Lose the booze: Why bars and restaurants are embracing the alcohol-free trend
Non-alcoholic beers, ciders, wines and spirits are growing in popularity
Alcohol-free bar: Anna Walsh of the Virgin Mary, in Dublin, makes a Ceder’s spritz. Photograph: Tom Honan
Each year more and more people are saying goodbye to hangovers and hello to alcohol-free versions of beer, cider, wine and spirits. Even a couple of years ago in Ireland, if you’re weren’t drinking you were more or less limited to orange juice or fizzy drinks (and had to pretend to be on antibiotics or driving to avoid the abuse you were likely to be subjected to), but times are changing. The growth of nonalcoholic products has kicked into a new gear over the past year, and a range of alcohol-free wines, spirits and beers has entered the market.
According to Drinks Ireland, the trade body representing drinks manufacturers and suppliers, alcohol consumption in Ireland is decreasing. From 2017 to 2018, wine sales alone dropped 2 per cent, which it links to our high alcohol taxes. But the IWSR, which monitors drink trends globally, found a 1.6 per cent decrease in alcohol consumption worldwide for the same period.
The IWSR report suggests the movement away from alcohol is part of a wider health-and-wellness trend, and advises drinks manufacturers to seize the opportunity to enter the growing low- and no-alcohol categories. In the UK, 65 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds (the heaviest drinkers) surveyed said they are trying, or have tried, to cut back on their alcohol intake.
We found it a hard sell at first, because people have tried bad alcohol-free wines in the past, but once they try it they usually keep ordering it
“When we introduced the concept here we were laughed at,” says Cassidy. “But we’ve seen a huge shift led by consumer demand. A lot of our customers are over 40. They’ve had their fun with alcohol but are now trying to reduce their consumption for health reasons. Others have deadlines to meet, an early gym session or are driving but still want to socialise. Sugary mocktails don’t cut it any more.”
The bestselling cocktail at House, on Leeson Street in Dublin, one of the early adopters of a thoughtful alcohol-free drinks list, is the Silk Tree espresso martini. In one north Dublin off-licence, sales of Silk Tree have surpassed combined sales of premium gins priced over €35.
Wicklow Wolf, one of Ireland’s most successful craft breweries, recently launched an alcohol-free beer called Moonlight. It’s brewed like its other beers but with a fraction of the malted barley, meaning there’s much less sugar to be fermented. Like its IPAs and pale ales, Wicklow Wolf uses dry hopping, where hops are added later in the process, to give it extra flavour and compensate for the missing alcohol.
“We wanted it to be just as flavoursome as our other beers, and change people’s expectations of what alcohol-free beer tastes like,” says founder Simon Lynch. “For too long they were terrible, but now there are excellent versions for the growing number of people who want to enjoy these drinks, not endure them.”
The brewery recently sponsored a hill-running event in the Wicklow mountains, with Moonlight offered to runners as they completed the race, which they described as “a great partnership”.
The craft-cider company Stonewell first brought out a 1.5 per cent cider six years ago; with recent changes in drink-driving legislation, founder Daniel Emerson says, it has become more popular. “Previously customers might have had one low-alcohol beverage and then taken the wheel, but this has shifted to zero, so we saw a strong potential demand for a non-alcoholic cider.”
Stonewell, which extracts the alcohol from its cider using reverse osmosis, thought the first batch would last a year, but it ran out after six months. It predicts sales will triple over the next two years.
One of the newest additions to the alcohol-free market in Ireland is wine. Although supermarket big brands introduced options a few years ago, often you would have been better spending half the price on a bottle of Shloer. But now independent importers have joined the party. Wine Mason, which specialises in German and Portuguese wines, started importing German winery Fritz Müller’s dealcoholised, semisparkling Müller Thurgau three years ago.
