6 January 2022 We're republishing this free in our Throwback Thursday series to remind you that there are some interesting, elegant alternatives to alcohol out there. See also Jameel Lalani's special discount for those who'd like to try his tea.
3 January 2022 Happy New Year 2022! The festive period is over. Belts are tightening. You have your resolutions in hand. Alcohol consumption, and moderation thereof, may feature on one or two lists… Whether you're cutting out, down or back, here are our tips for Dry January – for the guilty, the virtuous, the undisciplined, the disciplined and the resolute.
A year ago (have we already reached a new year again?!) I was bemoaning the fact that there just weren't enough dry and taste-complex drinks out there for the abstainer. But the drinks world continues to innovate and improve, and my desk has, once more, been visited by numerous samples of low-alcohol and alcohol-free options. There are also, it seems, more and more online retailers specialising in alcohol-free drinks. There was a time when the only place you could buy (terrible) alcohol-free wine, beer and cider was your local supermarket, but now, certainly in the UK, we're spoilt for choice: Sippers Drinks, The Dry Drinker, Wise Bartender, The Alcohol-Free Shop, The Alcohol Free Co and Zeroholic all specialise in alcohol-free drinks, Master of Malt and The Whisky Exchange have well-stocked no- and low-alcohol (NOLO) sections, and there are countless beer, cider and other beverage producers selling their own brand of NOLO direct to the customer.
Certain problems persist, although the situation is improving. NOLO options still tend to fall slightly on either the too-sweet or too-watery side of flavour, and when it comes to wine, spirits and beer, mouthfeel and body is often lacking where it hasn't been compensated for by sugar. Wine still lags way behind all the other categories in terms of drinkability. And the best options are often surprisingly expensive (especially considering they don't have the tax and import duties that alcoholic drinks are penalised by).
However, some people are getting it just right. For close-to-zero alcohol, Cloudwater Soda and Agua de Madre remain two of my all-time favourites and both are in my fridge right now. Both dry, both packed with flavour, both low in calories. Agua de Madre has recently released ginger and turmeric culture shots and if you need an afternoon pep-me-up, these deliciously fiery little mouthfuls will have you zinging for at least an hour! For low alcohol, mead is fast becoming one of my favourite drinks (and a real terroir drink with exciting diversity of styles and profiles), and it's a great way to support the mitigation of one of the biodiversity and environmental crises we're facing. Cider is another drink that can achieve the holy grail of balance, dryness, refreshment and complex flavours at very low alcohols.
But I've also been introduced to a few new drinks so, for those looking to moderate their alcohol with more mindful drinking, here's the latest round-up of alternatives.
Mocktails, sodas and 'holy' spirits
Punchy Drinks have brought out a range of 'adult sodas' in three different flavours. Golden Hour (the flavour I was sent) is tagged as 'blood orange, bitters & cardamom' and contains things like bitter orange peel infusion, orange juice, Sicilian lemon juice and cardamom. It's delicious. I'm not sure about blood orange, but it's certainly packed with pink-grapefruit and bitter-orange flavours, has a delicate floral top note and zesty cherry-sherbet freshness. It's really well-balanced, dry but not watery and the carbonation is subtle. It makes a nice drink by itself, but would certainly be a good mixer for a mocktail (or even, heaven forfend, a cocktail). The other two flavours (named Holiday Romance and First Dip!) are peach, ginger and chai flavoured, and cucumber, yuzu and rosemary flavoured respectively. They come in light aluminium tins, 25-cl serves, clock in at around 50 calories per can with just 4.1 g/l sugar. They're being sold by Sippers Drinks and Ocado for between £1.35 and £2 per can.
