Earlier this summer the world’s biggest spirits company, Diageo, announced it was investing in a new product. But it wasn’t a gin, a rum or a whisky. It was the “world’s first distilled non‑alcoholic spirit”, Seedlip. Created by 33-year-old teetotaller Ben Branson using a copper-pot still, a clutch of homegrown botanicals and a distilling manual from 1651, Seedlip is in many respects like a gin – but one without the booze. You can drink it with tonic or mix it in cocktails (although a Seedlip “martini” is nothing of the sort), and it’s also sugar-free. It looks like a craft gin, too, with an attractive gilded label inspired by old botanical drawings – packaging that attests to Branson’s previous career as a brand designer for companies including Farrow & Ball.
The other thing that makes Seedlip feel like a craft gin is the price: it’s £27.99 for 70cl, placing it way beyond the realms of any traditional soft drink. Not that this has deterred businesses from stocking it. On the contrary. Less than a year after launch, Seedlip can now be found everywhere from The Fat Duck, Hix and Annabel’s to Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, with more listings sure to follow now the Diageo-funded Distill Ventures is on board. And Seedlip isn’t done innovating: this autumn it will launch its first “brown spirit”, a limited edition smoky number designed for drinking with ginger ale and lime, like a rum.
The interest that this category-defying product has aroused is a clear sign of a market that’s now thirsting for more sophisticated soft drinks. Whether for reasons of religion, health or simply personal taste, more than one in five adults in the UK is now teetotal, with younger consumers in particular showing a clear inclination to drink less, and less often. But rather than write these consumers off, the country’s more enlightened bars and restaurants are now working harder than ever to tempt them back in with non-alcoholic cocktails that are as creative and celebratory as anything made with hard liquor.
One world-class bar that’s leading the way is Dandelyan at Mondrian London. Winner of World’s Best Cocktail Menu (2016) and Best New International Cocktail Bar (2015) at the Spirited Awards, this plush Thameside lounge does a fine line in botanically minded cocktails, with a sixth of the list dedicated to alcohol-free recipes. These include The Bradsell (£7.50), a twist on an espresso martini made with cold-brew Square Mile coffee, malt syrup and chai spices; and the refreshing Apple Sourz-Less (£6.50), a combination of house-pressed apple juice, spicy rye syrup, herbs and capillaire, a syrup made from maidenhair fern, which was a popular ingredient for mixed drinks in the 18th century. Seedlip is on the list, too, in a spritzy goblet of ylang-ylang and homemade tonic water bittered with quinine, wormwood and dandelion root (£7.50). Suffice to say, you don’t need to be on the wagon to hanker after libations like these.
“We approach them all like a proper cocktail, regardless – they need to have a start, a middle and a finish; they’ve got to have complexity,” says Dandelyan’s accomplished creator, Ryan Chetiyawardana. True to his word, he plots all the drinks on the same flavour axis at the back of the menu, “not to trick people into choosing something non-alcoholic, but to emphasise that the choice is one that should be guided by mood and flavour, rather than simply getting loaded”.
Fellow award-winner Oriole – which took home Best New International Cocktail Bar at this year’s Spirited Awards – has also gone to great lengths to find innovative ingredients and techniques to give its teetotal drinks more intrigue. “It’s easy to mistake an order for a non-alcoholic drink as the customer asking for something with sweet notes, [which is why] such cocktails often end up being too sweet,” explains Oriole co-owner Rosie Stimpson, who is also behind the award-winning Nightjar. “We always make a point of asking what flavour profile the drinker is after, and with the use of vegetable juices, tonics and bitters it’s possible to achieve drier flavours.” And few bars have a more exotic larder to raid than Oriole, which lists so many rarefied fruits, spices and preparations in its drinks (£6) that the menu has a glossary at the back.
The rise of upmarket mixers from the likes of Fever‑Tree – whose revenue grew 69 per cent year on year in January-June – has also helped to bring a new air of discernment to non-alcoholic cocktails, with tonic in particular providing a welcome hit of bitterness in a category usually dominated by drinks that are sweet and fruity. And the choice of tonic brands is growing all the time, with 1724, Hackney’s Square Root London and the small-batch tonic cordial from Jack Rudy Cocktail Co all offering such interest in themselves that adding gin becomes almost an afterthought.
