I don’t remember my first hangover. Fitting, I guess. When could it have been, the first real one? The first to go beyond a slightly fuzzy head and blast of halitosis with every exaggerated yawn? No idea. Somewhere in my mid-twenties, I guess. It must have been so traumatic that my brain decided to suppress it – I wonder when the memory is going to pop back out. But one thing I do remember: the first time I was properly, legally, “ooh I have to lie down” drunk. I did have a few clandestine drinks when I was below drinking age – including my very first taste of alcohol and experience of being drunk when I was about 13, with my grandma, on champagne that came free with a bottle of fragrance – but I didn’t really go overboard and could never have been described as drunk drunk. It was Christmas Day 1993, and I’d turned 18 two days earlier, and at a gathering at my uncle’s, I drank around five Southern Comfort and lemonades and swayed merrily, smiling woozily and laughing too loud at unfunny jokes before I decided to lie at the top of the stairs and look up at the ceiling, counting the cracks and not entirely enjoying, although not loathing, this weird sensation of being suspended in jelly.
It was a strange sensation to be drunk with no fear of getting into trouble. I wasn’t particularly desperate to drink as a child – I didn’t like the look of what alcohol did to people, the problems it caused. As a teenage babysitter I witnessed far too much of the damage a night out could do. But I accepted that this was expected of me, that I could now legitimately walk into a bar and calculatedly wipe away all my pretensions, all the things that had kept me going as an outsider – that I wasn’t like everybody else. What a con, I realise now.
Those first few times you drink as a new adult are strange as, often, you have no idea what to drink. You can actually do it now, legally, so what do you go for? You don’t need to share cider on the swings down the rec, or minesweep at weddings, the over-18s club is waiting for you, only too delighted to indoctrinate you. So that’s why I chose Southern Comfort and lemonade – it was the popular drink among my aunties and was having a bit of a moment generally in 1993 and, thanks to the lemonade – a nod to the fact I was still pretty much a baby – didn’t taste like booze, which is key to anyone starting out. Another reason alcopops, once they were invented, were very dangerous.
A couple of months later, at the 18th birthday party of someone I did French A-level with, I was faced with another dilemma – what to order at the bar? I remember my friend asking me, and me replying that I didn’t know. She suggested a rum and coke, and that was that, my ‘drink’ for the next year or so before I went to university and discovered only old people drank spirits, apparently.
The fact that alcohol overall doesn’t taste that nice has been countered over the years by mixers, the aforementioned alcopops, and all kinds of bizarre rituals to make you forget you’re drinking poison. Take the reinvention of gin over the last few years – from tatty, scratched, over-dishwashed tumbler of flat G&T to huge fishbowl glasses, juniper berries for some reason, posh tonics, lemon-not-lime-because-lime-is-so-ten-years-ago-even-though-people-used-to-say-that-about-lemon-too, ice ice ice ice why so much ice?! The constant battle between drinking as a sophisticated lifestyle and a means to get plastered. And yet, when you give up, you miss that slightly noxious undertone to everything, don’t you? The pushback against your tastebuds that tells you this drink isn’t to be fucked with, that it must be sipped and savoured. This is the real job of booze alternatives, to remind you just enough of drinking that you sent feel shortchanged of an experience, but not strongly enough to send you tearing back to the optics and tipping your head back to pump them straight into your mouth. Speaking of which, I’ll be looking at nolo spirits in another post, and nolo beers and cocktails too, but in this one, I’m going for grownup drinks that aren’t pretending to be booze at all, but showing you another way. Shrubs, cordials, tonics, sodas.
Shrubs and cordials
Okay, what the hell are shrubs? A shrub is a little bush in your garden, yes, very clever, but the concept of a shrub as a drink has been around hundreds of years, applying to medicinal cordials, or vinegar-based drinks, or syrups based on spirits and fruit juice, but in modern terms, it’s basically a cordial that usually has vinegar and fruit in it, although there are variants. For anyone who ever overdid the vinegar on a fish supper once, the idea of drinking the stuff might appal you but this isn’t exactly a glass of Sarson’s with a strawberry dropped in it – although… just spit balling, but… would that be so bad? Hmm. Okay. Modern shrubs and drinking vinegars are perfect if you’ve given up the booze but don’t fancy sitting snd sipping water all night while you watch TV. Although they don’t ape the taste of alcohol, they do have that all-important bitter or tangy taste – yep, that don’t-down-me-dickhead pushback that keeps things sippy and civilised. Full disclosure: I was sent some examples by PRs so did not pay for them. But I was under no obligation to review or be positive about any of them. I would point out that most consumers would see them as being expensive when they don’t contain any alcohol – of course it’s not always the alcohol you’re paying for but the manufacturing process. That said, yes, they’re not cheap.
Here are my top 3:
The Hudson Standard – Blending apple cider vinegar with fruits and spices, this American company does a wide range of flavours. The packaging is quite cool and reminded me of potions you might find in an apothecary shop – like a proper apothecary shop not some awful trust-fund vanity project in Hampstead called something like Apothecaré or something. I tried the cassis berry and loved how tangy and fruity it was. Nice with sparkling water and ice or, if you are still boozing, also goes great in Champagne/prosecco cocktails, I’m told.
