Mixologists and beverage lovers are raising a toast to spirits sans alcohol.
Uncorking some bubbly for your wedding anniversary this weekend, but dreading the not-so-bubbly morning hangover? How about popping a bottle of alcohol-free sparkling Chardonnay, which is as good if not better by some accounts as the real deal? But if sparkling rosé or white wine is not your thing, how about a glass of ‘Ginish’ or ‘Rumish’? If that sounds like a load of gibberish to you, get up and smell the grapes, malts, what-have-you, folks. It’s time to explore the world of alcohol-free or zero alcohol beverages. For those who came in late (as I did), an alcohol-free beverage is defined as a beverage that contains less than 0.5% ABV or alcohol by volume, although the mandatory percentage of ABV for it to qualify as non-alcoholic or alcohol free differs from country to country. So, while the cut-off percentage is 0.5% in the US, it is less than 0.05% in the UK and so on. The process of ethanol distillation in alcohol produces the alcohol-free beverage.
In a world where eating healthily and responsibly is the growing norm, alcohol-free or non-alcoholic (NA) beverages are slowly but steadily making their presence felt, both in retail stores as well as on beverage menus in standalone restaurants and star hotels. An NielsenIQ study has shown that while the retail sales of alcoholic drinks have seen a dip in the US in the last financial year (April 2021-May 2022), the figure for NA beverages has grown by more than 100% during the same period. My first brush with a NA beverage was sipping on an alcohol-free beer, a Kingfisher Radler (mint and lemon), which is all the rage on grocery delivery apps of late, on a hot summer afternoon, a year before the pandemic. I had not dwelt on it much and thought it to be one of those inconsequential fads. Two years on, the market for non-alcoholic beverages, even while being extremely niche and small, is booming. So, when I had my second and more detailed experience with an alcohol-free beverage more recently, I was determined to try wrapping this trend around my head a bit. While dining at an Italian new menu tasting table, in place of my preferred cocktail choice of a gin and tonic, I received a cool cucumber-elderflower G&T and was sipping on it nonchalantly, when the bartender asked me if it tasted different. I shrugged, saying it was a little lighter on the palate, because of perhaps the cucumber, when he happily announced that there was no liquor in the proffered drink.
“Alcohol-free beverages offer bartenders and mixologists a lot of leeway with the mocktails menu, there is much more room for creative experimentation,” says Nil Otpal, outlet manager at an Italian speciality restaurant in Hyderabad, which has recently added a listing of alcohol-free beverages to its drinks menu. “It is a good choice for some on many occasions, such as for the designated driver back home for a group of partygoers. Then there is that one odd person who will ask for his non-alcoholic beverage in a discreet way, under the table, like they say. Health, of course, is the primary reason why people are opting for these beverages, just like the way there are more and more takers now for vegan or plant-based food,” he adds. The Italian restaurant has tied up with a plant-based lifestyle brand from Germany, which now has also opened shop in India. They are also into Veen Waters (alkaline mineral spring water) sourced from Bhutan, which happens to be the world’s only carbon-print free country. Besides this, it has several organic, plant-based brands, like the Denmark-based Ish Spirits under its umbrella, such as ‘Ginish’ and ‘Rumish’. The desire for purer living is why we’ve created the world’s first online portal dedicated to 0% products. Our aim is simple: If you’re looking for leading brands when it comes to 0% alcohol, 0% dairy, 0% pesticides, 0% sugar, 0% microplastic, 0% meat, and natural waters, you’re in luck. At Zero Percent, we have them all,” reads a description on the brand’s website.
Hospitality consultant Kalyan Charan, who is on a month-long (and counting) detox diet for health reasons, has found himself “gravitating to non-alcoholic beverages and not missing the liquor much, and definitely not the calories”. Kalyan had trademarked a brand which would have been India’s first NA microbrewery making nonalcoholic drinks, mostly beer. “We had plans to go pan India in dry states like Gujarat and Bihar, opening NA microbreweries in Ahmedabad, Surat and Patna. But the second lockdown during Covid pandemic played party-pooper and we had to drop the project for a bit. Now, however, when the sector is opening up, it is time to revive the project. Alcohol-free beverages have a good market, be it the health-conscious social person or a pregnant lady, or even those whose religion prohibits social drinking, like alcohol-free beverages find good markets in the Middle East, for example,” adds Kalyan.
“After sampling a wide gamut of non-alcohol liquor, I am of the view that NA beer lends itself to the closest experience you can get to the real deal. You already have good international labels like Heineken 0.0, which is doing excellently or even the Budweiser 0 Alcohol. We would love to launch indigenous NA beer brands,” he explains. For teetotalers like young techie Jigna (name changed on request), NA beverages are a good way of getting acquainted with the world of liquor lookalikes before taking the quantum leap to social drinking. “I don’t know if I will take to hard core liquor eventually as I am quite enjoying the fact of social drinking with my friends and not getting drunk and being able to drive back home safely,” he says.
However, there are some who remain unimpressed. “It is a bit pretentious if you ask me. Why would anyone want to try a ‘Ginish’ unless one has had gin before and knows the taste? None of our clients have asked for NA beverages so far, and we are not in a hurry to add these on our beverages menu on our own but if the need arises, to each their own. I did pick up a few NA beers from my local grocery store when wine shops were closed during the first lockdown, but they were quite lacklustre. I would not pick those up in a hurry. I mean, a whisky is a whisky, what is with an alcohol-free whisky now?” counters award-winning mixologist Sharad Arora, who is also the operations head at a restaurant in Telangana.
I can almost visualise him rolling his eyes over the phone and can’t help a smirk. Let’s just keep classics that way. For example, can a Scotch on the rocks come close to a lookalike without the malts? But there will be exceptions. On its spirits section, the plant-based lifestyle brand’s website states, “The athlete, the pregnant woman, or the designated driver. It’s for those who can tear up the dance floor sober, and for those who simply want to wake up with a clear head on a Sunday morning.”
Swati Sucharita is a Hyderabad-based journalist, food blogger and independent content consultant. You may write in at swati.sucharita@htmedialabs.