Let’s Have an Alcohol-free Drink!
The growing range of alcohol-free wines, beers and ciders means there’s more choice beyond fizzy drinks and sugary mocktails. You can have a party and drink but after that you can drive and feel good next morning. Louise Wates writes why she has become something of a fan of free-alcohol drinks and what is their difference from alcoholic drinks.
Last Christmas, for the third year in a row, I was the designated-driver. But what made me really sulk (for the third time) was the fact that one of my passengers doesn’t even drink alcohol — she just doesn’t like driving in the
mid-winter dark. So, yet again, a glass of Christmas bubbly was out of bounds. But this time, instead of grumping about it all December, I took action and investigated my options. Soft drinks would be on offer… and colas and juice were my designateddriver go-to choices for years… but having experienced too many restless nights after getting tanked up on the sugar, sweeteners, and caffeine in colas, I rarely touch them now — they were only a convenient option anyway. And more than one orange juice was always too sickly for my taste — no surprises that it is as sugary as fizzy pop.
So, deciding to visit the concept of alcohol-free wine, I found myself staring at a row of unfamiliar bottles in my local supermarket. Eventually, after getting a recommendation from a total stranger (whose word, I decided, was as good as
anyone’s), I chose a bottle of fancy-looking, low-alcohol sparkling stuff.
Alcohol free drinks can become a good option for many people
Did it do the job on Christmas day? Yes, and here’s how…
While it was sweeter than I’d expect from bubbly, it looked like bubbly, popped its cork like bubbly, and — for me — filled a psychological and taste gap. It was also (for me) more palatable than cola, more exciting than juice or water, and more celebratory than a cup of tea. It also cost less than four quid. So, when there was a glass or so left in the bottle, it didn’t break my heart to pour it away.
Since then, I quite like an occasional what my partner calls “wine with the fun taken out”. A glass of alcohol-free Cabernet Sauvignon does not taste like a glass of full-welly Cabernet Sauvignon but can taste pleasant and has the same beautiful colour. So, it may be the drinks version of a veggie sausage, but speaking as a meat-eater, I’d say there are some darn good veggie sausages out there, too.
Alcohol free drinks can have another taste but not bad one
Lizzie, a friend who I recently discovered prefers her booze booze-free, agrees. “I started drinking them out of a not unreasonable concern that alcohol was playing too frequent a role in my life —whether at home or socialising, it was everywhere,” she says. She likes low- and alcohol-free drinks because she “wanted to have the relaxing taste and feeling of a grown-up drink without the hangover”.
Yet being an occasional or total teetotal is not easy because it seems it’s not just teenagers clustered around a bottle of cheap cider who drink to impress their mates. Last year, a Drinkaware/YouGov survey found that even adults will give in to peer-pressure. Almost half (47 per cent) of men aged 35-75 drank alcohol “to fit in, be liked or to not feel left out”. The same applied to 36 per cent of women surveyed.
Whilst Lizzie’s friends have been supportive, she has been teased for staying sober. As we sit in her car judging the merits of an alcohol-free sparkling wine that we quaff out of green, plastic wine glasses, she explains how people who have laughed at her for not drinking alcohol have then asked her to drive them home at the end of the evening.
Most people start drinking alcoholic drinks not to feel left out at the party
Lizzie isn’t anti-alcohol; if she were at an event like a wedding and only alcohol were on offer, she would drink it. But we are convinced that if the sparkling wine we are drinking were offered at a wedding and nobody said it was alcohol-free, many people wouldn’t notice the difference. Pour it into a Champagne flute and pop in a strawberry, and (we decide) it would be pretty indistinguishable from the real thing. At least, that is what we think.
And there is certainly something pleasurable in the ritual of alcohol. The pop of a cork, whether it be from a bottle of Champagne or sparkling pressé, can be very satisfying, as can sipping something summery from an elegant glass. There is also evidence to show that we don’t have to drink alcohol to behave as if we have. One study found that people who drank tonic water but were told that it contained vodka had impaired judgement and memory afterwards. Even our own office tasting of a selection of alcohol-free wines created a party atmosphere.
