Christmas is a bonanza of retailers' making.
The narrative of excess which pervades all advertising at this time of year is as much a part of the season, come 2019, as chocolate advent calendars and everyone’s insistence that they hate brussel sprouts. If you open any magazine or scroll through social media, you’d be forgiven for believing that Christmas is an orgy of parties; hangovers spanning days, not hours, and pigs in blankets for breakfast (actually a possibility at Leon, and one that we're tempted by, to be honest). However, from the drinks industry, the push to stock up, to ‘indulge’ – or rather, overindulge – is deeply problematic for the quarter of the UK population who regularly drink in excess of CMO drinking guidelines.
Our thing is championing the untold story, and underdogs, so this Christmas it feels natural to us to flip seasonal expectations and roll up a drinks trolley stocked with no- and low-alcohol drinks. It’s a category which is rapidly gaining market share, and is being championed by some of the more enlightened of the UK press, most notably Alice Lascelles in her regular column for the FT. But just because the tide of opinion and consumer demand is slowly changing in relation to no- and low-alcohol options, doesn’t mean it’s quite penetrated the mainstream yet. Contrast Lascelles’ feature with The Time’s Jane MacQuitty’s top 50 wines for Christmas: “in difficult times, savouring a good glass of wine is not a luxury, it’s a lifeline’.
For Alex Norwood Hill, AKA The Sober Sommelier, it’s all par for the course:
“I think we’re at the tip of an iceberg. The conversation around how we use alcohol is coming to the fore. Our relationship with alcohol, particularly in the UK, needs to be readdressed. It’s like the conversation around climate change and electric cars – why wouldn’t you choose the healthiest option for your body (or the planet)”.
Norwood Hill cuts an interesting figure on the no/low scene. His background in hospitality as a mixologist strongly informs his determination to make no/low drinks as accessible and socially acceptable as traditional alcoholic ones. As we talk, he frequently returns to the idea of no/low drinks which don’t patronise or disappoint the drinker – drinks that maintain the sense of occasion and ritual you experience with your Friday night glass of wine or a cocktail at the latest bar. His ambition is for every bar and pub in a decade to have a 50:50 split of alcoholic and non-alcohol options – for no sober or sober-curious drinker to feel stigmatized or limited in ordering a non-alcoholic option. The first step towards this, however, is for no/low producers to invest in bar staff education.
The phrase ‘there’s a long way to go’ comes up a lot when talking about no/low drinks. Norwood Hill likens the current culture to the American gold rush – or the gin explosion of 10-15 years ago. The biggest barrier we perceive to the integration of the no/low category into the drinks trade at large and thus into consumers’ daily lives and drinking habits is wellness-washing. No/ low drinks are often co-opted as ‘wellness’ friendly options. There’s a problematic dichotomy between appreciating the massive drinks companies and celebrities giving oxygen to the no/low movement and the uninspiring quality of their offerings turning the public off the category at first taste.
Norwood Hill takes particular umbrage with the association of no/low drinks with diet or wellness culture. “It’s not just about taste, it’s also about viscosity. The real problem with [a lot of no/low offerings] is the lack viscosity – I’m happy to forgo alcohol for a bit of sugar.” Shifting consumer perception of no/low drinks from being a healthy option to just another option will be the turning point for this category. As Norwood Hill says of his own non-alcoholic offering, Cordus (launching 2020): ‘I’m not making a health drink, I’m making a good drink.” Amen to that.