When Meera Sawhney, 32, was in New York in October last year, she chanced upon a bar that she believes changed her life. Instead of stumbling out a couple of hours later in “a boozy-woozy state and making bad decisions, which was a constant in my early- and mid-20s, I came out tanked up but straight-up sober and deliriously happy”. She was at Listen Bar in Williamsburg, a pop-up space that had everything a regular bar does: The chilled-out vibe, the killer drinks, a pool table, neon signs, fun music, and bartenders shaking up drinks. The only thing missing? Alcohol.
It points towards 2019’s big wave—the rise of non-alcoholic, or zero-alcohol drinks.
“I still have a wine bottle stashed away at home but I’ve been trying to drastically cut off drinking when out,” she tells VICE over phone. “It felt like there were no options for teetotallers like me. You always have mocktails but they feel like a compromise at bars, and sodas (aerated drinks) are just too sugary. Here, it finally felt like there was a drink being made just for me, and people like me. I then realised there are zero-alcohol beers and spirits available as well, which I try to pick up whenever travelling so I too have something grown-up to drink while my friends are drinking.”
It seems like Sawhney is hardly alone. Around the world, bottled zero-alcohol drinks are on the rise. Do not confuse them with the many juices, sodas and drinks like ginger ale or flavoured soft drinks that pepper our supermarket shelves. These, in fact, are as close to beers and spirits as drinks can get, with all the flavour but also the promise of never getting you plastered or having you abandon your duties as the designated driver. And the big guys have been taking note. Take Heineken 0.0, for example, an alcohol-free alternative (actually, less than 0.03% alcohol) that has been sweeping across Europe last year and which debuted in the USA and Canada at the start of the year.
It does sounds a bit WTF, though, doesn’t it? I mean, why would you want to have something that tastes and feels like a beer, has the froth of a beer—the kind of stuff that will make your brain sizzle with the thought of getting a happy high—but not get you there? I mean, ultimately, I
drinking not just for the taste but the buzz as well, right—isn’t that the whole point? “Sure, but there are times when you don’t want to or can’t have alcohol, or want to feel like you are also a part of a group that is drinking without actually having to drink,” says Mumbai-based Pankaj Aswani who has launched India’s first “crafted” zero-alcohol beer:
. “Also, millennials (as also Gen Z) are looking for healthier options, and this is where such drinks come in.” Did someone just say #DryJanuary?
Like with beer, the Coolberg Malt Beer starts life as a normal beer, making use of barley and hops. “The process is similar to that of making beer but we don’t let it ferment to the point where alcohol is generated,” says Aswani. Another process of making alcohol-free beers/spirits is allowing the alcohol to be generated, but then removing it either by heating (and evaporating) the alcohol or other processes like reverse osmosis. Though Coolberg is in its third year, it received funding last August which means it’s recently expanded its footprint greatly—with availability in 30 cities and over 2,000 F&B spaces and stores.
Though Kingfisher is jumping on the bandwagon and smartly positioning its new launch, Radler, as a 0% alcohol drink too (which it is), its flavours do not mimic that of the brews/spirits, so we’re going to ignore it for this article, even though it was smart to introduce this first in the dry state of Gujarat. But joining Coolberg in India will soon be drinks by AB InBev—the beer giant that already has the alcohol-free Carlton Zero, Hoegaarden 0,0 [and 0,0 Rosée], Budweiser Prohibition Brew, and Beck’s Non Alcoholic, all packaged in glass bottles and cans that resemble their boozy brethren. No details are being shared at this point, just that a pan-India presence of either their existing alcohol-free range or a new product is going to be making news soon.
“The non-alcoholic or ABV space has been the biggest growth in the beverage segment over 2018,” confirms beverage commentator and expert Karina Aggarwal. “A lot of it comes from the trend of millennials drinking less/less often and working towards being healthy. But being social is still an important part, so products like Seedlip ‘what to drink when you’re not drinking’ are about building inclusivity even on a sober night out.”
, the first non-alcoholic spirit to hit the market back in 2015, is made in a way similar to how gin is, by combining botanicals and distilling them. Seedlip has been surprisingly wildly successful, prompting Diageo—the world’s largest distiller—to invest in it. “Many of the top bars around the world have a special non-alcoholic cocktail section crafting flavourful drinks without the dowdy 'mocktail' perception we've carried for so long,” says Aggarwal. "These products are still premium, often you're paying more than you would for a basic vodka-tonic but it's a definite draw. It's something that is slowly coming around to Indian bars.” Maybe we can finally say this without being wary of how we will end up dragging ourselves home: Bartender, shots!
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