Exploring all of the new non-alc, zero proof beverages on the market — from wine and spirits to beer — is a new project for TasteReport.com
By CINDA CHAVICH
II received my order from well.ca today — a box packed with a hundred bucks worth of no-booze booze.
There was a bottle of Ceder’s Crisp from Sweden, a Sobrii 0-Gin, four cans of non-alcoholic craft beer from Partake, and four little bottles of Gruvi Non-alcoholic Dry Secco “wine”.
It’s all part of my quest to try to understand the zero-proof business that is emerging all around me these days, from local Lumette Alt-Gin from Sheringham, to Phillips mocktails and flavored sparkling water, and the zero-ABV versions of craft cider in Valley Cider Company’s Modern Soda line (Ginnish with juniper and other gin botanicals, Love Potion or Noir soda, infused with local blackberries and black cherries).
And that's just the tip of the local iceberg when it comes to alcohol-free beverages as a new generation takes sobriety to new creative frontiers.
ZERO GIN JAUNT
A side-by-side tasting of the three “gins” now in the home bar was my first foray into zero “spirits”, beverages flavoured with a variety of botanicals, herbs and spice, without alcohol.
All were water white and fairly watery in texture, though the Canadian-made Sobrii 0-Gin had a little more body and a very slight yellow tint. It also had far more acidity than the others — too much for a martini but perhaps a good amount of zing for a mixed drink.
On the nose they were all entirely different. The original Lumette Alt-Gin (Bright Light) is distilled with some pretty floral botanicals (grand fir, citrus, mint and rose) but nothing that reminds me of the juniper/coriander aromas of actual gin.
On the palate, it’s soft and floral, too, a perfumed base for a spritzer or cocktail.
They also make a more juniper-forward Lumette London Dry version and a LumRum, flavoured with allspice, cinnamon, clove, molasses and nutmeg, all I hope to taste at a later date.. All are designed for mixing, states the label, “not meant to be consumed neat,” so plan to use them in your low- or zero-ABV cocktail recipes.
The Sobrii, on the other hand, has a pronounced woodsy aroma that frankly reminds me of pine cleaning products, with very strong peppery notes that were not sufficiently tamed by mixing, so not my favourite. The label says its infused with Canadian ginseng and made with “natural botanical distillates” including juniper, coriander and star anise, with no sugars or artificial flavours. It’s a small-batch product made in Ontario (my bottle is numbered 219) so may have some variations.
The only one that really said “gin” on the nose for me was the Ceder’s Crisp, a gin substitute from Pernod Ricard (via South Africa and bottled in Sweden) which was definitely infused with juniper and might just stand up as “ginnish” in a G&T or even in a martini with a splash of “not” vermouth.
It’s just one flavour in the Cedar’s line of zero gins and is also infused with cucumber, so pairs well with the cucumber tonic from Philips, and it’s the alt-gin I enjoy most among many I’ve tried.
They also make a lovely Ceder's Rose — soft, pink and infused with rose petals and hibiscus — and nice neat.
CREATING FAUX SPIRITS
As I've learned, it's really the choice of plant material (botanicals) that distinguishes these alcohol-free beverages, and what else might be in the mix. Some producers of faux spirits add spicy cayenne pepper to give their products a "bite", an attempt to replicate the burn of alcohol (not my favourite technique).
In making traditional gin, it's the alcohol that is used to steep the botanicals and extract their essential oils and flavours. To make zero-proof gin, it's a completely different process.
Some try to recreate gin with common ingredients (juniper berries, coriander, citrus peel) while others are making infusions based on their own combinations, which may or may not be successful. Too many floral components can make the mix taste soapy, while too much citrus maybe makes a successful cocktail mixer, but rarely a beverage on its own.
The process used to extract the flavours from botanicals is key, too. There's cold pressing, steam distillation and vacuum distillation, the latter being the most time consuming and costly option, but one that preserves heat-sensitive flavours and aromas. Then its the job of the blender to combine the distilled essences to create the final product.
