Moving Boundaries

Pleasure trumps guilt

The market for non-alcoholic spirits is booming. The point is not to convert drinkers but to reach out to new target groups.

Everything started with an April Fool’s joke three years ago. On a whim, Raphael Vollmar, the inventor of Siegfried Rheinland Dry Gin, attached a label reading “Siegfried Light” to a bottle of a high-proof spirit. Together with Gerald Koenen, the co-founder of the project, he took a few mood shots of forests and campfires and published the result in the digital world. The reaction? “Overwhelmingly positive,” Vollmar recalled. Suddenly, everyone wanted the tasty treat that would leave them clear-headed. Vollmar said: “We soon realised that we had started something huge.”

Following two years of experimentation and fine-tuning, Wonderleaf was born: Germany’s first non-alcoholic gin. Siegfried is not the only manufacturer seeking to profit from the new appetite for abstinence. Those who dislike Campari can order Crodino instead, made from fruit and herbs. Whissin, an alcohol-free spirit extracted from maize and barley malt, is an increasingly popular whiskey substitute. And Ronsin contains the same ingredients as rum – before it is fermented.

Teaser picture with glasses on yellow background

The sober lifestyle trend

Phum Sila-Trakoon, one of Berlin’s most famous bartenders and an ambassador for the Thomas Henry tonic brand, explained: “Drinking is no longer about getting inebriated as quickly as possible. People want to savour quality products.” At first glance, the trend seems absurd. Going out without getting plastered? It’s possible. The “Sober Sensation Parties”, a recent addition to Berlin’s entertainment scene, prove it: instead of Moscow Mules, they offer up smoothies on tap. Star chefs, sommeliers and barkeepers have suddenly started to experiment with vegetable extracts and ant acid, helium and currant essence. Eating and drinking habits are changing. Recent surveys confirm the trend: young people, in particular, are less and less inclined to drink strong alcohol. A representative study by the Federal Centre for Health Education (BfgA) has found that fewer than one in ten German teenagers between 12 and 17 drink alcohol on a regular basis, i.e. at least once a week. In 2004, the figure was around 21 per cent. Nearly 40 per cent of respondents also claimed never to have tried beer, wine or spirits. In 2004, only 20.1 per cent of the same age group abstained from alcohol. The latest results, then, constitute an unprecedented level of sobriety in society.

 “Alcohol-free drinks are a new form of art in the culinary world,” Sila-Trakoon explained. The award-winning restaurant Horváth in the capital is a prime purveyor of that art form: its meals are accompanied by alcohol-free drinks that are as sophisticated as the food itself. Managing Director Jeannine Kessler explained: “More and more guests choose to abstain from alcohol.” They, too, can expect “unforgettable flavours at the state of the art” here.  The new wealth of alcohol-free spirits on the market helps these efforts flourish. The products are aimed at all those who want or need to drink without the buzz – but do not want to sip coke all night or answer lots of nosy questions.

Wholesome indulgence with great market potential

“We have no intention of re-educating anyone,” Siegfried founder Vollmar emphasised. His specialism is disruptive distillation: unlike alcohol-free beer, the deliciously dry drinks do not fit into any category. Sila-Trakoon agrees: “It’s a brand-new market.” Ben Branson, the founder of Seedlip, the “world’s first distilled, alcohol-free spirit”, goes even further: he wants to change drinking culture around the world. His products contain a similar amount of herbs as conventional gin does. They are in the same price range, too: around EUR 35 per bottle. Branson’s “Spice 94” first hit the shelves of Selfridges in 2015. Its recipe is based on a book about medicinal spices that is over 300 years old. The first 1,000 bottles sold out within three weeks. The second batch only lasted three days, the third shipment a mere three hours. It is unsurprising, then, that the beverage giant Diageo recently bought a majority share in Seedlip.

Drinking is no longer about getting inebriated as quickly as possible. People want to savour quality products.

Phum Sila-Trakoon
Phum Sila-Trakoon admits that the creation of alcohol-free cocktails can be more challenging than working with conventional spirits. But that very difficulty is an opportunity for culinary innovation, he believes. Alcohol-free gin cannot imitate the flavour of real gin, nor does it intend to. Siegfried owner Vollmar likes to combine his distilled herbs and spices with Aperol and a premium tonic, served on the rocks in a red-wine glass. Not entirely alcohol-free – but another new option. “In general, people are not drinking less per se. They are having more drinks that contain less alcohol,” Sila-Trakoon observed. If a cold shandy has been your go-to drink on hot summer days, you could now opt for a light version of your favourite cocktail instead. “And restaurants get to sell more than two drinks in the evening,” Vollmar added. The gin expert believes that selling lighter incarnations of beloved flavours has immense potential. Cheers, then!

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