We’ve seen many alcoholic drinks trends come and go in South Africa over the past few years. There was the heyday of craft beer, the classic G&T came back into style in a big way, and then the pink wine revolution saw rosé take the spotlight. But the latest alcoholic drinking trend in South Africa may just be not drinking at all.
Long before President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the second lockdown ban on the sale of alcohol, a “mindful drinking” trend was brewing amongst health-conscious young South Africans. The trend saw legions of “sober curious” individuals put down their shot glasses in search of an alternative to the punch-drunk life and distilleries are taking notice. “Alcohol-free spirits” have exploded onto the South African market with more and more brands launching products that imitate the taste of gin, rum, or whisky. These new drinks, with their health-conscious, booze-free buzz, have garnered a whole lot of attention from reformed boozehounds and long-time teetotallers alike.
But what even is an alcohol-free spirit and how is it produced? We take a look at the world of alcohol-free spirits in South Africa to help you get a handle on this new booze-free trend:
The growth of alcohol-free spirits in SA:
We’ve all seen the rise of low- and no-alcohol beer, wine, and ciders in South Africa but now drinks producers are looking for a bigger slice of the mocktail movement with alcohol-free spirits. With the arrival of globally renowned zero alcohol spirits like Seedlip, the “world’s first” distilled non-alcoholic spirit, on South African shores came a slew of new products from local producers. The growing popularity of non-alcoholic spirits now means that South African abstainers have a lot more options with local products like John Ross Virgin Distilled Botanicals, Ginifer Sober Non-Alcoholic Distilled Gin, Abstinence Non-Alcoholic Spirit, Vergin Bloom, and Saint G&T throwing their hats into the booze-free ring.
But, how do you imitate the taste of a spirit? Experts in the alcoholic beverage industry will tell you that alcohol is a flavour carrier. It’s why many non-alcoholic and dealcoholised beers and wines often have a legally permitted low alcohol content of a maximum of 0.05% ABV. Only recently have an increasing number of beers with 0.0% ABV come onto the market, and they are still a rarity as the production of these products remains technically extremely difficult.
How are alcohol-free spirits made?
In an attempt to re-create the flavour profiles lost from traditionally distilled spirits like gin, rum, and whisky, some manufacturers of non-alcoholic spirits try to replace the astringent effect of alcohol (i.e. that slight contraction of the mucous membranes of the mouth when drinking) with bitter notes or pungency. Others try to increase the flavour profile by staying true to the manufacturing processes of a traditional spirit using essences and aromas created by distillation or maceration in their end product. But, other ingredients often used in zero alcohol spirits do not meet the basic definition of distillation at all. For example, a bottle of an imitation gin consists primarily of one component: water. A problem that has given rise to the critique that alcohol-free gin is nothing more than flavoured water.
Another big factor to consider in the spirits game is the aromas. We all know the aromas that are synonymous with spirits like gin, whisky, and rum and for an alcohol-free spirit to really stand out from the crowd producers have to find a way to recreate these aromas. This is done by mixing essences, a process similar to the “cold compounding” process used in the production of spirit blends, except the essences are either produced completely without alcohol or the alcohol was removed from them before the production process took place. Other methods used to produce essences include percolation and, of course, the artificial reproduction of flavours in the laboratory.
What about the taste:
Producers of alcohol-free spirits go to great lengths to recreate the unique flavours of traditional spirits. While many producer’s fall short, it’s quite clear from consumer feedback that the deciding factor in whether a producer has hit the nail on the head flavour wise most often comes down to a case of personal taste. Search for customer reviews of any locally produced non-alcoholic drink and you’ll find long lists of reviews both praising and denouncing the taste of the same product. Finding a non-alcoholic spirit you’ll love is all about exploration and trial and error. As with any spirit, it matters greatly what you mix it with and how you mix it.
3 non-alcoholic ‘spirits’ for abstainers: What to drink when you’re not drinking.
Now that you’ve got the low-down on alcohol-free spirits it’s time to start sampling the best of the best. We scoured the internet for some of the most consumer-recommended zero alcohol spirits to bring you 3 of the best alcohol-free spirits to try at home:
John Ross Virgin Distilled Botanicals – R289 per 750ml bottle
Botanicals are blended together to create this premium virgin spirit. A classic non-alcoholic spirit, infused with honeybush tannin, John Ross is proudly made in South Africa and is a great choice for gin lovers looking for a zero alcohol alternative. Ideal for pregnant women or anyone looking to decrease their alcohol consumption without losing some of the fun of drinking cocktails at home. The team at John Ross says its spirit is best served with either Barker & Quin Premium Tonic Water or soda water for zero calories.
“John Ross Virgin products give the consumer a drink that is sophisticated, low calorie and just as refreshing as a normal Gin and Tonic” says co-founder, Hanneli van der Merwe. Add in some fresh fruit, rosemary, basil leaves or whatever you choose for your personal favourite serve!
Seedlip Garden 108 – R499 per 750ml bottle
Described as the world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirit to solve the “what-to-drink-when-you-are-not-drinking” dilemma, Seedlip Garden 108 is a gin drinker’s dream come true during lockdown. Earthy and bright, not unlike gin, this non-alcoholic spirit can be enjoyed in a multitude of ways, but is best enjoyed with a splash of tonic water. Sugar and sweetener-free, with only 0.2 calories per 50ml, this spirit is ideal for anyone looking for healthy drink alternatives.
Seedlip may be non-alcoholic, but the distillation process is similar to that of traditional spirits. According to the producers of the product, it goes through the same maceration, distillation, filtration and blending — the only difference between Seedlip and most spirits is that it does not go through fermentation. The range available in SA also includes Seedlip Spice 94 (a great rum alternative).
This premium non-alcoholic alternative for all occasions is another great alternative for gin lovers. The Abstinence team says the spirit is made through a bespoke distillation process using ingredients amassed from some of Cape Town’s finest indigenous flora. Made with no artificial or additional flavours, colouring, or sweeteners, Abstinence Non-alcoholic Spirit is also sugar-free, making it an ideal option for health-conscious drinkers.
The Abstinence range includes two options which are sure to appeal to gin and rum lovers. Abstinence Cape Spice is made with whole pepper corns, Buchu leaves, Cloves, Angelica root, Cassia bark, green cardamom seeds, orange, and lemon peel. The Abstinence team recommends enjoying it with tonic water and a slice of lemon. Abstinence Cape Citrus Botanicals is made with naartjie peel, lemon peel, orange, grapefruit, pelargonium citronellum (lemon), pelargonium fragrans (nutmeg), mint leaves, and Cassia bark. It’s also best enjoyed with tonic water and a grapefruit slice.