The run-up to Christmas is, historically, a party hard time — work bashes, seasonal soirees, and wine and cheese gatherings where the floor is specked with pools of hearty reds from the early evening. Except for maybe this year, in which COVID restrictions mean most celebrations will be virtual, or at least heavily dialled down, affairs.
That means that your intake of alcohol will likely be different, too. While some people are reporting drinking more this year, especially through lockdown (according to a reader survey conducted by Women's Health, 33% of you tried to ease stress by drinking more alcohol in the March-June period) for others, an emphasis on protecting their mental and physical health means that they've scaled right back – research from charity Alcohol Change shows that one in three British people reported that they reduced their consumption of the hard stuff during lockdown 1.0.
This means that you, along with million of others, might be wanting to check out the (booming) non-alcohol and low alcohol beverage scene.
What is considered a non-alcoholic beverage?
A non-alcoholic beverage seems as if it would be something with zero alcohol in, but some under 1.5% are categorised as ‘non-alcoholic’. (For context, though, a lot of your favourite fermented foods have very small amounts of alcohol in them – bread can contain up to 1.9%.)
One thing to be aware of. Nutritionist Jenna Hope warns to be careful of jargon-packed marketing strategies that paint adult soft drinks that are high in sugar as distilled non-alcoholic spirits: 'Sugar from these non-alcohol alternatives contribute to your daily upper limit of 30g per day, although sugar in drinks is often forgotten about when it comes to sugar intake despite having equal effect'.
What's the difference between low-alcohol and alcohol-free drinks?
'Low-alcohol drinks are those that have an alcoholic strength by volume (ABV) less than 1.2%, while alcohol-free refers to beverages that have an ABV content of 0.05% or below,' explains Dr Hazel Wallace, AKA The Food Medic. 'ABV is a measure of the amount of pure alcohol as a percentage of the total volume of liquid, so this means that for an average bottle of wine that has ‘12% ABV’ on the label, 12% of the volume of that wine is pure alcohol.'
This shouldn't be confused with the number of units of alcohol, but it can be used to calculate them.
'Multiply the ABV percentage by the volume in ml, then divide by 1000. So, a standard large glass (250ml) of 12% ABV wine would be approximately three units. In comparison, a glass of alcohol-free wine (0.05%) would only clock up 0.0125 of a unit,' says Dr Wallace.
'Another term often used is ‘reduced-alcohol’, which refers to drinks with an alcohol content lower (at least 30%) than the average strength of a particular type of drink. However, no specific conditions of use have been set in the UK or EU legislation for that particular claim.’
How are low-alcohol and alcohol-free drinks made?
'You may remember from chemistry at school that alcohol is made through a process of fermentation, where yeast is used to convert sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide,' Dr Wallace says.
'Low-alcohol or alcohol-free drinks can still be made in this way, but the product may only undergo limited or partial fermentation or, in the case of alcohol-free versions, the producers would typically make the drink much the same as normal, then separate out the alcohol.'
Non-alcoholic spirits, of which most on the market sit at below 1.5% ABV, are distilled in the same way as their boozier counterparts, so contain a combination of botanicals, distillates, water and ethanol, says James Pattison, marketing manager at STRYYK.
What can I drink instead of alcohol?
In the past, the alternatives to alcohol have mainly been soft drinks, making the designated driver pretty conspicuous. But in recent years, coinciding with the trend for sober curiosity, lots of brands have launched 0% versions of alcoholic drinks... (Scroll down for our edit of the best.)
What is a good non-alcoholic drink to order in a bar?
Most places have a varied selection, including alcohol-free spirits, wines and beers in bottles, if not on-tap.
If you’re someone who doesn’t need an alcohol-free alternative if you're not drinking or wants to save a little money, there are a few reliable options that everywhere will have:
Make sure it's got no added sugar for a healthy drink packed with phytonutrients from the skin and flesh of the cranberries.
Soda water and lime
For a bright smile and a healthy digestive system, ask for a few pieces of fresh lime in a glass of soda water with ice for a healthy shot of vit C.
Not only will it look like a Bloody Mary, but it will back a vitamin punch with high levels of C, B, potassium and antioxidants.
The best non-alcoholic and low alcohol spirits
While some of these are booze-free, others contain very small amounts of the sauce. As such, those that fall into the latter camp wouldn't be appropriate if you were swerving alcohol for a religious reason, for example.
The first ever distilled non-alcoholic spirit, free from artificial sweeteners or added sugars and loaded with antioxidant botanical ingredients, Seedlip is distilled like a spirit and flavoured with botanicals — lemon peel, cardamom, pimento berries — like a gin.
The familiar aroma and taste satisfies that after-work itch, but minus the alcohol, sugar, sweeteners, et al.
