The winners (and losers) at the World Alcohol-Free Awards
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It’s a snowy day in March and I’m at a tasting in Tower Bridge. All around me, drinks writers, sommeliers, bartenders and buyers from Paris, London and Washington DC are swirling, sniffing and spitting a rainbow of different liquids. Words like “mouthfeel”, “acidity”, “concentration” and “finish” are being bandied about just like they would be at any wine or whisky tasting – the only difference is every drink in the room is alcohol-free.
It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of a teetotal drinks competition would have been treated as a joke. There simply wouldn’t have been enough products, let alone quality, to get it off the ground. The launch, therefore, of the World Alcohol-Free Awards is a watershed moment. When I was asked to be a judge by its founders, drinks writer Chris Losh and Christine Parkinson, former head of wine for the Hakkasan Group, I immediately said yes.
Fourteen per cent of Brits are now teetotal, according to Drinkaware (and 19 per cent of 18-24-year-olds). A growing number are drinking less. And temperance these days is big business. In 2022, no-and-low sales in 10 key markets totalled more than $11bn (with non-alcoholic products accounting for 70 per cent of that). By 2026, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, this figure will have grown by more than a third, driven mainly by non-alc. A host of retailers now cater for the sober-curious. Club Soda recently opened its first non-alc bottle shop in Covent Garden. New York has half a dozen teetotal liquor stores. Last month, the non-alc lager brand Lucky Saint (£42.50 for 24 x 330ml) opened a pub in Marylebone to cater for the one in three UK pub visits now apparently alcohol-free.
UK rules around no-and-low labelling are confusing (they are currently set to be reviewed). So WAFA organisers chose to abide by the most commonly recognised definition of “alcohol-free”, which pertains to any product at or under 0.5 per cent abv.
I didn’t get to taste everything by any means, but this is what I took away. Non-alc wine remains the Holy Grail – good examples are still scarce. “Alcohol is such a big component of wine – it’s really tough to remove it and still end up with a balanced and tasty drink,” says Parkinson. But Giesen Riesling (from $15.99) from New Zealand scored highly. I was also taken by the sparkling Shiraz (A$10.50, about £5.78) from Edenvale – it was the kind of juicy, crowd-pleasing fizzy red you’d drink chilled on a hot day.
There was a lot more interest and complexity among the kombucha-like ferments and sparkling teas – the best examples had many of the attributes (acidity, fruit, tannin, length) you’d look for in a wine. Gold-medal winners included the Real Dry Dragon Naturally Fermented Sparkling Tea (£9 for 75cl, ocado.com), and the excellent Darjeeling and Hojicha sparkling teas from Saicho (£17.99 for 75cl). The Les Fleurs du Mal Elderflower Kombucha from France’s Kombustache (€29.85 for three 75cl bottles) was also wonderfully expressive. All three would be great with food.
The baseline for bittersweet aperitifs in the Campari/Aperol vein was pretty good. Gold-medal winners included Citizen Spritz Bitter Orange (£20 for 500ml) and the more artisan Botivo (£26.95 for 500ml) – a hazy blend of fermented apple, honey and botanicals, including thyme, rosemary and gentian designed for drinking with soda. Tangy and aromatic, it’s one of the best things (alcoholic and non-) that I’ve tasted this year.
I remain underwhelmed by non-alcoholic “spirits” – most taste like perfumed water (but with a spirited price tag, despite the fact the producers pay no duty). But props to the gold-medal-winning coconut “rum” Myth (from £14.99, alcoholfreedrinks.co.uk) for doing a very convincing impression of Malibu.
There is a well-established tradition of no-and-low brewing – so I wasn’t surprised to learn from my fellow judge, beer writer Pete Brown, that the general standard of non-alc beers was good. “Compared to wine or spirits, the deficit caused by taking the alcohol away isn’t as steep,” he says. Gold-medal winners included Big Drop (£27 for 12 x 330ml), Clausthaler Dry Hopped (£1.35 for 330ml) and Butcombe’s Goram IPA (£14.95 for 12 x 330ml). Asahi 0.0% (£12 for eight x 330ml, drydrinker.com) scored gold in lager.
One of the more curious flights of the day was “functional spirits”: botanical drinks that promise some kind of herbal high. This is now a major growth area for non-alc, although the flavour of these products often leaves something to be desired. The Three Spirit range, however, was good both neat and with a mixer. The ginger-y, golden Nightcap (£24.99 for 500ml) flooded my veins with feelgood fire. The damson-coloured Livener (£24.99 for 500ml, pictured top) had a fruity spiciness a little like vermouth. We scored on taste, rather than efficaciousness – any high was subtle at best. But perhaps we didn’t imbibe enough to feel the full effects.
With the exception of beer, the least satisfactory categories tended to be the proxy alcohols. There was much more excitement, flavour-wise, among the free-form ferments, teas and botanical brews. So my advice is: be adventurous. Don’t seek a straight-up swap.