Mocktails is a range of four non-carbonated mocktails (Mockapolitan, Mockarita, Sansgria and Mockscow Mule) that come in 20-cl bottles with a crown cap. Their claim is 'alcohol-free, low in sugar and calories, all natural ingredients, vegan friendly and 99% recyclable packaging'. They're widely available in the UK (from Master of Malt, Amazon, The Alcohol Free Co, their own website, Selfridges etc) for about £2.50 a bottle and are also available in the US for around $30 per pack of 12. I tasted the Mockarita and although it was certainly a decent mouthful – very fresh, good lime kick – it was noticeably sweeter than the Punchy and less complex in flavour. Checking the label I see that it has around double the calories and more than double the sugar, clocking in at 80 calories per bottle and 9.5 g/l sugar. If you have a sweet tooth, this will be the line for you. I found that it was much improved when blended with the next drink…
Rumish is an alcohol-free spirit made by the 'truly free spirit' Danish company ISH. It has zero sugar, 0.5% alcohol, is flavoured with 'natural botanicals', vanilla and nutmeg, as well as, according to the back label, 'natural rum flavouring' – whatever that is. It smells pretty nice! Reminds me of the rum and raisin ice cream my mum used to make, but also of cola syrup and prunes and melktert. But, by itself, it's not particularly nice. It has quite a bit of heat, almost as if there is some chilli or concentrated black pepper in it. It's bitter and a bit thin. But it totally pepped up and balanced out the sweetness of the Mocktails Mockarita, so maybe its role in life is a mocktail ingredient. In fact, the serving suggestions on the bottle label are either with ginger beer and Angostura bitters, or in a low-alcohol mojito with white rum, simple syrup and lime juice. You can pick this up for around £17.50 for 50 cl at Sipper Drinks. (For the hands-down best ideas for mocktails, see Fiona Beckett's book, How To Drink Without Drinking.)
I cannot exaggerate what a revelation truly fine, single-garden tea has been in my life. Jameel Lalani introduced me to the one and only other beverage that fills my whole body, mind and soul with the buzz of endorphins and wonder in the same way that beautiful wine does. The teas he sources are staggeringly complex, spine-tinglingly elegant. I've included some notes below for two First Flush Darjeelings and three exquisitely fine Kabusecha green teas that I tasted a couple of months ago. If you're interested in trying them (and I would urge you to do so), Lalani offers JancisRobinson.com readers a 15% discount valid for the whole of January. Use the code JR2022 when checking out from Lalani&Co.
My family gave me his Alethea 'infusionware' for my birthday and the problem is that once you've used the Alethea, a bit like Zalto or the JR+RB glasses, it's impossible to go back to anything else. It is an exquisitely elegant piece of ceramic art and it makes the perfect cup of tea.
Kabusecha is a shade-grown green tea picked in spring (Ichibancha) – the shading causes an increase in the amino acids in the young new leaves which means that the tea will have more umami flavours and almost no bitterness. Darjeeling First Flush is probably one of the most revered teas in the world, often called 'the champagne of tea'. It grows high up in the mountains, in almost inaccessible terrain, and forms a tiny proportion of the India's tea production (about one percent). First Flush is the harvest of the first two brand-new leaves and the first bud, usually around February or March, resulting in tea that is much less astringent and more floral than leaves picked later in the year.
Henta Family, Okumidori Kabusecha Ichibancha (Spring) 2021 Kagoshima, Japan
Batch 18033 (200 kg). Certified organic. Okumidori is the variety of tea. Shaded for 11 days, steamed for 30 seconds.
A touch of baby spinach to begin with, steamed mange tout peas, turning delicately bitter on the back of the finish, and a fine edge of sharpness hinting at fresh sorrel leaf. Perfect with smoked salmon and softly scrambled egg. (TC)
Henta Family, Saemidori Kabusecha Ichibancha (Spring) 2021 Kagoshima, Japan
Batch 18S01 (120 kg). Certified organic. Saemidori is the variety of tea. Shaded for 10 days, steamed for 25 seconds.
Seems to be the finest in texture, turning almost powdery and frothy in the teapot. Quite rich in umami and sweet, steamed baby veg notes. Buttery baby courgette, and yes, I get the mushroom! A very subtle minty bitterness. Roasted kohlrabi. Even a touch of matcha and wasabi. This is probably my favourite. Enormous complexity, length, depth. Surprisingly good with a creamy white-bloom-rind Baron Bigod and an unpasteurised goat's cheese log brushed with ash. I can imagine this being beautiful with a buttery gnocchi truffle dish. (TC)
Henta Family, Yabukita Kabusecha Ichibancha (Spring) 2021 Kagoshima, Japan
Batch 18033 (200 kg). Certified organic. Yabukita is the variety of tea. Shaded for 10 days, steamed for 30 seconds.
The largest leaves of the three, once it has brewed. I get the least flavour from this one. Lalani’s notes say citrus and spring vegetals. I get florals – white flower petals, daisies – as well as green leaves: lamb’s lettuce, purslane, white Belgian endive. And a tiny bit of steamed asparagus. I've found myself drinking this tea first thing in the morning. It's so gentle. (TC)
Gopoldhara Garden, Wonder Gold Darjeeling First Flush 2021 Darjeeling, India
Single batch tea, batch Dj6. 'Grown high up on the peaks of Gopaldhara Garden, these leaves are from some of the highest planted sections of Darjeeling, at over 6,500 ft (1,980 m), planted with AV2, 312 and 157 varietals.
