I woke up on the morning of the 2016 US election and thought it was time for a change. Little did I realise just *how much* things we’re going to change the very next day, but I had feeling we were in for a rocky ride – and I decided I should be sober throughout.
Depending on where you are with it, it’s hard to talk about your relationship with alcohol without sounding judgemental or defensive, but my desire to give up booze had been on the back burner for a while. I had already cut down after my 40th birthday, for purely aesthetic reasons – my oldest friend was getting married in Paris and I wanted to wear something tight-fitting tbh – but I could feel myself creeping back into old habits. One more drink, Happy Wednesday, wine with lunch, let’s get shots – I’ve said them all, I’ve heard them all, I’d drunk them all. So I stopped, just like that. It wasn’t easy – I didn’t miss alcohol that much (it doesn’t actually taste that nice, why does nobody ever say), but dealing with the fact that my abstinence made other drinkers examine their own habits and that this was an inconvenience they didn’t wish to suffer for pretty wearing. But, no, the main issue was what to drink instead. Sober man cannot live on Diet Coke alone. I even had to have a week off not drinking that Christmas, purely because refusing alcohol and explaining why was more stressful than any hangover.
After New Year’s Eve 2016, I didn’t touch a drop… until early July, when a work event went very badly and in a panic I ordered a triple vodka-tonic. After that, nothing more, until a glass of red wine in August, then again nothing more until… well the fact I can remember specific dates and occasions perhaps tells you that my relationship with not drinking was almost as toxic as my one with still drinking. At an awards show in September 2017, looking amazing (in a jacket I later took back to the shop because I didn’t have any money) and, probably, the most svelte I have ever been in my 40s, nerves at not knowing anyone else there got to me and I broke… downing three glasses of champagne in about 15 minutes. Nervous Wine, as I’ve always called it, is the worst drink of all – the boost so temporary, fleeting, but the fallout usually catastrophic. Nervous Wine is something to do with your hands, keeps your mouth busy when it’s not talking, and is a false friend. Avoid. But we’ll come back to this later…
I haven’t drunk alcohol in 2020 and rather than worry about what I’m missing out on, I’m concentrating on what I can do instead. Although I must admit I’m not a huge fan generally of drinks that mimic booze, there are only so many lime and sodas a man can drink, so one of the things I’ve been doing is trying to find decent alternatives to booze that satisfy different criteria. Mainly, can I order this when I’m out, will it cause unnecessary comment, and does it have that pushback factor – either a bitterness or a slightly… for want of a better word, mildly poisonous taste that stops you knocking it back like it’s water or juice? A good booze alternative – even if it’s not aping real alcohol – must have this quality. Why? Well, it means you’re not standing about with an empty glass while your pals finish their drinks, it saves you running to the toilet every verse-end, it’s easier on your stomach and is, generally, a more satisfying experience.
Whether it’s Dry January’s impact, or people going sober for October and staying that way, I’ve no idea, but the nolo drinks industry (nolo = no or low alcohol) is having a boom at the moment, with increasing numbers of 18–24-year-olds eschewing booze altogether. You’ll be telling me ketamine is out of fashion next. I struggled to find decent information out there on what was bad and good, although when I did ask, lots of people made recommendations, so thought I’d do an idiot’s guide – with me being the idiot, obviously. Over four different features, I’ll take you through a not-very-comprehensive-but-at-least-I’m-not-being-paid-to-lie-to-you look at what’s available for those staying booze-free, and rate ones I’ve tried. Often these were PR samples but I am under no obligation to pretend I liked anything, and some of them I just bought myself. I’ll say when. I’ll cover: shrubs, cordials and sodas; beers and cocktails; and sprits. But I’m starting with one of the fastest-growing options, Kombucha, and another field which, so far, has been less than impressive: wine.
