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Will zero-proof cocktails outrun the G&T?

Trendy and favoured by health-conscious diners, zero proof cocktails make a splash with no alcohol

A zero-proof cocktail at Together at 12th
A zero-proof cocktail at Together at 12th

Sipping with curiosity on a non-alcoholic bottled drink that’s steadily conquering the world of cocktails—the “Garden 108 Herbal" from the UK-based brand Seedlip—I felt the heady herbal aroma calm my frayed Monday nerves. Its tart, mildly acidic flavour hits first, settling immediately with a sublime herbal aftertaste. Intrigued, I examined the bottle. It had a stylish label in pistachio green and an artful illustration of a rabbit straight out of a Guillermo del Toro movie. The brand, Seedlip, was written in bold, with the packaging attempting to capture the brand essence; that of working only with naturally-grown ingredients and botanicals like herbs and spices. Seedlip, a UK-based beverage company that has been partly acquired by alcohol giant Diageo, claims to produce the world’s first zero-calories and zero-sugar distilled non-alcoholic spirit for adults. “Simply put, this is distilled flavoured water. It has a spirit-like fizzy character with intense concentrated flavours," says Christin Pereira, beverage manager at Sorrentina By Foodhall, a premium Italian restaurant in Mumbai. The Garden 108 Herbal is a bottled concoction of garden peas and capsicum. It is a concentrated mix that can be infused with water, soda or bitters to create no-alcohol cocktails. Pereira served it on the rocks in a whisky glass, spiked with non-alcoholic angostura bitters and garnished with a large basil leaf and a slice of Malta orange. Refreshing would be an understatement. For the first time, I was exploring the fascinating world of zero-proof drinks and cocktails; or cocktails without alcohol.

So, how are they different from mocktails? Mocktails are simple uncomplicated drinks with two-three ingredients. Zero-proof cocktails are a notch higher in technique because they need to taste and feel like a cocktail minus the alcohol.

Next up, Pereira offered another variant of Seedlip called the Spice 94. He whipped up a zero-proof cocktail, mixing honey apple juice, cinnamon, white vinegar, soda with 45ml Spice 94. The cocktail, named Aceto e Miele on their menu, came in a gin goblet. I wouldn’t have guessed there was no gin in this drink. To double-check, I got a friend to try it. “I can’t tell it’s non-alcoholic; it feels like a gin and tonic," he said, echoing my thoughts. It was priced at 500. Why on earth would someone pay such a high price for a non-alcoholic drink, I wondered. Because all the mixers in the drink are expensive, Pereira said. A 750ml bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin sells for 2,900 in Mumbai and a 750ml of Seedlip retails for 2,800 on Amazon.

At Sorrentina, no-alcohol cocktails or zero-proof drinks are a huge hit during dry days. Or, when people visit with families and children. “Zero-proof cocktails are also known as Driver’s Drink," Pereira says. He was introduced to zero-proof drinks during his stint with a two Michelin-starred restaurant called The Ledbury in London, where drinking and driving attracts strict penalties.

The other significant reason for the growing popularity of zero-proof drinks across the world is the increasing focus on health. Health-conscious food enthusiasts can find Instagram hashtags like #NoLoDrinks and #NoLoCocktails. NoLo is the abbreviation for no alcohol or low alcohol. A quick search reveals beautifully presented drinks. Restaurants that are aware of their patrons’ health-related preferences offer NoLo menus. Typically, these drinks have no sugar and are positioned as healthy, and would be ordered when one is staying away from alcohol during business lunches, or by those strictly following their dieticians’ instructions and limiting their alcohol intake. Of course, some people just don’t drink alcohol. In India, zero-proof drinks are at a nascent stage. Restaurants like Gurugram’s Together at 12th introduced a NoLo cocktail menu to welcome dry January (dry January is a global phenomenon that implies limiting or abstaining from alcohol to detox after December’s party season). Co-founder Nitin Tewari explains: “In a traditional cocktail, the alcoholic spirit like gin, vodka or rum is the hero, while in a zero-proof cocktail all ingredients have an equal role to play in terms of flavour and texture. The latter needs fresh ingredients to qualify as a good no-alcohol cocktail." Tewari’s base is Seedlip and he uses seasonal ingredients to develop zero-proof cocktails. He is experimenting with guava to introduce a no-alcohol drink this month.

No-alcohol wines at Thirsty City 127
No-alcohol wines at Thirsty City 127

It is not just about ingredients, as mixologists adopt complex bartending techniques to create zero-proof cocktails. At a premium Mumbai bar called Thirsty City 127, bar manager Santosh Kukreti uses cryofiltration to make no-alcohol wines. Cryofiltration is the process of freezing fresh fruits or vegetables overnight. The next morning this iceblock is wrapped with a cheese cloth and held up; like making paneer at home. The ice melts and drips and this flavoured drink is collected for no-alcohol wines. These range from fun flavours such as guava with chilli to tropical variations such as pineapple with coconut or the out-of-the-box tomato and basil. At their in-house bar, Kukreti has created non-alcoholic distilled flavoured water with zero sugar, giving Seedlip a pass because of its price. He calls his concoctions, which are used as a base for zero-proof cocktails, ‘hydrosols’.

Beyond bars, retail spaces have witnessed a steady rise in the demand for zero-proof bottled drinks. “We introduced bottled drinks like Seedlip and zero-alcohol beer in April 2019 and have witnessed more than 100% growth in this category," says Jay Jhaveri, chief operating officer, Foodhall. He adds that he has been “amazed" at the demand for these drinks.

Brands like Budweiser launched their zero-alcohol beer, Budweiser 0.0, in India in July. They are bullish on the growth of this drink category. “We are thrilled with the preliminary response and want to continue this momentum in the non-alcohol beer segment in the country," says Kartikeya Sharma, president, South Asia, Ab InBev, the parent company of Budweiser. He predicts these beers will make up at least 20% of their global beer volumes by 2025.

The figures signal the gradual emergence of a new beverage category. “Today’s teenagers will be a generation of light drinkers when they grow up," reads an article titled Glass Half Empty published by The Economist in November. It adds: “Millenials, now in their 20s and 30, are also drinking less alcohol. For them, moderation is part of a healthier lifestyle—the pursuit of which is starting to look like a mainstream trend rather than a fad."

In India, zero-alcohol, no-sugar cocktail mixers with ingredients like basil, rose, chamomile and beetroot will be launched by First Agro in April. Nameet M., co-founder and head of innovation at First Agro, says: “Zero-proof drinks are here to stay because of rapidly shifting demographics. People are not drinking any more as they don’t want to compromise on their health or lose productive days."

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