As its same suggests, the tea has a golden colour, like vintage champagne. It's incredibly floral on the nose – fresh chamomile, dried marigold, jasmine. There's a note of freshly baked brioche which is there on the palate as well, along with warm hay, a sense of white honey, more florals, orange blossom. Silky texture – almost diaphanous in the mouth. A sensuously long finish that becomes more and more nutty (cashews) as it lingers. It seems astounding that a tea can be so delicate and yet have such complexity and depth of flavour. (TC)
Samabeong Garden, Spring Blossom Darjeeling First Flush 2021 Darjeeling, India
Single batch tea, batch Dj10 (21 kg), certified organic. The Lalani notes say, 'probably the best First Flush Darjeeling we've tasted in years'. Made from the AV2 varietal, grown high up at 6,500 ft (1,980 m).
Much paler than the Gopoldhara. Lalani describes this a tasting of alphonso mango and I can see why. But it's almost seems crude to describe this tea in terms of flavours. It's achingly refined. A tea that evokes Hasegawa Tōhaku's 'Shōrin-zu byōbu', hauntingly finely sketched pine trees in the mist on old silk, a whisper of secrets, folded quietly into quiet folds. A tea for contemplation, for reverie. (TC)
Unltd. is a self-styled alcohol-free craft-beer producer. Founder Johnny Johnson stopped drinking but missed the taste of beer, and decided that the alcohol-free beers out there didn't do it for him. The company makes a lager and an IPA, retailing for around £15 for a pack of six 33-cl bottles from their own website and £1.99 per bottle from Sippers Drinks and The Alcohol Free Co. The IPA, which I tasted, is 0.5% alcohol and has decent weight and edge. It has the bitterness and grip of an IPA, but not quite the richness. Refreshing and balanced, it's better than many alc-free beers out there. (TC)
Lucky Saint Lager is brewed in Germany for Not Another Beer Co, a British company. Widely available for around £2 per 33-cl bottle, it's wheaty, lightly honeyed and remarkably pleasant. Not terribly hoppy, but for those who are not keen on bitterness, this is just the thing. I found it a bit watery and lacking in mouthfeel, but if you're looking for a dry, beerish drink, this would be sippable. (TC)
Sassy, L’Inimitable Cidre, France 5.2% 33-cl bottle
Normandy cider. Medium dry. 22 varieties of apple, 100% juice, no added sugar. 46 calories per 10 cl. Says IGP on the back, but IGP what?
Deep toffee colour. Even smells of toffee apple! Apple jam and poached apricot. Lightly sparkling with pin-point-perfect balance of acidity and sweetness. More apple jam, more apricot on the palate; hazelnuts and a curvy creaminess in the mouth despite the lively buzz of bubbles. I hate to play on the word scrumpy, but this is scrumptious. (TC)
Sassy, La Sulfureuse Rosé Cidre, France 3% 33-cl bottle
18 varieties of French apple, 100% juice, no added sugar. 44 calories per 10 cl.
Bright reddy-orange. Smells of red apples and ripe raspberries, vanilla-raspberry ice cream. It actually tastes sweeter than the L’Inimitable but the acidity on this is laser. It slices the sweetness into glittering ribbons of fruit, and the result is mouth-watering. It has an acutely intense apple flavour. Explosive. And I just cannot get enough of this acidity – it’s addictive! It’s like having a whirling apple-and-lime dervish in your mouth, twirling cherries, redcurrants, and just a dab of marzipan. (TC)
Sassy, Le Vertueux Poiré, France 2.5% 33-cl bottle
Pale gold. Light grated-apple and pear nose. Tiny delicate bubbles. Much less vigour, much daintier than the two cidres. You can taste the ripe pears, but also choisya blossom, spring honey and the finest dusting of spice. I chuckled at the note on the back label, which reads, ‘some Normans drink it as breakfast’ – although it is, to be fair, just 2.5% alcohol! Only 2% more than orange juice, so little room for sanctimony there. Like the two Sassy cidres, this is delicious. Just very different. (TC)
Bemuse was founded by ex-banker Anna Chalov and ex-marketing consultant Nataliya Peretrutova. They produce four 0.5% sparkling meads made with honey, water and yeast and only natural flavourings added. I tasted two of them (see the tasting notes immediately below). The other two flavours are raspberry and hops-infused. They clock in at around 40 calories per 33-cl aluminium can (lovely, textured labels), with 2.2 g sugar per 10 cl, and can be picked up for around £14 for four cans from various retailers. I was very, very impressed with both of them. Certainly up there with Cloudbrew and Madre!