We’ve come a long way since Brittany Tomlinson took a swig of the fashionable fermented tea and found herself a meme – that happened in August 2019, btw, not several millennia ago. Brittany seemed to speak for a large chunk of the world as she rocketed through a variety of emotions while the kombucha assaulted her taste buds. I must admit, I was slightly daunted too – kombucha sounded like something a D-grade, Brexit-supporting standup comedian might spend a good part of their under-attended set making fun out of. A new drink for the naysayers who insist your slot on the hierarchy if elites can be discerned from what kind of coffee you drink – as long as it’s a latte. But… I quickly became a fan. No, it doesn’t really taste like anything else you’ve tried before and… yes, it is slightly, um, funky, but it’s delicious and refreshing and just different enough from soft drinks to make you feel like you are actually having a grownup drink. As drink genres go, kombucha is expanding fast, with all levels of sophistication covered. I tried a few. My top 3:
LA Brewery‘s Citrus Hops is billed as a beer-kombucha replacement and it certainly carried it off. As the name suggests it’s zesty, hoppy and tasty and has that all-important anti-knockback taste that means you could comfortably sip.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ (PR)
LA Brewery also do other varieties of tangy, fruity kombucha. (They also go a great fake wine but I’ll come to that…) See the full range
Left Field Kombucha‘s range is ethically sourced and organic and is aiming for the sophisticated end of the market. Their taster pack features four flavours, of which I found the Oolong and the Darjeeling the best, really fruity and easy to drink and, apparently good for you. I was enjoying the Darjeeling so much I stopped and took a photo of it – no higher praise.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ (PR) Taster pack
Remedy aim their range of drinks at families, and attractive people who live in yoga gear until 2pm, with bright fun packaging and fruity flavours. Theirs was definitely my favourite – they sent me a ‘rainbow pack’ which is basically their full range. I liked them all, but the cherry plum was 🤩, as was apple crisp and raspberry lemonade. They also sent me some cans of what was called ‘coconut water kefir’ which made me gag at the thought of it – as much as I love kefir – but on opening and tasting, I did an actual Brittany Tomlinson – even proclaiming ‘yuk!’ (quite loudly) before becoming… immediately obsessed. It’s kind of like a cream soda but without the sugar, and the cream, and the… well, everything else. Comes in two flavours, pure and passionfruit and both are 💯.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ (PR) Shop the Rainbow Pack
Non-alcoholic wine – isn’t that just… grape juice? Well, yes. Think booze-free wine and immediately people will start talking about Schloer and how pointless it is and I must say in some cases they are absolutely right – it’s an area of the nolo experience that’s yet to really find its feet. The trouble is, fake wine really struggles to replicate the ‘boozy’ feeling – most of them can be downed easily like a Fruit Shoot whereas even on a bad day I wouldn’t be able to down a glass of picpoul in one. But all is not lost, I managed to find a top 3:
Marks & Spencer have a wide range of alcohol-free wines, including their own basic rosé, white, and red, and fake Prosecco versions called Fizzero but… well, they’re not that great. As satisfying as a sip of communion wine. Their best is their Sparkling Muscat, under the name ‘Benjamin Truffer’, I quaffed it instead of champagne to celebrate my new book deal (alone at my desk, like a tragic heroine in the first five minutes of an episode of Murder, She Wrote) and at £4 it’s a bargain.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ (Bought) Buy online at Ocado
LA Brewery Sparkling English Rose – okay so this is a bit of a cheat as it’s actually kombucha, and we did kombucha up the page I know, but it comes in a big wine bottle and is so delicious. It really tastes like wine! I looked at the notes I kept when tasting this, and they’re pretty in-depth: ‘Ooh nice’. Perfect for sipping from a flute while you critique the judges’ scores on Strictly. Do I sound basic? I don’t care! I am basic!
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ (PR) Buy online
Thomson & Scott Noughty – I loathe Chardonnay usually, but luckily this isn’t actual chardonnay, although that’s the taste it’s going for. Of all the nolo wines I’ve tried, this was the closest tasting to alcohol, but in a good way. I didn’t feel any booze fomo, just that it was nice and easy to drink and satisfyingly resistant to being downed.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ (PR) Buy online
I’ll be back soon with the nolo-down (LOL sorry) on shrubs (basically, weird vinegar, kinda), cordials, and grownup sodas. Until then, cheers! 🥂
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