With more consumers cutting down on their drinking than ever before, Rachel Badham takes a look at what 2024 holds for the low/no category beyond the first month
“Moderate drinking is no longer just reserved for the month of January and, for the majority of people, making more mindful decisions around alcohol consumption has become the norm,” says Tom Wiggett, co-founder of Long Tail Mixers.
The past 12 months have witnessed the continuing rise of mindful alcohol consumption, with recent research from Drinkaware finding that 40% of consumers in the UK drank less often in 2023, compared to 33% in 2019.
Luke Cousins, co-owner of specialist low/no bottle shop and bar Tørstigbar in Brighton, says that in 2023 many consumers continued to explore the category beyond Dry January. “We saw a significant number of our customers last year complete Dry January and continue through to the end of February,” he says, as Tørstigbar prepares to open a second site in London in January.
“People begin to really feel the benefits of reduced alcohol consumption after two or three weeks and by then January is over, so they carry on.”
If 2024 follows suit, the low/no category looks to be heading for year-round success.
WINE’S TIME TO SHINE
When it comes to what low/no products are set to be big hits in 2024, wine is the talk of the industry. Cousins predicts that 2024 could be the year that low/no wine catches up with its beer and spirits counterparts as quality improves.
“Low/no wine has historically been the weakest category in the sector as it is significantly more difficult and expensive to achieve the same mouthfeel and full-bodied flavour profile found in alcoholic wine.
“However, during the past six months, we’ve been sent some really impressive new dealcoholised wines. Investment is going into this sector and it’s very noticeable. Products from Australia and South Africa are particularly impressive.”
With higher quality options now available, Laura Willoughby, founder of Club Soda, says that consumer demand for low/no wine alternatives is also growing. “Expect to see more alcohol-free additions make it on to traditional wine selections in the off-trade, and on restaurant menus,” she adds.
In line with duty hikes for higher-abv wines, as well as changing consumer preferences, Stuart Elkington, founder of Dry Drinker, predicts that low-alcohol wines in particular will be popular with consumers this year, as he cites “a lot more interest from consumers around the low side”, rather than alcohol-free products.
“We’ve just launched a range of low-alcohol wine with about 6-7% abv, and they’ve been going down extremely well with consumers, particularly with those who still want to have a drink at weekends but also dip in and out of alcohol-free drinks,” he explains, noting the importance of catering to both drinkers and non-drinkers.
Elkington also mentions functional drinks, such as On Beer, which contains botanicals to mimic the effects of alcohol. Similarly, Tørstigbar’s Cousins says that functional and adaptogenic drinks are “the hot topic right now” as they offer consumers an experience rather than just flavour.
As Elkington suggests, moderation looks to be an overarching trend in 2024 as consumers drink less frequently and gravitate towards lower-alcohol options rather than abstaining from drinking altogether. Long Tail’s Wiggett confirms this, saying that mindful drinking “doesn’t have to mean cutting out alcohol entirely, and many people take a more ‘flexitarian’ approach to drinking, opting for low-abv or more sessionable alcoholic drinks”.
While many consumers associate the low/no space with strictly alcohol-free beverages, it looks likely that lower-abv drinks will become a consumer favourite in the coming months, which will be aided by last year’s duty reforms. “Low-alcohol will begin to be asked for more frequently,” says Club Soda’s Willoughby. “The duty change in beer will see more brewers offering mid-strength table beers, and consumers are already asking for lower-strength cocktails and wines.”
Tom Bell, founder and managing director of online retailer Drink Well, believes that lighter drinks will present a more “enticing proposition” to consumers looking to moderate their drinking rather than cut out alcohol altogether.
Lower-alcohol drinks often come with a “lower-calorie call”, Bell highlights, which he suggests will be a strong draw for health conscious consumers. “Alcohol-free is not always ‘healthier’ in terms of sugar content, whereas nearly all lighter options, usually those around 7-11% abv, tend to have less sugar, which sticks with customers.”
And the trend for lower-abv drinks seems to be catching on in national retailers, with Bell pointing out the recent establishment of a “mid-zone” in Sainsbury’s BWS range.
While more supermarkets are expanding their low/no offerings in line with consumer demand, it seems that 2024 could see the opening of more specialist retailers with a wider range of options from smaller producers.
Tørstigbar’s Cousins says that specialist retailers are vital in providing consumers with higher-quality options, particularly from smaller producers without supermarket listings. “Without specialists, customers will look to supermarkets for low/ no options,” he says. “However, the products that are at the forefront of development technology cannot access supermarkets as their batch sizes are too small to be stocked.”
Similarly, Club Soda’s Willoughby says that when it comes to major retailers, supermarkets are predominantly stocking “big alcohol brands’ low/no extensions”. However, she notes that there are now “specialist alcohol-free retailers and venues popping up all over the country”, which she recommends visiting if you’re a retailer considering your low/no range.
When curating a range, Dry Drinker’s Elkington says it’s best to start small with a focus on quality rather than quantity. “It’s all about education,” he adds. “For a lot of retailers, it’s just about confidence and knowing what to sell. So it’s important for low/no specialists to help educate the wider industry in terms of what products are good.”
And provided consumers have access to the right products, the low/no category holds the promise of reaching new peaks far beyond Dry January.