Bonus: 'The combination of berries and spices makes it a good antioxidant, and also provides microbial and anti-fungal properties to support the immune system,' says Daniel O'Shaughnessy from the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy.
Neatly branded and made of natural ingredients, including a wide range of interesting herbs and spices like invigorating guayasa, cacao, green tea and schisandra, Three Spirit's trio are good options for the whole evening — from the Livener to the Night Cap. The brand reviews are pretty reliably rave, describing it as a 'game-changer'.
One of our favourite botanical (read: gin alternative) drinks, Mary is only 6% which makes it feel like a genuine G&T when garnished with ice and your choice of fancy additions, like cucumber, mint or lemon. Ideal for a weekend kickback, hangover-free.
Another brand thats offering includes alcohol-free versions of multiple spirits, including Not Gin, Not Rum and Not Vodka, which contains herbal infusions that emulate the real thing, with no artificial sweeteners or sugars.
Riding the mindful drinking wave, award-winning Danish brand ISH has a range of options — some which are for mixing, including Rumish and Ginish, and others that are ready to go, like their Chateau Del ISH range of sparkling wines which they make with a producer in Germany.
Another gin swap, Ceder’s has a range of no added sugar spirits made with an assortment of botanical ingredients, including relaxing chamomile.
With 14 land and sea botanicals, including Kaffir lime and cayenne pepper, Scotland's first alcohol-free spirit Feragaia has a warming, fragrant kick when paired with tonic.
Caleño Light & Zesty is a great option, containing no added sugars or sweeteners, made largely with juniper berries and Inca berries. Inca berries are particularly high in vitamin C, which is important for supporting your immune function and collagen production.
(They also do Dark & Spicy — more of a rum alternative.)
One of a series of drinks from the distillery to be designed to have with foods, it takes the juices from berries and botanical infusions from 20 different flowers, herbs and spices. Essentially they've bottled a herb garden.
Bittersweet Everleaf in Forest, crisp Marine and aromatic Mountain make for a great spritz base, in the place of white wine, vodka or gin. But, stick to just one or two as each 50ml serving contains 6g of sugar (20% of your daily recommended allowance).
Whetting the appetite with a before-dinner drink has long been understood to prepare your palate and stomach for a meal. You can now do so with Seedlip's sister brand Aecorn, with sparkling water and a slice or orange.
The Atopia spirit is ultra-low alcohol at 0.5% ABV, although technically speaking it does still contain some alcohol, so be wary of who consumes this option. Ideal for a G&T alternative, with 75 times less alcohol.
Packed with botanicals from the North Cornish coast, including samphire, sea salt and zingy citrus, and containing no sugar or sweeteners, Pentire is one of the best gin alternatives. Not to mention the fact, nutrition aside, that it's packaged beautifully.
Borrago #47 Paloma Blend Non-Alcoholic Spirit 50cl
Not only 0% alcohol, sugar, fat or calories, chef Tom Tuke-Hastings's creation Borrago contains five ingredients, making the perfect choice if you're conscious of avoiding preservatives and additives.
Xachoh Blend No. 7
The second free-from spirit in the Xachoh (pronouned 'Za-ko') offering, free from sugar, sweeteners, gluten, calories, carbohydrates, fat, alcohol, flavourings and extracts, and this time sweetened with cinnamon.
Sea Arch Spirit
Another aesthetically pleasing option, in its characterful blue bottle, Sea Arch is made from sea kelp, juniper berries, angelica root, cucumber, grapefruit, blood orange and cardamom from the Devon coast.
Made from a mix of Seedlip Spice 94, Aecorn Bitter and Aecorn Aromatic this is your healthier alternative to a Negroni. And we've got a lot of time for that a snappy name.
The best non-alcoholic wines
A study in Circulation Research found that de-alcoholised red wine contained just as many cancer-fighting, heart-healthy polyphenols as the original. 'It's rich in resveratrol, which is good for the heart,' says O'Shaughnessy.
It tastes jammier than your normal tipple, but still packs red wine's complex fruit flavours and savoury tannins that Vimto can't exactly emulate.
'Alcohol has a cardio-protective effect thanks to the polyphenols,' says Hunter. Since Pearl Blanc is de-alcoholised — meaning it's fermented like a normal wine, then gently heated until the booze bubbles off — you get a drink with low alcohol volume, but that retains its antioxidants, so you still get champagne-like flavours while swerving a hangover.
It clocks in at 19 calories a glass. Perfect for those office drinks you wish weren't midweek.
'Willpower is soluble in alcohol,' warns Hunter, which is why a glass of wine with dinner too often ends with the whole bottle drained. Ariel's alcohol-free wines keep your resolve intact without compromising on taste. They've won competitions against alcoholic versions, and the Chardonnay's apple and vanilla notes hit the cosy spot that a lime and soda just won't.
