In the middle of December 2020, an off-licence appeared in Soho, London. Like any other off-licence, the shelves are lined with different spirits, wines and cans of beer. The only difference is that everything in here is non-alcoholic.
The Offy is an entirely alcohol-free pop-up dreamed up by Laura Willoughby, the founder of Club Soda, a community for people interested in changing their drinking habits. Willoughby started changing hers 10 years ago and initially started the group on Facebook in 2015. She now has over 16,000 members who offer each other support and non-boozy drink recommendations that don’t suck.
It’s the kind of place where you’ll learn that 0.5 percent drinks are still considered to be non-alcoholic, because it’s the same amount of booze you’d find in sourdough bread or a banana. Club Soda usually puts on a festival during Dry January, but this year, a bricks and mortar shop felt more appropriate, because of COVID and the number of low and no-alcohol brands there are now. It’s proven so popular that its lease has already been extended to February.
Given the drinking culture here, it might be surprising but the non-alcoholic beverages market is booming. It’s grown by over 506 percent since 2015, and the UK alone is home to over 42 non-alcoholic brands. There’s even a whole TikTok sub-genre dedicated to not drinking – SoberTok – where creators document their sobriety and share non-alcoholic recipes. Instagram-friendly no- and low-alcohol brands are cashing in on both aesthetics and wellness, like Kin Euphorics, a range of “stress relief” wellness drinks co-founded by Bella Hadid and packaged in pleasingly pastel-coloured cans, or Ghia, a non-alcoholic aperitif “with the complexity of an alcoholic drink” that often pops up on social media, where it is decanted into fancy glassware.
When I arrive at The Offy on a Thursday afternoon, they are busy; so busy that they have had to wrangle volunteers to help out. Inside, there are stacks of used cups, a steady supply of ice in a bucket and a table covered in half-empty bottles that customers have sampled. Much of Willoughby’s approach to introducing people to no and low beverages is about tasting. “Everyone likes something different,” she tells me. “If someone has never had a drink before, their palette is sweeter.”
Sampling means that by the time their workshop rolls around, they have run out of a few bottles. “There’s only four of these left in the country,” says Willoughby handing out bottles of Gnista, a non-alcoholic aperitif alternative.
Running the workshop is Camille Vidal, who has worked in the spirits industry for and is the founder of La Maison Wellness, which is home to a large free no and low cocktail recipe database. “It’s all about temperature, dilution,” says Vidal, instructing us to pile ice cubes into a highball glass. “The same as making any cocktail.”
Vidal wanted to use all of the skills she had learned creating alcoholic cocktails over the years, and she wanted to show you could still have flavour without the alcohol. “I wanted to still remember the fun I had the night before while enjoying something delicious,” she explains. “Before I would make excuses that ‘Oh I’m on antibiotics’ or ‘I’m driving tonight’, even when I wasn’t, so no one would say anything.”
Her experience is similar to many others at the workshop, who tell me that navigating other people’s reactions is often what gets in the way of making the switch. Willoughby says that pubs and bars being stocked with more no and low brands is the key to changing that. “Be demanding with pubs, I phone in advance and ask, otherwise they don’t know there is demand,” she says. “If all else fails, take your own.”
To help others smooth their transition to mindful consumption, Vidal has created a non-alcoholic alternative for almost every cocktail you can think of. If you like a mojito, she has created “The Practice”, featuring non-alcoholic white cane spirit and ginger juice. For those who prefer a martini, there’s a drink called “Sweet Dreams”, with a tea infusion, honey water and a CBD-based non-alcoholic liquor called Spirited Euphoria.
Vidal says there are even techniques to replicated the sharpness you feel down the back of your throat after a shot, though exact dupes for spirits are less important if you’ve never consumed alcohol or if the last time you did was years ago.
“You really have to open your mind and not expect to have something that is exactly what you were drinking before,” she explains. “If you’re looking for a whiskey that's going to give you the same burn in your mouth there are techniques that we use, like cayenne pepper to create this warming sensation in your mind that you would have because of the ethanol or we use things like peppermint to recreate this like sort of like resistance that alcohol creates.”
Ghia founder Melanie Masarin says that coming up with a non-boozy drink that doesn’t suck is a “technically challenging” mission that took the company 37 iterations to get right. “We wanted to make a bitter drink that had the complexity of an alcoholic drink, but that didn’t mimic a specific spirit or buzz people in some way,” she says. “We asked ourselves: how can we make a bitter that tastes like you make it with real plants and herbs picked from your garden?”
But these intricate techniques often mean that non-alcoholic alternatives won’t be cheaper than their alcoholic counterparts. Lyre’s – a brand that creates substitutes for almost every spirit – is even slightly more expensive than the alcoholic versions. Their gin alternative, Dry London Spirit, goes for £23.50; you can pick up a 700ml bottle of Gordon’s for around £15.
“You need way more ingredients to recreate the structure, balance and backbone that you don't have without the ethanol of the spirit,” says Vidal. “Alcohol is such a great way to preserve and making alcohol free spirits are really much more complicated and challenging. That comes at a price.”
Or you could always, you know, opt for a club soda with a squeeze of lime.