Who is drinking low and no-alcohol drinks and when are they drinking them, asks Felicity Carter
When The Guardian headlined on the very last day of 2022 that the French were “leading way in alcohol-free drinks boom” there was outrage on social media – but not because the French were turning away from their traditional drinks.
“Ahem, Guardian,” tweeted Laura Willoughby, founder of the Club Soda mindful drinking site. “Very nice but you know the UK was the first + biggest growth market in #alcoholfree.”
It’s widely-known that more people in the UK are reducing consumption or quitting alcohol, and the pace of change is staggering. The number of people participating in Dry January increased by 21% in 2022, to 8 million.
Amanda Thomson, founder of Noughty alcohol-free wines, says that sales of the brand are growing 100% year on year. Annual production is over 1 million bottles and the biggest audience is under-30s. That age group’s motivations for drinking no-alcohol include general health concerns and worries about drunken behaviour ending up on social media.
The Office for National Statistics stopped recording UK drinking habits after 2017, but its figures show that, even by that time, more than 20% of people under 40 were teetotal.
Helena Salisbury, brand manager for Atopia at William Grant, says: “We’re seeing low/no alcohol over-index with younger people – 28 and under – and in more affluent demographic groups.”
But while drinkers may be searching for non-alcoholic alternatives, they have historically been difficult to find, and mocktails can be expensive.
That’s changed rapidly in the past few years, as the big producers such as Diageo and Bacardi have put more investment into the sector.
The taste of no-alcohol options is also improving. Take beer, for example. Instead of using dealcoholising technology to remove alcohol, leaving behind a dull, flavour-stripped beverage, brewers are now using special yeasts that produce beer without alcohol. It’s no coincidence that sales of alcohol-free beers have tripled in the past five years.
Wine is generally a harder problem to solve, except in sparkling, where the bubbles add texture and character on the palate, and can make up for any loss of flavour.
Jan Rock, head of corporate communications at Henkell-Freixenet, says it is seeing growth across its entire non-alcohol range, driven by the Nordics, the UK and the US, plus some eastern European countries.
There’s no doubt that low/no is on the cusp of explosive growth but there are still questions about whether people are drinking low/ no drinks in the same ways and settings as full-strength alcohol, or whether the industry needs to consider products for entirely new types of occasions.
“Currently we don’t see a different occasion in the use of alcoholfree sparkling wines versus alcoholic products,” says Rock at Henkell-Freixenet. “This might change in the future but, for the time being, it is considered as a great alternative to alcoholic sparkling wines.”
There are new occasions for no-alcohol products appearing, but they’re largely being driven by the industry itself, eager to show off a new generation of drinks. The number of festivals dedicated solely to low and no-alcohol drinks is exploding, from London to South Africa and Washington DC, where participants can sample non-alcoholic beers, wines, sparkling wines, tonic, juices and teas, as well as nonalcoholic spirits.
Seasonality is also playing a role. Atopia’s Salisbury says that while “we do see low and no playing a role all year round”, January and June are the two most popular months for moderate drinking.
Thomson at Noughty says she is disappointed that the on-trade hasn’t kept up with demand, though she acknowledges that the sector has so many other issues to contend with right now that it doesn’t have time to focus on innovation. Although Noughty is sold in a variety of channels, its biggest success is in direct-to-consumer, though Thomson adds that the brand has just signed a deal with the City Pub Group.
“What we’ve learned from coffee drinkers who build a relationship with a quality brand, is they will pick their venue to make sure they can get the drinks they want there,” she says. “Anyone who ignores high-quality alcohol-free drinks is doing so at their peril.”