Bemuse, Tarragon Basil & Hops Sparkling Low Alcohol Mead 0.5%
Water, heather honey, yeast, hops, basil and tarragon.
Very floral and fragrant and pretty on the nose. Elegant and super-refreshing – the tarragon and basil elegant top notes over the hops florals. Not sweet at all, in fact it tastes almost bone dry. The honey is just a backdrop, barely there. This is complex and refreshing. Well done, Bemuse! (TC)
Bemuse, Ginger & Cardamom Sparkling Low Alcohol Mead 0.5%
Water, apple blossom honey, yeast, ginger and cardamom.
Also dry-tasting and with mouth-tingling refreshment. Very gingery (although not hot), the flavours beautifully integrated, the honey subtle. Not sure I can pick up much cardamom, but this is a lovely drink. (TC)
Gosnells of London have graced these pages more than once. Some of their meads are extraordinarily complex and vinous – they're real leaders in the mead-making world. They've just brought out a new project called Postcode Mead – four lightly sparkling meads from four different honeys from four different postcodes in the UK, which gives us a chance to compare the differences between rural and urban honey. The box of four 50-cl bottles (£39 from Gosnells' website) also comes with a little jar of the source honey for each mead, so it really does make for a fun and fascinating tasting. About all four meads, they say, 'This mead will only get better with age.'
Gosnells of London, Postcode Mead Dec 2021 W5 5.5%
Batch no 465. Ingredients: honey, yeast and water.
This west London urban mead has a light nose and is very pale, creamy white in colour. It's quite delicate in flavour; delicate but defined and precise. Notes of stollen, creamed honey, marzipan, cobnuts, dried elderflowers. It has a long, lingering finish which becomes more and more nutty. The aperitif of the four. Like a soft finger caress across the cheeks. Satin ballet shoes. (TC)
Gosnells of London, Postcode Mead Dec 2021 IG10 5.5%
Batch no 464. Ingredients: honey, yeast and water.
IG10 is Ilford in Essex, more or less east London. The nose is much more pronounced, richer, deeper. On the palate, roast chestnuts, white peaches, Cox's pippin apples, warm soft-rye breadiness, a touch of malt and a touch of rose hip. Lacy but slightly grainy. It's both pretty and substantial with a strong savoury frame giving length and structure to the more ephemeral flavours. (TC)
Gosnells of London, Postcode Mead Dec 2021 OX44 5.5%
Batch no 466. Ingredients: honey, yeast and water.
OX44 is an area in Oxfordshire, south-east of Oxford itself. The Cotswolds. Fragrant and exquisitely floral on the nose. Ripe peaches. This is oozing charm and summery flirtatiousness. Matcha, greengage, vineyard peach. It has a green-apple crunchiness, the texture of peach skin. A hint of sweet lime and lime peel and satsuma pith. Top notes of grapefruit. As it opened in the glass, baritone notes of chicory-root powder, coffee, walnut and ginger developed. Cherry blossom and thyme on the finish. What a delight! (TC)
Gosnells of London, Postcode Mead Dec 2021 CM22 5.5%
Batch no 465. Ingredients: honey, yeast and water. Described as 'waterside honey' because the apiary is on the side of the River Stort Navigation, by South Mill Lock in Bishop's Stortford. Rich waterside forage including willow trees, orchards, hedgerows, private gardens and wildflower meadows.
Distinctly fruity nose and the most full-bodied, fruit-forward feel to the palate. Blueberries, bramble berries, Victoria plums dominate but there is also a touch of fragrant sage leaf, lavender and a very slight dark bitterness, as if I'd dipped the tip of my finger into instant coffee powder. Seems to be the richest and roundest of the four. Best with food. (TC)
Paul-Augustin Delattre, a WSET Diploma student, is working with beekeepers across France to make his range of delicious, natural and very 'terroir-tasting' meads under the name Bulles de Ruche. They sell for around €12.50 per 75-cl bottle from his website. I tasted these with a honey-roast quince, blue cheese and radicchio salad and the pairing was out of this world.
Bulles de Ruche, Fleurs de Tilleul Hydromel Extra Brut 4.5% 17
Full bottle 1,317 g. On the back label, ingredients are listed as ‘Miel + Eau + Levures + Temps + CO2’. Honey, water, yeast, time and carbon dioxide. No sulphites, no gluten, no preservatives. Tilleul honey (tilleul is also known as basswood, linden or lime-flower tree) harvested by the Forneaux family in the Forêt d'Halatte, north of Champagne.