A small glass is 23 calories and also provides tyrosol and hydroxytyrosol, antioxidants found in olive oil, says O'Shaughnessy.
Go ahead and sip your Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon or Rose, or Sparkling Rose or Blanc, without the guilt. The award-winning Eisberg wines contain 0.05% alcohol and no more than 34 calories per 125 ml glass (a third of 'real' wine).
The best non-alcoholic beer, larger and cider
There is no shortage of non-alcoholic beers now, with most of the mainstream brands offering 0%ish alternatives.
Cider is a bit behind the times, with few of popular brands foraying into alcohol-free territory so far, and the current offering is teeth-achingly sweet. But they’re coming!
Brewdog Nanny State Ale
Because this booze-free version – which is 15 calories per bottle – is brewed in the same way as the brand's mainline beers, it doesn't lack taste like a 0% lager.
Plus, you still get beer's micronutrient mix courtesy of its booze-producing yeast. 'It's a source of niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, vitamins B6 and B12 and folate,' says O'Shaughnessy. All of which help your body unlock energy from food more efficiently.
Mix with lemonade for a vigour boosting pre-gym shandy.
Adnam’s Ghost Ship 0.5
Brewed like normal Ghost Ship (4.5), then with the alcohol taken out using a high-tech 'reverse osmosis plant', the 0.5 version is exceptionally well-rated.
Quietly alcohol-free and gluten-free, without the price label to boot (six cans for £4 = a bargain), DAMM is a light and refreshing option.
Guinness Draught Alcohol-Free
Recently launched into Waitrose and Morrisons, with plans for it to be rolled out into other supermarkets and then into pubs, Guinness have been working on the new formula — 100% Guinness, 0% alcohol — for four years.
Sheppy's Low Alcohol Cider
They manage to do the as of yet pretty rare in creating a 0.5% version that tastes like the real thing.
What are the health benefits of consuming low-alcohol or alcohol-free drinks?
1/ Fewer alcoholic units
In the short term, if you’re drinking fewer units of alcohol in one drinking session, you are less likely to get drunk. Therefore you’ll almost certainly sleep better and you've got less chance of moping around searching for ‘hangover cures’ the next day.
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.
'Reducing your alcohol intake and switching to non-alcoholic options can have health benefits including: improved energy, better mental wellbeing, improved liver function and reduced risk of micronutrient deficiencies (due to the micronutrients required for metabolising alcohol),' Hope says.
Those units can rack up quite quickly (it’s the equivalent of about six glasses of wine or six pints of beer spread across one week), so swapping to low-alcohol or alcohol-free drinks on even some occasions may help you stay within that target.
'However, paradoxically, it has been shown that some people may actually end up drinking more if drinks are labelled as lower in strength,' warns Dr Wallace. '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 may also encourage people to drink more often.'
2/ Fewer calories and sugar
'Low-alcohol or alcohol-free drinks are often marketed as having fewer calories and less sugar than the full-alcohol alternative, and therefore can help to support a healthy lifestyle,' says Dr Wallace. 'However, this is not a guarantee and it depends entirely on the type of drink, the brand, any mixer used, and the amount consumed.'
Comparing a standard Becks Bier to their alcohol-free version, there is about half the calories in the former but a comparable amount of sugar. Surprisingly, when comparing an alcohol-free Sauvignon Blanc to a standard white wine there is actually more sugar, but less calories.
You've probably read that a glass of red wine is good for you but, when it comes to alcohol and health, the situation is complex.
'There is some evidence to say that light to moderate consumption of alcohol (about one drink per day) can reduce your risk of certain health conditions, in particular heart disease and stroke. Yet, in another report, it was deemed that no amount of alcohol is safe and that all of the risks outweigh any potential benefits,' explains Dr Wallace. 'While there is no doubt that heavy drinking is harmful, it is unlikely consuming small amounts of alcohol consumption is detrimental to the individual. That said, if you don’t drink alcohol, I wouldn’t start drinking for the potential heart-health benefits.'
3/ More choice
'Low-alcohol or alcohol-free drinks are wonderful for occasions when you don’t want to drink, and you don’t want to feel left out sipping on a glass of OJ. Just don’t make the mistake of choosing them in addition to the alcoholic drinks that you do consume already, or you could be racking up a lot more alcohol than you realise,' says Dr Wallace. 'To add to that, if you do fancy the odd glass of wine or G&T, then don’t feel guilty about that either.'
Alcohol-free beverages are the better choice for anyone who wants or needs to avoid alcohol altogether. Low-alcohol beverages may be a better choice for people who want to reduce their alcohol intake, however, it’s important to note that if you have a problem with alcohol, you may be best avoiding alcoholic drinks, or alcohol mimics, of any kind. Always speak to your GP or health care provider if you have any concerns about your alcohol consumption.
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