I love a glass of wine after a long day just as much as the next person – but during the last lock down, and a series of long days working as a COVID doctor, I was becoming a little too accustomed to drinking at home. And I wasn’t alone in this – research, commissioned by the charity Alcohol Change UK, has found that more than a quarter (28%) of people think they have been drinking more during lockdown (1). Furthermore, those who already drank heavily (7+ units) on drinking days pre-lockdown were more likely to drink even more during lockdown. Interestingly, 19% of those surveyed have drunk alcohol as a way to handle stress or anxiety (1).
Over the last few weeks I decided to cut down on my alcohol consumption and experiment with non-alcoholic spirits. In recent years the selection of low and no alcohol beverages has grown massively – which is extremely promising as research shows that people are more likely to choose non-alcoholic drinks if more of those drinks are available than alcoholic alternatives (2).
What is low-alcohol vs alcohol free?
Low-alcohol drinks are those which have an alcohol strength by volume less than 1.2%. And ‘Alcohol free’ refers to a drink which has an ABV content of 0.05% or below (3). ‘ABV’ is a measure of the amount of pure alcohol as a percentage of the total volume of liquid in a drink – so not exactly zero alcohol but extremely low. In the UK the term alcohol-free can be used interchangeably with the non-alcoholic label. Another term often used is ‘reduced alcohol’ which refers to a drink that has an alcohol content lower (at least 30%) than the average strength of a particular type of drink (3).
Benefits of going alcohol free
In the short term, if you’re drinking less units of alcohol in one drinking session, you are less likely to feel intoxicated (or drunk) and therefore you’re likely to have a better night’s sleep, not have a hangover the next day, and and more likely to exercise, and make healthy eating choices – vs. the days when you’re in the depths of a hangover. Essentially less alcohol consumed allows for healthier behaviours.
The UK Chief Medical Officers’ guideline, for both men and women, is that to keep health risks from alcohol to a low level it is safest not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis (4). Those units can rack up quite quickly (that’s about 6 glasses of wine OR 6 pints of beer spread across 1 week) so swapping to low alcohol, or alcohol-free, drinks on even some occasions may help you achieve that target. The reason we are advised to limit our alcohol intake is not to save us from a hangover, but because there is quite a lot of evidence to show that regular, high alcohol consumption can have detrimental effects on our health, both indirectly and directly, increasing our risk of various forms of cancer, liver and heart disease, stroke and damage to the brain and nervous system. Beyond health consequences, the harmful use of alcohol causes a large disease, social and economic burden in societies.
However, one study found that, paradoxically, people may actually end up drinking more if drinks are labelled as lower in strength. This is because marketing of these lower alcohol products may encourage consumers to use them as a replacement for fizzy drinks, rather than a replacement for alcoholic drinks, and also encourage drinking on more occasions such as lunch (5). To note, this study was looking purely at low and lower wines and beers.
The relationship between alcohol consumption and health is a little complex and I’m sure you’ve heard, or read, that a glass of red wine is good for you. There is some evidence to say that light to moderate consumption of alcohol (about 1 drink per day) can reduce your risk of certain health conditions, in particular heart disease and stroke (6, 7, 8,). However a relatively recent study published in the lancet announced that no amount of alcohol is safe, and that all of the risks outweigh any potential benefits (9). This was a very big study based on 175 countries, looking at the risk of alcohol and 23 health conditions (ranging from breast cancer to Tuberculosis). This review caused a bit of debate and while there is no doubt that heavy drinking is harmful, it is not likely that very small amounts of alcohol consumption are harmful for all individuals, and for all disease states. Moreover, we all drink from a different glass, and prefer a different “poison” – so it’s hard That said, it’s also highly unlikely that it’s health promoting (bar the small antioxidant effect from red wine) so if you don’t drink alcohol anyway – I wouldn’t start drinking for the potential heart-health benefits.
So here is my mini review of 6 low or no alcoholic spirits on the market. In the interest of full disclosure, all of these drinks (bar seedlip which I purchased) were gifted but I have not been paid to endorse any.
Seedlip Garden 108
This was the first non-alcoholic spirit – in fact they’re marketed as “the world’s first non-alcoholic spirits” – and are probably the most widely available. They have 3 flavours: Garden 108 (herby), Spice 94 (spiced + woody), and Grove 42 (citrus vibes). Garden is very botanical with a blend of peas, spearmint, rosemary and thyme. Best served with cucumber, elderflower and tonic.