Pale, pale lemon yellow. A bit of froth when poured but it quickly settles down to the tiniest, finest bubbles ever. It smells absolutely incredible. Yes, a bit of honey (the pale, thick-set kind where the top of the honey is so white it almost looks like cream), but more than anything it really does smell of linden blossom. The perfume! It’s extraordinary! Delicate but exquisite. And, despite the delicacy, very complex – just like the palate. There are also notes of linalool, orange blossom, iris and jasmine, deepening into clementines, grapefruit and cobnuts. This is one of the first meads I’ve tasted with an almost wine-like acidity, which at first I put down to the carbon dioxide – but then I realised I’ve tasted plenty of carbonated meads before, so it’s not just that. There is a very fine, ethereal grace note of spice, too high, too fugitive to place. But it’s there. As it says on the label, it’s dry – although I would compare it, perhaps to a Mosel Kabinett trocken in terms of both dryness and daintiness, and the finish is so clean and crisp that it finishes dry. My neighbour made a courgette, cardamom and caraway seed cake the other day, and I wish there was some of that cake left – I think this would be the perfect thing to drink with it. (TC)
Bulles de Ruche, Fleurs de Lavande Hydromel Extra Brut 4.5% 17
Full bottle 1,317 g. On the back label, ingredients are listed as ‘Miel + Eau + Levures + Temps + CO2’. Honey, water, yeast, time and carbon dioxide. No sulphites, no gluten, no preservatives. Lavender honey harvested by La Miellerie Martine from Le Plateau de Valensole in Provence.
Like the Tilleul mead, very pale lemon yellow, although there is more froth and it’s way more persistent. The honey on the nose smells darker, denser, richer. Even a little sweet-soy-mushroomy! Much richer on the palate with a rye-bread note – one sip of this and I am thinking about home-made rye toast slathered with melting butter and honey. But there is also a subtle, cooling, fresh-green spectrum fanning out behind the richness: sliced cucumber, bruised borage leaf, sage water. It’s also right on the cusp of dry and off dry, finishing in slices of cinnamon-dusted, fresh green apple. Is this what François Chartier would describe as a ‘cooling wine’? (TC)
Bulles de Ruche, Fleurs de Litchi Hydromel Extra Brut 4.5% 17
Full bottle 1,317 g. On the back label, ingredients are listed as ‘Miel + Eau + Levures + Temps + CO2’. Honey, water, yeast, time and carbon dioxide. No sulphites, no gluten, no preservatives. Litchi honey harvested by La Compagnie du Miel in the region of d’Anosy in Madagascar.
Slightly more colour than the other two Bulles de Ruche meads. Pronounced honey nose with a lovely nutty, roasted wheat depth to it. This tastes like breakfast in a glass: honey, lightly toasted granola (think sunflower seeds, grilled oats, coconut, pecans, hazelnuts) with rounded ripe peaches and white crunchy apple chunks and a touch of sweet citrus. Very, very pretty. Right on the finish (and you could accuse me of autosuggestion, but brains and senses are complex things) I can taste lychees. Like the other two Bulles de Ruche meads, the perfect pitch point on the dry scale – a bit like a soap bubble is wet, yet more dry than wet. I could not tell you which one of these I prefer. They are all a joy to taste. (TC)
Two alcohol-free wines arrived from Sippers Drinks that were a cut above the average 0% offering.
The Thomson & Scott Noughty Organic Sparkling Chardonnay comes with all the sustainable credentials (Ecocert organic, B-Cert, vegan) and is made in Germany. It tastes lightly of apples and lemon-barley water. Refreshing and pleasant. Could I drink more than a glass? I’m not sure – the acidity might become a little aggressive. But not bad at all considering how painful many alcohol-free wines are to drink. £9 for a 75-cl bottle. (TC)
ISH makes a drink they call Château delISH Sparkling Rosé. Also produced in Germany, it's pale pink and smells like strawberry juice. Tastes very slightly less dry than the Noughty (although the calorie difference is negligible and there is also very little difference in sugars: 3.6 g/l for Noughty and 3.8 g/l for ISH). Nice summer-berry fruitiness. This is pretty, even if it's nothing like real sparkling wine. Sharp apple acidity but actually rather pleasant. I could manage a glass or even two of this. But at £12.99 for a 75-cl bottle, it's not a budget option. (TC)
Then four low(-ish)-alcohol wines arrived. Ranging from 11.5% down to 5% alcohol, I've put the reviews in order of sweetness, driest first.
We have many more recommendations for low/no-alcohol beverages if you're planning on some time without or cutting back on alcohol.