No abv, no problem? Imbibe taste-tests 12 non-alcoholic spirits and aperitifs

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How it worked

We called in a selection of no-abv spirits – everything from ‘alt-gins’ to ‘not rums’ to booze-free aperitifs – and sampled them two ways. First we tried them neat, and then we topped them up with tonic or soda, as recommended by the producer. We scored each and collated these to discover the final order of preference across the panel. One is the best performing, 12 the lowest.

The panel

Miranda FitzgeraldImbibe managing editor; Laura Foster, deputy editor; Chris Losh, editor-in-chief; Kate Malczewski, editorial assistant; Jacopo Mazzeo, news editor

For such a new and niche product, the non-alcoholic spirits category is certainly one that stirs up strong opinions. Some view it as the brave new frontier of drinks, providing more options to the increasingly health-conscious consumers of today. Others view it as overpriced distilled water.

And then there’s the matter of how a non-alcoholic spirit should be judged. Can we expect them to have the same complexity as the spirits they reference? Should they replicate the mouthfeel of alcohol? The burn? What separates ‘soft’ from ‘no-abv’?

Whatever your feelings on the topic, there’s no doubt that the market for non-alcoholic spirits is taking off – so with Dry January in full swing, we decided to put the category to the test at Imbibe HQ to discover our own standards for the burgeoning zero-proof category.

Which non-alcoholic ‘spirits’ came out on top? Read on for the good, the bad and the air freshener…

The results

1 Everleaf

Developed by bartender Paul Mathew as a non-alcoholic aperitif, sunshine-yellow Everleaf brings together saffron, iris, angelica, vanilla and other botanicals to lend it a complex bittersweet flavour. Meanwhile, voodoo lily and acacia gum are meant to deliver texture – and they do. It was the most masterful of the products we sampled, and managed to capture the mouthfeel and nuance of an alcoholic aperitif. With soda, it would provide a genuinely satisfying alternative for a non-boozy aperitivo hour, but it would also be delicious topped up with sparkling wine in a simple low-abv cocktail.

‘Tropical fruit, citrus, vanilla and almonds on the nose. A bit spicier on the palate, with a vanilla and pineapple finish. Rich, silky mouthfeel. Pleasant bitterness,’ KM. ‘Bit of body. Nice herbal quality,’ JM. ‘Faintly antiseptic smelling, but pleasant and warming. Notes of vanilla and saffron,’ MF. ‘That bitter gentian note really sings out, giving more than a little nod to Suze,’ LF.

RRP £18/50cl, Everleaf Drinks, Everleaf 

 

2 Ceder’s Wild

Pernod Ricard’s slice of the no-abv pie is Ceder’s, a non-alcoholic spirit branded as an alternative to gin.  Combining different South African botanicals with a juniper base, Ceder’s is available in three varieties: Classic, Crisp and Wild. Wild placed top due to its relatively complex spiced flavours – the liquid counts ginger, clove and rooibos among its botanicals – and the way it held its own when paired with tonic.

‘Some colour in the bottle. Cinnamon, rosemary and pine on the nose. With tonic, lots of clove, cinnamon. Accessible,’ MF. ‘Rosemary, lavender, spice. Quite powerful, but doesn’t taste confected or artificial. Garrigue essence. Quite spicy on the palate – wood, cinnamon, good acidity. Works well with tonic. The bubbles add weight and texture, but it retains its flavours,’ CL.

RRP £19.99/50cl (available in cases of six), Pernod Ricard

 

3 Seedlip Grove 42

Seedlip put the non-alcoholic spirits category on the map, so it’s not too surprising that each of its three varieties performed consistently well. In a way, Seedlip does itself a service by leaving juniper out of the mix, sidestepping direct comparisons to gin and focusing on creating its own flavour profiles instead. Our top Seedlip pick was Grove 42, which blends orange, blood orange and mandarin with lemon, ginger and lemongrass.

‘Orange sherbet, pleasant with a slight spice. Balanced and drinkable,’ MF. ‘Orange, lemon, spice, vitamin C tablets. Rather weak on the palate. Decent balance with tonic, but not sure I could drink a whole glass,’ CL. ‘Oranges, lemons, spicy hint, clove, pine on the nose. A complete, complex flavour. Trying this with tonic, adding a herbal garnish to act as a counterpoint to all the citrus would make a great drink.’ LF.

RRP £22.99/70cl, Seedlip

 

4 Seedlip Garden 108

Seedlip’s Garden variety certainly lives up to its name, with a list of botanicals that includes peas, hay, spearmint, rosemary, thyme and Lemon hops. Sipped neat, we could all easily pinpoint its multilayered, savoury, vegetal qualities, but our panel was split on the tonic serve. We also noted that the recommended garnish of fresh peas would be an overkill, given its heavy green flavours – a fresh citrus garnish could be a better choice.