“It has basically doubled year after year,” says founder Ben Mason, “and this year it will probably be a two and a half increase over last year. Sparkling wines work particularly well as the bubbles make up for some of the loss in mouthfeel by removing the alcohol. Higher-end restaurants have been quick to list it, and it’s doing very well in country restaurants, where one person has probably had to drive.”
The Swan is the people’s church: we have to accommodate everyone who wants to come in, and most people don’t want to sit drinking Ballygowan in a Victorian pub
Bren Smith, of the wine importer Mackenway Wines, also thinks this is “just the beginning”, with his interest growing from personal experience. “When I was in college, drinking just wasn’t for me. I wanted to get up at 5.30am to go training for a triathalon. I went out all the time, but I had very little choice except fizzy drinks or water.”
He spent years researching nonalcoholic wines, before starting to work with a German winemaker, Johannes Leitz, and his Eins Zwei Zero range. The alcohol is vacuum-distilled out at a low temperature, which they say allows it to keep its “wine-like characteristics”. They’re getting new listings across Ireland every week, and next year will add single-serve cans to the range.
Sarah Ryan, who co-owns the recently opened Potager, in Skerries in north Co Dublin, with her partner Cathal Leonard, usually drives when eating out and struggled to find something to drink with dinner. When she discovered Fritz Müller’s nonalcoholic wine she was excited to list it.
“We found it a hard sell at first, because people have tried bad alcohol-free wines in the past, but once they try it they usually keep ordering it. A lot of our customers drive to us, and they appreciate that we can provide them with nonalcoholic options to enjoy with their food.”
Consumer demand is also driving change. Blackrock Cellar, an independent wine shop in south Co Dublin, has seen a 30 per cent increase in sales of nonalcoholic products in the past two years. “People are more health conscious, but the quality and selection of options available now has made the choice more appealing,” says manager Ross Turner. “Many of our customers like to abstain from alcohol for a while and then spend a bit more on it. This quality-over-quantity approach is something we are very behind.”
Donnybrook Fair’s wine director, Christopher Gifford, thinks the growth in nonalcoholic brands is “very significant” but wonders if it will eventually lose pace. He thinks the drinks industry’s big brands need to develop products that are “genuinely high-quality alternatives to alcohol” rather than just a “smash and grab”.
He would like to see more engagement with provenance or qualities that make a drink special, joking (or not) that Château Lafite Rothschild could start selling grape juice. He cites Heineken Zero, widely thought to be the most successful alcohol-free beer, as “a credible alternative” to regular Heineken.
A fully alcohol-free bar might be the ultimate test of whether the low- and no-alcohol trend is here to stay
Of course other big brands are also on the case. In August Diageo acquired the alcohol-free spirit Seedlip, now sold in 25 countries and more than 7,500 bars, restaurants, hotels and retailers. Last year it launched an 0.5-per-cent-alcohol lager, Open Gate Pure Brew. It’s now available in 250 pubs across Dublin, as is Seedlip, which has reported a 700 per cent increase in sales this year.
Estrella’s Galicia 0.0 was one of the first beers launched on draught in Ireland this year, and the company says sales have exceeded its predictions – it’s doing particularly well in golf clubs and rural pubs. The Swan pub on Aungier Street in Dublin was the first to list it, but owner Ronan Lynch, chairman of the Licensed Vintners Association, was initially sceptical. “I said we’d try it for two weeks, but it flew. This is the people’s church: we have to accommodate everyone who wants to come in, and most people don’t want to sit drinking Ballygowan in a Victorian pub.”
In May, Ireland’s first alcohol free-bar, the Virgin Mary, opened on Capel Street in Dublin. Founder Vaughan Yates says he saw an opportunity to cater for “the sober-curious consumer”, who is “healthy and discerning” but likes “being part of a wider movement”.
It is looking to expand outside Irish shores, as part of what it envisions will be a global alcohol-free-bar group in the future. A fully alcohol-free bar might be the ultimate test of whether the low- and no-alcohol trend is here to stay.