The Lower Alcohol Drinks Landscape

So you want to reduce your alcohol intake but still have all the pleasures of imbibing the drinks you love?  Well we have good and bad news for you; for some this is eminently possible but for others the lower alcohol drinks landscape is still a barren wasteland.

Beers, Lagers and Ciders

Probably the best news is for beer and cider drinkers. Craft brewers have been remarkably successful in producing a huge range of no (<0.5% ABV) and lower alcohol (0.5% to 2% ABV) beers which can now be every bit as refreshing as their traditional pint. Prime examples include Infinite Session’s American Pale Ale, Adnams’ Ghost Ship 0.5% and Big Drop’s Paradiso Citra IPA – all at 0.5% or less and just some of the ales we judge to be 5-star winners. There’s also a good range of high-quality lagers out there, from the widely available Moretti Zero, to 0.5% ABV stars like Lucky Saint, Infinite Session’s Helles Lager and rising star Jump Ship’s Yardarm lager, along with many more. Cider drinkers fare pretty well, too, with plenty of crisp apple, hugely refreshing low-alcohol options available. Sheppy’s Low Alcohol Classic Cider, at 0.5% and Waitrose’s own-brand low alcohol cider, at a punchier 1%, are two of our particular favourites.

Spirits and Aperitifs 

Surprisingly the other really happy group of lower alcohol drinkers are those at the other end of the scale who like high octane spirits or aperitifs. The run-away success of the last few years has been low/no alcohol gins and other distilled botanical essences made to be drunk with a mixer or as sparkling drinks.  Some of these are excellent and their deep flavours rival any good gin’s.  Seedlip’s range of distilled botanical drinks (for example the 4.5 star rated Seedlip Garden) and 1.2% ABV Clean Gin (The Light Drinker rating 5 stars) are prime examples.  Other gin producers are moving into the field – Tanqueray, for example, and Hayman’s have gone for the interesting experiment of producing a full strength gin so intensely flavoured that a thimbleful is said to give the experience of a G&T.  Gin works well in a no-alcohol version because it has strong flavours of juniper, orange, spices and other botanicals to sustain the feel of a good G&T.  Other spirit imitations have been slower to take off, but there are now versions of rum, whisky, tequila, vodka and brandy entering the market, as well as liqueurs such as amaretto and absinthe (look at the Lyre’s range for these).  As the no-alcohol spirit market has developed, producers have moved away from simply attempting to mimic the taste of an existing spirit and have developed complex, subtle and striking drinks with their own unique flavours:  rose, seaweed, lavender, oak, pine, pea, hay and many more.  Some of the most attractive have used the intensity of citrus to give a powerful astringency to their drink: Seedlip Grove have done this exceptionally well. Other makers use ginger and cayenne to mimic the fiery kick of alcohol: Mother Root, and Crossip Pure Hibiscus offer a truly punchy experience. The non-alcoholic aperitif market is a newer development but is now rivalling the non-alcoholic spirit range with their fabulous bitter tastes.  Martini Aperitivo (Floreale or Vibrante) is marvellously reminiscent of a good Italian aperitif, Abstinence has a fantastic blood orange bitterness that is fully satisfying, and Crodino has been quietly working its non-alcoholic magic since 1965.

Kombuchas and Tea-based

Kombuchas and other drinks derived from teas are the other great recent success.  Tea gives a depth of interesting flavours and tannins which make for a thoroughly grown-up drink.  We love LA Brewery’s Sparkling English Rose Kombucha, for example. And keep an eye out for other interesting new or revived botanicals such as shrubs, which are flavoured with vinegar, which is after all just a type of wine.  Mostly found in innovative restaurants today, we have found one bottled – Mother Root

White Wines and Fizz

The second happiest drinkers should be the fans of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs.  The country’s wineries have put a special effort into producing lower alcohol wines and a Sauvignon Blanc wine tolerates well its lower ABV.  The result is a number of wines at around 9% ABV that are genuinely uncompromised in taste and have won medals against their full strength rivals.  The Doctors Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is our 5-star rated favourite at 9.5%.

Lovers of wines from cooler climates, notably German Rieslings and Portuguese Vinho Verdes have long know that there are great wines that come in naturally at around a 9% ABV, so long as you are partial to something floral, more medium than dry, usually with a little sweetness.  If you are, then these are great choices.  To state the obvious, a sweeter tooth will give you more lower alcohol choices as often the sugar in the grapes has remained in the wine rather than being converted into alcohol. For something classic do try Villa Loosen 2020 Riesling, or the sweeter but more complex Ulrich Langguth Piesporter Günterslay Riesling Auslese 2018 is a marvel.  And if you want really dry, do try The Doctors 5-star Riesling made for Adnams.

One of the reasons that the Vinhos Verdes are not too sweet and have a lower alcohol content is that they often come with a little natural spritz or sparkle which can give any drink a more joyous taste and offset any sweetness.  This is a category in which the supermarket specials can be very good value and good tasting – try for example the excellent Tesco offering – 9% ABV and £5 price.

Happily a sparkle in the wine often comes with a lower ABV.  So fans of Prosecco can find great choices at 9% to 11% ABV, such as the Ca’ Bolani Prosecco. Indeed so good is the effect of sparkle, that sparkling wines are one of the few categories in which I would unreservedly recommend the 0% version!   My current favourite is the Thomson and Scott Noughty Sparkling Chardonnay which we rated a good 4-star entry.

Finally there is one family of naturally low alcohol wines at around the 5% mark made from the Muscat/Moscato grape that can be a good choice if you can tolerate their greater sweetness (which personally I can).  My absolute favourite which is distinctly dry and comes from South Africa is the Stormhoek Moscato Rosé.   Or for an Italian classic try the Alasia Moscato d’Asti.

Red Wines

For red wine drinkers the options are much more limited, but what there is are excellent.  Firstly the clever New Zealanders have found a way to make 9.5% ABV pinot noirs which are uncompromised.  The Doctors Pinot Noir is absolutely worthy trying.   And then give Italian Lambrusco a try (even if like me you were sadly disappointed by it in the 1970s).  They’re a red sparkling wine often found with an 8% ABV,  deep red berry flavours and tannins enough to satisfy that red wine craving – start with a Ca’ dè Monaci Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce.

Those it’s hard to help

So that’s the good news and within it there are some great drinks.  But for drinkers whose favourite tipple hasn’t been mentioned above the news is mostly quite poor.  We haven’t for example yet discovered a single lower alcohol Chardonnay of any merit and for red wine drinkers wanting something heavier than a Pinot we have nothing to offer.    The zero alcohol drinks on offer purporting to be red wines are marmites – some can live with them and many cannot – if you want to try one we recommend the Rawson’s Retreat 0.5% Cabernet Sauvignon.

We are confident that things will continue to improve as  wine makers are keen to solve this problem.  They have some horrible failures behind them but one day they’ll crack the code.  The Light Drinker will let you know as soon as they do.

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