Price: £26.00 per 70cl
Recommended to me by a friend. Distilled in Cornwall with coastal and botanical flavours that reflect that. I found it refreshingly light and versatile to pair with different types of tonics, herbs and fruits. They also are committed to sustainability and protecting the oceans which gave them another tick from me.
Price: £26.80 per 70cl
Best served: with a light tonic and sprig of rosemary or sage
Not zero alcohol, but low alcohol with 6 times less alcohol than gin. Mary is a bright and fragrant drink made with a blend of 7 garden botanicals – that definitely all come through. This was probably the strongest tasting of all the low/no alcohol spirits I’ve tried in terms of the herb profile and it was pretty sweet tasting also. I would pick it as a good middle of the road option if you want to reduce your alcohol intake, but aren’t quite willing to go tee-total.
Price: £23.90 (70cl)
Best served: simple with tonic and cucumber
Caleno (Light + Zesty)
The branding, bottle and flavour can only be described as zesty and fun. I normally prefer a more botanical spirit to a citrus one, but I actually liked how tropical this tasted. Something I can imagine sipping on in the summer at a barbeque.
Price: £18.00 (50cl)
Best served: over ice with a rind of orange
Obsessed with the bottle – would make a gorgeous gift for tee-total mates. This is both botanical, spicy and zesty all at once with juniper, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon and rosemary. I am not the biggest fan of cardamom or coriander, and found these flavours a little too strong – but that was really the only downside for me (and other people may disagree).
Price : £18.99 (70cl)
Best served: with a slice of grapefruit and tonic
Clean Co. (Clean Gin)
This “ultra low alcohol” gin comes from Clean Co. founded by former Made in Chelsea star Spencer Matthews. While the green bottle is beautiful, side by side with the other bottles is certainly not as jazzy as the others. The flavour is probably the least fussiest compared to the other low and non alcoholic spirits and it required a larger measure to be able to taste it over the tonic. An option for someone who is not sold on the more floral options.
Price: £25 (70cl)
Best served: old fashioned with tonic, ice, and a wedge of lemon
(1) Alcohol Change Uk. Press release: New research reveals lockdown drinking may be here to stay. Available at: https://alcoholchange.org.uk/blog/2020/drinking-in-the-uk-during-lockdown-and-beyond
(2) Blackwell AK, De-Loyde K, Hollands GJ, Morris RW, Brocklebank LA, Maynard OM, Fletcher PC, Marteau TM, Munafò MR. The impact on selection of non-alcoholic vs alcoholic drink availability: an online experiment. BMC public health. 2020 Dec;20:1-9
(3) FSA. Nutrition and Health Claims. Available at: https://labellingtraining.food.gov.uk/module10/overview_3.html
(4) Department of Health and Social Care. UK Chief Medical Officer s’ Low Risk Drinking Guidelines 2016. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/545937/UK_CMOs__report.pdf
(5) Vasiljevic M, Coulter L, Petticrew M, Marteau TM. Marketing messages accompanying online selling of low/er and regular strength wine and beer products in the UK: A content analysis. BMC Public Health. 2018 Dec 1;18(1):147.
(6) Ronksley PE, Brien SE, Turner BJ, Mukamal KJ, Ghali WA. Association of alcohol consumption with selected cardiovascular disease outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Bmj. 2011 Feb 22;342:d671
(7) O’Keefe JH, Bybee KA, Lavie CJ. Alcohol and cardiovascular health: the razor-sharp double-edged sword. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2007 Sep 11;50(11):1009-14.
(8) Corrao G, Rubbiati L, Bagnardi V, Zambon A, Poikolainen K. Alcohol and coronary heart disease: a meta‐analysis. Addiction. 2000 Oct;95(10):1505-23.
(9) Griswold MG, Fullman N, Hawley C, Arian N, Zimsen SR, Tymeson HD, Venkateswaran V, Tapp AD, Forouzanfar MH, Salama JS, Abate KH. Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. The Lancet. 2018 Sep 22;392(10152):1015-35.
all imagery [excluding feature image and last image] were taken from the relevant brands Instagram feeds