Like Lizzie, I had bought low-alcohol wine because I wanted a ‘grown-up’ drink when I couldn’t drink alcohol. Lizzie, however, was motivated by health and wanting to wake up in the morning feeling refreshed. “I just feel better for not drinking alcohol,” she says.
Next morning after party is much better after alcohol free drinks
Evidence on the impact of alcohol is mixed. Although moderate alcohol consumption (e.g. a small glass of wine a day) has long been reported to have health benefits such as being protective against heart disease and stroke, last year the findings of researchers at the University of Cambridge and University College London resulted in recommendations for a “more nuanced approach”, as moderate and heavy alcohol consumption did not carry the same risk for all cardiovascular diseases.
The evidence is also mixed when it comes to brain health. While low levels of alcohol consumption may be beneficial for preventing Alzheimer’s, 3 last year a 30-year observational study reported that even “moderate drinkers” (14-21 units a week) “had three times the odds of right sided hippocampal atrophy” [degeneration of the hippocampus, which is important for memory]. However, more research is needed on types of alcohol, differences between the sexes, and other lifestyle factors.
Alcoholic drinks can cause a lot of problems with health
Regardless, however, hopping on the wagon, even occasionally, can be difficult without support. One bottle of alcohol-free sparkling wine I took to a New Year’s party (with a view to alternating it with Prosecco) was immediately banished to the garden, never to be seen again.
One Year No Beer (OYNB), a programme started by former professional footballer Andy Ramage, advises its members on ways to “stealth” drink — and gives tips on how “to survive ANY (sic) booze session completely alcohol free without anyone knowing”.
A spokesperson for OYNB said: “People are still under the impression they need alcohol to be successful, to have a good time, to celebrate anything — and going against that is hard.” And this is where lowand alcohol-free versions can help.
People can be successful and have a good party without alcohol
“Placebos have been proven to work 33per cent of the time,” he says. “So alcoholfree alternatives are crucial to those early stages of going alcohol-free. You are trying to re-wire your brain to go against years of social conditioning and peer-pressure, which is tough and why having a [low- or alcohol-free] beer in your hand at the bar will dramatically reduce that peer-pressure. Reaching for a cold [low- or alcohol-free] beer from the fridge on Friday will help you overcome those weekend cravings.
“Very quickly you get all the benefits of having a refreshing drink without the negatives of alcohol and you realise you just don’t need it. Most people use alcoholfree drinks in the early days and then reduce down to only having them in social occasions or when they are really triggered.” He added that the growth of the alcohol-free industry was “a clear sign” that times were changing, and why OYNB was growing.
Ironically, however, there seems to be more resistance to alcohol-free wine than to sugary soft drinks; and a comment I frequently hear — sadly even from a child quoting her parent — is: “What’s the point?” But I would argue there is as much point in an alcohol-free beer as in any soft drink choice when alcohol is not appropriate. And because alcohol-free booze can be lower in sugar and calories than their alcoholic versions, or compared to many fizzy drinks and juices, there are potential health benefits to be had — at least to our waistlines and blood sugar levels. (Always check the label. Alcoholfree does not mean sugar-free or caloriefree!) Although, as for whether alcohol-free wine retains properties associated with health benefits, such as resveratrol and tannins, we asked one major producer but had not received a reply when going to press.
Some people still resist alcohol free drinks
Finally, with some alcohol-free drinks costing much less than a pint in the pub, they could be worth experimenting with. If the taste isn’t entirely to your liking, a bit of mixology can make all the difference, such as adding soda water or ice to reduce sweetness (as we discovered with a sugary but tasty fruit cider), or berries, cucumber… even a paper umbrella to make it more celebratory.
And if all else fails, a jug of cold water with some fresh mint leaves can be lovely too. So shall we all raise a glass to that?
“Optimum Nutrition” by Louise Wates