In the world of faux rum, for example, you may find lots of sweet molasses and warm spices for a fruity Caribbean cocktail or hot toddy, but it's not a drink that holds up on its own.
And for the consumer, all of these variables make choosing a faux spirit difficult. You may need to try a lot of brands before you settle on something that works in the kind of cocktails you enjoy.
Unlike the faux spirits, zero ABV (or less than 0.5%) wines are real wine with the alcohol removed using one of a couple of modern processes that retain a fair bit of the flavour and aroma. To compensate for the lack of alcohol (which adds body and mouth feel) many add other ingredients, from sugar to glycerine
My initial take on the de-alcoholised wine category is that many are too sweet for my palate (read the labels and pay attention to grams of sugar per serving) and that the faux bubbles are the best to balance the residual sugar, whether Eins-Zwei-Zero Sparkling Riesling from Leitz (a German product available in bottles and cans) or the bargain Loxton Sparkling Brut (from Australia, available from the BC Liquor Stores at just over seven bucks a bottle).
The Gruvi Dry Secco (available in supermarkets) tastes like acidified white grape juice, more reminiscent of a sweet cider than wine, but quite drinkable and a decent palate cleanser with spicy food or mixer for non-alc mimosas.
Loxton also makes a decent dealcoholized white (a Semillon-Chardonnay blend), red (Cabernet Sauvignon) and rose (plus the Sparkling Brut), but all have more residual sugar than wine, around 6-7 grams in a 4-ounce pour, so it's not wise to drink too much if you're concerned about sugar and calories. And its hard to compare because there's no consistency in labeling — the Eins-Zwei-Zero Sparkling Riesling from Leitz, for example, lists 4 g of sugar in 100 ml, while its 12.5 g of sugar in 250 ml (6.25 in 125 ml) on the Loxton label, so while similar, the sugar levels are not the same.
BEER IS BETTER
The surprise for me is that making decent, even good, beer without alcohol is possible. Though I was never a big beer drinker, I like many of the craft beers produced in BC and have discovered that some of the alcohol-free versions are as good as their alcoholic counterparts.
In the zero beer category, I liked the selections from Partake, which are crafted in Calgary and widely available in supermarkets here.
But my new favourite non-alc beer comes from Athletic Brewing Co. in San Diego, especially their Run Wild cans of IPA-ish beer and Upside Dawn Blonde. It’s available at grocers, and at London Drugs (often on sale) so this is my new bargain zero beer.
And for a local craft brew, the Dry Side of the Moon non-alc Pilsner from Moon Under Water, made with 100% island-grown barley, is a lovely lager.
GETTING THE GOODS
As the non-alc category continues to grow, there are more options and more places to buy, whether from supermarket and drug store chains, private liquor merchant, or online stores dedicated to the category. In Victoria, there’s a good selection at The Market Garden, The Fernwood General Store and Urban Grocer. Expect to see non-alc bottle shops and cocktail bars popping up in the future
New online options for ordering include Victoria-based SofterDrink.ca and UpsideDrinks.ca (shipping from Quebec). Soft Crush, an arm of Crush Importers, and one of the first to bring premium non-alcoholic wines into Canada, has moved beyond wholesale to direct online retail with a good selection at https://shop.softcrush.ca/
But still expect this category to swing hot and cold. Of course, taste is personal, but I’m looking at a variety of things when I rate these products, including flavour, balance, value for money and even health considerations (some products are too high in sugar, IMO, to win my endorsement). And I expect that, with continued competition, there will be better products emerging all the time, with (hopefully) some additional ingredient oversight and guidance from health experts to help consumers make good choices.
I’ve invested a fair bit of money into my research and, frankly, there are a lot of products that over promise and under deliver. You may be paying for packaging and marketing, and it’s hard to know what you will find inside a bottle or can until you try it. Expect watery canned “cocktails” and “spirits” that show little resemblance to the real thing.
It’s an exploding category of food products, so it really pays to read labels and to shop from a trusted – and curated – source.
I’ll be buying and tasting more and reporting back as I go. Stay tuned.