There are all sorts of no and low-alcohol beverages out there, but the very tastiest are the tartest. Read on to discover the top selection of no and low-alcohol beverages from The Times’ Nina Caplan, featuring Wild Idol.
Traditions evolve, sometimes for the better. In Elizabeth I’s time, early January was celebrated with a free-for-all known as the Feast of Fools, when all the rules were abandoned and everyone had to follow the dictates of the Lord of Misrule (known in Scotland by the marvellous moniker the Abbot of Unreason). These days, an ever-growing number of us start the year with restraint. We eat more healthily, party less, revive that moribund gym membership and drastically downgrade our alcohol intake. These days, this is made a lot easier by the range of no or low-alcohol options available. A person accustomed to starting the evening with an aperitif or cocktail, moving on to beer or wine with dinner then finishing up with a nightcap can do all that and still drive home.
In the right hands, cocktails — with their multiple ingredients — can transform beautifully into mocktails, and the NIO mixologist Patrick Pistolesi turns out to be adept at that transformation. Lemongrass Citrus is fresh and sassy, with a lemony zing, while Violet Vamp, which features Tanqueray 0.0% as well as lime cordial and Monin violet syrup, is floral and lightly sweet.
Their Negroni Next, which uses the same gin substitute, is good for anyone missing this most distinctive of cocktails but beware: what with the Campari, the vermouth and a few drops of Angostura bitters this is low, not no-alcohol, and at 10.8% ABV not actually that low (£19.50 for a mixed box of three, niococktails.co.uk).
The hardest beverage to convert into a tasty alcohol-free option is wine, although bubbles certainly help. Wild Idol (£29.99, wildidol.com) is a delicious sparkling beverage, deliberately packaged with foil, capsule and cork to look like a bottle of champagne and pop like one too. Made from müller -thurgau grapes (there’s a rosé version in which a portion of merlot grapes is added to turn the liquid a pretty peach-pink), this is a serious — or should that be frivolous? — improvement on the many cloyingly sweet no-lo fizzes out there: savoury and refreshing, with some of the bready flavours a good fizz should have. Saicho (£17.99, saichodrinks.com), a sparkling tea that comes in three flavours — darjeeling, hojicha (a roasted green tea from Japan with a subtle seaweed note) and jasmine — is another excellent option, with the herbal flavours of a better sort of brew.
My preferred no-lo aperitifs are Botivo (£24.95, thewhiskyexchange.com), a herbal non-alcoholic bitters from Hertfordshire, and Giffard Ginger (£12.50, thewhiskyexchange.com), made by a French company that has been creating liqueurs since 1885. Both work brilliantly with tonic for a tasty, savoury appetite enhancer.
Later in the evening, the unlikely answer to the question of what on earth to drink proves to be … vinegar. The wine writer Matthew Jukes has come up with the alcohol-free Sparkling Pinot Noir Drink (£9.95 for four, thewinesociety.com), made from pinot grapeskins macerated in apple cider vinegar. This adds a grapey element that’s wine-adjacent to the vinegar’s gentle, tastebud-enlivening tartness.
There’s also vinegar in Sprigster Original Botanical Infusion (£24, sprigsterdrinks.com), as well as gooseberry and rhubarb from their Wiltshire garden. The result is lightly sweet with a pleasing flavour of spiced plum, making a good after-dinner drink. The use of vinegar to steep ingredients or awaken the palate is nothing new: oxymels (drinks that blend vinegar and honey) date back to ancient Greece and shrubs — tart fruit concentrates — with vinegar have long been used to preserve berries. Revived now for both no-lo drinks and cocktails, they were popular in 16th-century England. It appears those Elizabethans weren’t such unreasoning fools after all.