact by assisting these newly-found needs is incredible, and there are a lot more that are embarking on the same path.

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