Some bars now even make their own tonic water. At Spring in Somerset House, a mouthwatering list of juices and cocktails is punctuated by a reviving Espresso Tonic (£5), which sees a double shot of espresso served long over ice with Spring’s own tonic made from quinine, allspice, lime, lemongrass, orange leaves and jasmine – a recipe that could almost be a perfume.
Smoky and savoury flavours are also being drafted in to give non-alcoholic drinks a more adult edge. At Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick’s Merchants Tavern, iced tea (£6) is reinvented as a smouldering cocktail of lapsang souchong, Seedlip and lemon and orange marmalade, while at Taiwanese sensation Bao, ingredients including miso and soy are used to give the cocktails a distinctly Asian flavour. A recent example was a sweet-and-sour glass of spiced guava, soy, Thai basil and miso, created in collaboration with Dandelyan’s Chetiyawardana.
At the bucolic The Ethicurean restaurant in Bristol, bar manager Seamus Green and owners Matthew and Iain Pennington often go foraging with the chefs for ingredients to make seasonal cordials including pine, hawthorn, rowan berry, pineapple weed and hops: “Hops give beer its floral flavour and bitterness – attributes that translate beautifully into a cordial,” says Green, who uses them to make the popular Hop & Tonic (£6). “The powerful flavouring from hops holds up really well against the sweetness.”
In his quest for more unusual, non-alcoholic flavours, Green has also been making forays into the world of fermentation. When the kitchen is serving kimchi – a Korean relish of spiced fermented cabbage beloved by gourmet-burger fans – he uses the umami-rich juice to make a Virgin Mary (£5). The fermented milk drink kefir – a speciality of eastern Europe – is also in his sights for a tangy play on a White Russian. And when they’re not working, says Green, the kitchen team can be found sitting in The Ethicurean’s walled garden sipping their own take on kombucha, a fermented tea drink with negligible alcohol content that tastes like a relative of cider.
Those with more abstemious tastes may prefer a visit to the bar at the Bulgari Hotel London, where the new cocktail list includes a section that is not just alcohol-free but also sugar-free – a measure, I’m told, that was introduced at the request of guests who liked to hit the bar after a workout. Along with the inevitable green juices, there are mocktails such as the Natural Attraction (£9), a long glass of aloe vera, mango juice, lemon and eucalyptus – all served with the kind of immaculate presentation one would expect from the Bulgari.
Even the best mocktail list, however, can leave abstainers feeling a little left out; a realisation that prompted at least two London bars to create cocktail lists that work both with, and without, alcohol – a mixological feat that’s harder than it sounds.
One of these is the Green Bar at Hotel Café Royal, which recently collaborated with Givenchy to create a perfume-inspired list of five cocktails (£8 each) that could be served hard or soft. And the drinks are wonderfully varied, ranging from a heavenly long drink of jasmine pearl tea, lemongrass, shisho and mandarin (paired in its alcoholic incarnation with lime‑spiked Tanqueray Rangpur gin and prosecco) to a spicy cooler of iced black coconut tea, kumquat, manuka honey and smoked cinnamon (paired with the rich Japanese whisky Nikka Coffey Grain). But bar manager Derren King is also in his element devising non-alcoholic cocktails à la minute – and if the Givenchy list is anything to go by, I’d say you’re in safe hands.
Another bar that’s done a splendid job of the with-or-without concept is 45 Jermyn St. Here, guests perched on a burnt-orange leather bar stool can choose from a rainbow of twists on the Rickey, a type of highball that rose to popularity in the 1880s on the back of the soda siphon. There are five of these zesty drinks (£4 each) to choose from including aperitivo-like No 7, made with blood orange, thyme and soda (with an optional shot of Islay malt Bruichladdich), and the scented No 9, made with Fortnum & Mason’s Countess Grey tea, ylang-ylang and soda (with an optional shot of Havana Club 3 rum). Three of the ice cream floats (£12.50) can also be ordered without booze: I stuck it to the sugar police and enjoyed one made with blackcurrant, lemon verbena, lemon sorbet and vanilla ice-cream, which was good… but I have a hunch it would be even better with a shot of Hepple gin.