‘Pea and spice, vegetal. Green pepper, cucumber. With tonic, stands out. Some body and length. Grows on me,’ MF. ‘Essence of pea pod and green pepper, with an overlay of mint. Seems a bit thin. All top notes. With tonic, it’s a bit unsubstantial,’ CL. ‘On the nose, peas, green pepper, mint, the banana pepper in the pizza box. Slight sweetness and bitterness to taste. More green pepper. KM.

RRP £22.99/70cl, Seedlip

 

5 Stryyk Not Rum

The brainchild of Funkin founder Alex Carlton, Stryyk’s range is touted as ‘zero-proof’, with branding that looks to appeal to the vodka-and-Red-Bull crowd. Three flavours are currently available – the creatively named Not Rum, Not Vodka and Not Gin. We tried the former two in this tasting, and were intrigued by the brand’s attempt to use chilli heat to mimic the sensation of alcohol. The Not Rum did so more effectively than the Not Vodka, as its burn had more of a build to it. The nose was more promising than the palate, but several panellists found that its flavours opened up with tonic.

‘Apple and pear crumble with a touch of apricots. Palate is quite flat with a lot of cinnamon spice and a little burn that I wasn’t expecting. With tonic it works okay actually as the heat is better controlled. It gives a dry finish rather than a hot one. Highly drinkable,’ CL. ‘Chemical, fruity nose. Quite citrusy on palate, but with no focus. Spice kicks in later. Becomes more interesting with tonic,’ JM. ‘Citrus, oak, wood, caramel, smoke on the nose, while caramel and a slight nuttiness give way to chilli heat on the palate. Tonic bubbles mitigate the heat,’ KM.

RRP £15/70cl, [email protected]

 

6 Ceder’s Classic

Ceder’s Classic promises to deliver the most gin-like drinking experience of the range, with botanicals including juniper and coriander. We found prominent citrus notes, but no sharpness, and just a tinge of juniper on the palate. This one performed better with tonic.

‘Wafting clouds of sweet citrus. Candied lemon sweets with a gentle wooded note underneath. Decent acidity. Might be drinkable on its own. Mixes well with tonic,’ CL. ‘Fresh and zesty on the nose. Flat 7Up – sherbetty lemon and lime.  Mouth-puckering citrus on the palate. Very heavy on the lemon and lime, but still washed out – as if citrus fruit has been left in the water jug for days on end. With tonic, it tastes like a G&T with a squeeze of Jif,’ LF. ‘Smells like a dentist’s office,’ KM.

RRP £19.99/50cl (available in cases of six), Pernod Ricard

 

7 Ceder’s Crisp

Rounding out the Ceder’s trio, Crisp hits heavy on the cucumber notes, but we also detected the more subtle presence of camomile. With tonic, we agreed that Crisp’s nuances fell away, leaving a one-note, cucumber-flavoured soft drink.

‘Cucumber, then white flowers/blossom. Jasmine? A bit like diluted Gewurtztraminer. Exotic to start, then into a more gentle palate, with a vaguely woody finish. Some slight juniper bitterness. Attractive enough on its own, but disappears totally with tonic,’ CL. ‘Lots of cucumber and a floral sort of wildflower meadow note. Disappeared somewhat with tonic,’ LF. ‘Nose: lots of cucumber. Vegetal and green. Mouthfeel is light but silky. The vegetal note lingers, but with no bite or sharpness. With tonic, cucumber comes through even more,’ KM.

RRP £19.99/50cl (available in cases of six), Pernod Ricard

 

8 Seedlip Spice 94

With a promising list of botanicals, including allspice, cardamom, grapefruit peel, lemon peel and oak bark, we were rather disappointed by Spice’s overpowering clove flavour. Notes were more positive when paired with tonic, as it lent texture to the liquid.

‘Does what it says on the tin. Very spicy. Lots of clove and cinnamon. Better with the tonic, and the dry finish means you can keep drinking it, provided you are okay with clove,’ CL. ‘Lots of clove and spices on the nose. No body. Astringent. Retains its character with tonic,’ JM. ‘The clove is climbing out of the glass, but this is tempered slightly with tonic,’ LF.

 RRP £22.99/70cl, Seedlip

 

9 Stryyk Not Vodka

Not Vodka was perhaps the most unusual ‘spirit’ of the bunch. Its ingredients list promises cucumber, coriander and apple, and we did detect some vegetal sweetness up front. However, a sharp chilli burn overtook the other flavours after a single sip; it’s certainly ideal for clearing the sinuses. With tonic, the chilli was amplified – the sensation of the bubbles with the burn was overwhelming.

‘Nose of cucumber, slight sweetness. With tonic, peppercorns and heat. The intensity of ginger beer,’ MF. ‘Like what they’re trying to do, but it’s too hot and burny. Cucumber notes, moving into a drier, spicier character. Finish is decidedly spicy in the back palate. Fruit, dryness, burn. With tonic, the chilli initially covers this problem, but it feels more alcoholic, with some burn,’ CL.