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Hudson Standard Cassis Berry 355ml at Your Drink Box
Wolfe’s Shrubs – What’s different about Wolfe’s is that their range is seasonal – this, I assume, is a result of their claim that they always use local produce. Cucumber and mint (absolutely PONGS but is v tasty) and pineapple, chilli, and lime leaf are available all year round, but depending on the time of year, you might also get strawberry and black pepper, or apple and star anise. Goes great with soda or tonic water, or even plain old boring sparkling water. I don’t like strawberry anything usually, but this was terrific, and the pineapple one was nice too. Tangy, spicy, a little bit different. Each bottle says it makes 10 drinks but I had a tendency to overpour – much like gin, old habits die hard – so got through mine faster.
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See the full range including a list of shops, bars and restaurants where you can buy it! (London only at the mo.)
Jukes Cordialities – Okay, so these are posh! Created by renowned wine-taster Matthew Jukes, these kind-of shrubs and kind-of cordials are more or less supposed to represent different wines. Starting with a white and red, Jukes 1 and Jukes 6, the range expanded to a limited edition rosé, Jukes 8 (which now appears to have sold out) and most recently Jukes 2, an autumnal red. These are brilliant in a glass with plenty of ice and some good tonic. Chuck a berry in if you absolutely must. These are pretty high-end, so the packaging and price reflect that, but they might make a great gift for the non-boozer in your life or, like the others, you can use them in cocktails too. They come in nine-bottle packs which, according to the blurb, when mixed, is the equivalent of three bottles of wine.
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See the full range
Remedy Switchel – is like a shrub and soda hybrid and comes in two flavours. The tropical is 💯. See the Switchel range (PR) ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
For old school cordials, I really like Robinson’s Fruit Cordials range in the glass bottles – Crushed Lime and Mint (nolo mojito, basically), and Rhubarb, Raspberry and Orange Blossom are the best. (Bought) ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
And I also like Tessière Le 0% Grenadine, or Framboise & Cranberry (Bought) ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️.
Sodas and tonics
Well, you know what sodas and tonics are, I assume, so I shall spare you the ‘BBC educational department budget obligation’ speech and crack straight on. Fizzy pop is, essentially, the domain of children and office workers hoping that the sharp hiss from a can of Diet Coke being opened will lure shirtless window cleaners to the outside of their building, much like Kelis’s milkshake and her yard. But sodas don’t have to be all about tooth-corrosion and children jumping around being ‘hyper’ (is that even a thing?) – there are some grownup sodas too. And if you really crave that bitter pushback, like, hello, tonic exists. My faves:
Square Root – Really fun and bright packaging and delicious fruity sodas. They do miss that bitter pushback, so fall down on that score, but they’re so nice you probably won’t want to rush them anyway. Maybe? Blackcurrant was the best I tried. They do non-alcoholic cocktails too.
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See full range
Sekforde tonics – designed to be the perfect accompaniment to booze, so… not quite a nolo drink but you can get them in 500ml bottles. Aromatic raspberry, rose and sage was my favourite.
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Shop Sekforde toncis at Waitrose
Fever Tree – Very well known for their ever expanding range of quality tonics – clementine and mediterranean especially great – but now they’ve branched out into sodas. I was expecting them to be sweet but they’re really not – they’re definitely going for nolo drinkers. I was sent the Mexican Lime (rather too understated) and the Italian Blood Orange varieties, and preferred the second – one thing to watch with these, and indeed other sodas, I guess, is that when using as a mixer for, say, nolo spirits, they totally overpower the spirit taste. One I didn’t get sent, but ended up buying myself, is actually the best one: Raspberry & Rose – it’s tart and tangy and a little bit sweet. Will be a great Christmas mixer. I’ve already bought it a few times.
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See the Fever Tree soda collection
Chillio Soda – fizzy pop, but with…chilli in. Sounds weird? Sounds awful? Maybe. But it’s not! I really loved them. Based on recipes you might find in your average local, say, Peruvian or Mexican fizzy drink, these are sweet without being sickly, and spicy enough to give you a little bit of a burn at the back of your throat, and yet also v refreshing?! They’re pretty confusing but delicious. My favourite is actually based on a Cuban recipe and is pineapple, prickly pear, and lime with a hint of habanero chilli.
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You can buy whole cases or smaller packs and mixtures of Chillio varieties online.
Cloudwater Soda – Definitely a grownup take on soda, Cloudwater has a kind of craft ale taste that mixes well with the different fruit varieties – probably because Cloudwater do actually brew their own beers. There are three options, based on mango, green tea and – my favourite – pineapple and yuzu. I really recommend giving these a go; I quite like swigging one while I make dinner – they’re in larger 440ml cans so it really is like kicking back and having a beer, but… tastes better?
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See the full Cloudwater Soda range and buy online
Okay so there was quite a lot there. Remember if you want to see any of these in your local pub, why not ask them if they could stock them? You never know until you ask, do you? They could at least get some apple cider vinegar in for you, blimey.
Believe it or not, we’re only halfway through these – next up: beers and cocktails (I refuse to say mocktails, except just then, obviously)
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