RRP £15/70cl, [email protected]

Comments

Miranda Fitzgerald, managing editor
Certain products in this tasting were substantially more complex and interesting than the rest, and justified their premium price point – others, quite frankly, did not. It’s an interesting category that’s rapidly expanding and evolving, and these products are only going to improve as brands respond to consumer demand for no-abv drinks that genuinely stack up against their alcoholic counterparts.

Laura Foster,
deputy editor
I’ve been swinging between excitement and mild disappointment when looking at the no-abv category. Excitement, because it’s one of real innovation; but disappointment, because the lack of alcohol and sugar means that flavours are often washed out – the majority of these products taste like watercolour paintings in comparison to the oil painting nature of their boozy counterparts. Having said that, I think Everleaf is a game changer for the category, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Æcorn Aperitifs will bring.

Kate Malczewski, editorial assistant
Going into the tasting, I thought that a sign of a good no-abv spirit might be its ability to hold its own with tonic, but this wasn’t the case  –a few of them managed to stand up to the tonic and punch it in the face, and it wasn’t a good thing. I think we’ll see more creative approaches to replicating the sensation of alcohol as the category evolves.

Jacopo Mazzeo,
news editor
The Ceder’s range was my top pick of the tasting, with all its expressions showing good balance, fine and subtle aromas. I would have it mixed with tonic as well as neat, on ice. Overall, I was impressed by the diversity I’ve found in the category, but some samples were disappointing for their lack of focus and balance.  No-abv spirits are ceasing to be understood as mere alternatives to alcohol, and are slowly gaining their own raison d’être.

 

10 Three Spirit

Developed by bartending consultancy Fluid Movement in partnership with phytochemist Rebecca Lazarou, Three Spirit seeks to replicate the positive effects of alcohol through ingredients like lion’s mane mushrooms, yerba mate and cacao.

The Imbibe team didn’t experience any noticeable mood enhancement – though perhaps our craving for navy-strength gin overpowered any euphoric feelings. Thick, syrupy and brown, the liquid’s appearance didn’t do it any favours, and its vinegar-spiked, dried-fruit palate was certainly different. ‘On the nose, very sweet. Prunes, mushroom, balsamic. Demerara sugar, viscous,’ MF. ‘Looks like oxtail soup. Very odd. Prunes and vinegar. Malt, dates, acidity. Sweet, malty. Cod liver oil and malt diluted down with balsamic vinegar. Tastes kind of healthy,’ CL. ‘Medicinal nose with dates, caramel and raisins. A bittersweet palate, but unbalanced,’ KM.

RRP £19.99/50cl, Three Spirit Drinks

 

=11 Borrago #47 Paloma Blend

Named after the borage plant, Borrago is a blend of six botanicals that have been individually steam-distilled ‘to keep their unique properties’. However, we found the nose to be overwhelmingly perfumed, and the palate to have a slightly aggressive menthol flavour, even with tonic. ‘Essence of old lady’s perfume. Just too much,’ CL. ‘No body. Very persistent,’ JM. ‘Incredibly overpowering. Cloying lemon, menthol and sugared citrus. Lots of menthol, but there’s no build to the burn. It’s all one note,’ KM.

RRP £19.99/50cl, Borrago

 

=11 Sea Arch

Marketed ‘for gin lovers’, Sea Arch is made with juniper, sea kelp, cardamom, angelica root, cucumber, grapefruit and blood orange. Unfortunately, it presented very little nuance on the nose – ‘like being attacked by a Christmas tree’ – and though it gained celery and fennel notes with tonic, it had a distinctly artificial flavour. ‘Enormous pine flavours,’ CL. ‘Jumps out of the glass. Pine. Lemon. Car air freshener,’ LF.

RRP £26.95/70cl, Sea Arch

 

Conclusions

  • Complexity and texture played a large role in the success of the highest-scoring spirits.
  • A garnish can add a lot to a non-alcoholic spirit, but the recommended garnish doesn’t always cut it. If you’re serving the liquid neat or with tonic, have a taste to pinpoint which flavours you’d like to play up.
  • At the moment, it’s difficult for a non-alcoholic spirit to achieve that alcoholic burn. Some producers are attempting it with chilli or menthol, but the effect doesn’t entirely hit the mark.
  • Consider using non-alcoholic spirits in alcoholic cocktails to lower the abv and lighten up the drink.
  • Non-alcoholic brands that liken their liquids to specific spirits set themselves up for a challenge by automatically giving the drinker a direct point of comparison. For instance, you might expect a no-abv rum to have a deep molasses character, while a no-abv spirit needn’t adhere to a specific flavour profile.
  • On the other hand, specifying ‘rum’, ‘gin’, ‘vodka’ or some other specific spirit can also be an important selling point for no-abv products. Expect the category to become even more segmented over the coming months.

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