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Going nolo: spirits

I would never claim that I’m never going to drink again, but I know I was right to stop when I did. You find, when you don’t drink, that people are curious about why. They might even ask. I’ve no idea why they do this because they hardly ever want to hear the answer; usually it’s a prelude to them reeling off all the things they like about drinking and asking you if you miss them. People take it very personally, if you don’t drink in their presence. They speak in hushed, and not particularly sympathetic, hushed tones about people they know who’ve battled alcohol addiction, or have a long-running drink problem. It’s rare to find someone who simply takes your abstinence at face value, accepts it’s just something you do. There has to be a story, or an epiphany; they want to hear your self-loathing, or your health scare, or accounts of how you lost control and/or drove away the ones you loved. It can never just be. That way they can convince themselves you’re an outlier, and that drinking is still totally fine. Which it is! I don’t know why people who still drink are obsessed by the idea non-drinkers trying to convert them, or act like not drinking is somehow contagious – your hotel minibar is not going to evaporate just because you spoke to a non-drinker. But I did have my reasons for giving up this time.

In summer 2019, one of my oldest, most cherished best friends died. Best friend sounds childish, and also rather exclusionary to others as I definitely have more than one, but she fits that definition. We’d known each other 25 years, meeting as 18-year-olds at university. We were in each other’s lives, I watched her get married, her children grow up, we saw each other often, like family. Her death was sudden, unexpected, and left her husband, children, family and friends utterly devastated. I can’t describe it; I can barely get my head round it. I thought I knew the meaning of a broken heart before but, man, this was on another level. I don’t think any of us will ever be the same. But where I’m going with this, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, is that, in the aftermath, I drank a lot. You could say it was understandable or expected or even a cliché if you like, but I wasn’t using it as anaesthesia in the traditional sense. It was barely a coping mechanism either, really, but something to do. Like the Nervous Wine I spoke about it in the last post, or that cigarette on a street corner that renders you invisible to curious eyes, knocking back wine or beer or large gins was a distraction. With a drink in your hand, you don’t have to say anything, or do anything, you’re officially busy. You can stare off into space, can in hand, and it’s contemplative and reverent, not weird and closed off. I drank in the absence of anything to do, I drank to avoid having to answer well-meaning questions about my feelings, I drank to break the ice and also to disappear under it – visible and close enough to touch, but cold and unreachable. “Let’s get a drink” or “I’m dying for a drink” were the perfect tableau melters. I didn’t drink at home at all but at pubs and parties I would merrily tip drinks down my neck, until drunkeness robbed me of my tongue and energy. (I’m not a mean or fighty drunk, just a quiet one who longs for bed, usually.) But while my friend might’ve understood what I was doing, she wouldn’t have approved and, I think, she would’ve been horrified and upset to think her death had been the cause. And I didn’t want her legacy to be drunken grief; she loved life and would expect me – us all – to live our lives to the fullest, not crumple up into a ball, soused and distraught. I wanted the memories I had to be crystalline – unclouded and brilliant, just like our friendship had been. Plus, there was the very evident problem that I was starting to look and feel awful. A good four months or so of bereavement boozing had left my face puffy and pathetic, my mind and body feeling battered, worn and anhedonic. I was nearing 44, and boozing like a teenager doesn’t bode well for the rest of what’s to come. I wasn’t dead yet and I wasn’t about to chuck it all away. That’s not what she would’ve wanted. It was like making a promise, to be here, to be present, to embrace the future forced upon me.

I did a brief farewell tour, made that Christmas really count. to a drop of fizz went wasted, no cocktail refused. I planned to give up New Year’s Day – not as a resolution but just because I was used to not drinking in January or February – but my last drink ended up being at around 10:30pm on New Year’s Eve, at drinks round a friend’s house (remember doing that?!?), because I started getting stomach ache and didn’t want anything more. It was a glass of crémant and I can’t really say I savoured it or even remember what I felt when I drank it. Not all goodbyes need to be dramatic or held close to your breast forever, I suppose.

I wasn’t sad or sorry it was the last one and I’ve only really missed having a drink on a few occasions – the idea of staring into space and contemplating the tyranny of my fading youth while sipping a Gibson martini still appeals, I won’t lie. I miss the glamour and the romance around drinking but not the practicalities. And, yes, anniversaries are hard. I didn’t advertise what I was doing or make a point of it online or indeed anywhere – it was just my thing, milestones personal to me and with no one to disappoint but myself. I don’t judge anyone for drinking or care whether they do or don’t, to be honest, just as long as everybody brushes their teeth and promises not to be boring. I must concede that nights out – again, remember those? – finish earlier for me now, as I lack the drive and energy to carry on that a boozy stomach gives you. Plus, too many Diet Cokes or lime-sodas and my stomach feels like ten snakes in a tumble dryer.

Which brings me neatly to why I wrote this series about nolo drinks. While I’ve never been that interested in drinks pretending to be booze, or missed the taste, enough is enough: no more lime and soda, death to Diet Coke, shove your J2O up your hoop. I didn’t know where to start and I figured plenty of other people didn’t either! In this final part, we’re moving onto spirits. A spirit is perhaps the weirdest alcoholic drink of all – a drink so disgusting that to make it palatable we must drown it in a mixer, or hide it in a cocktail of about ten other flavours. When it comes to boozeless alternatives, there’s been the most success in aping the botanical flavour of gin. There are loads of faux-gins on the market, and I didn’t want to review them all because there’s little you can say, and I find writing about how things taste tough enough as it is. So here’s a selection of some worth a go:

Caleno light and zesty

Caleño – Taking inspiration from the founder’s Colombian roots, this blend of tropical and citrus fruits and spicy botanicals took me by surprise. I was expecting a potent, viscous Lilt, or a well-meaning but overpowering cocktail taste but this was a unique, fresh spirit with proper boozy undertones.  (I tried Light & Zesty but there’s a Dark & Spicy available too.) I’ll get this again.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ (PR)
Buy Caleño online

ZEO spiced oak

ZEO – Made in collaboration with bartender Simone Caporale, who helmed the Artesian at the Langham hotel, the two ZEO spirits are probably the closest to the feel and taste of booze of anything I tried. White spirit Botanical Dry made a convincing martini, and the darker, smoky Spiced Oak wouldn’t be out of place in an Old Fashioned. These are really great – they smell wonderful and taste authentic. I’m not really that bothered about nolo drinks tasting *exactly* like booze, as I don’t actually miss the alcohol taste, I’m just looking for enough bitterness to stop me downing it, but ZEO are excellent mimics. I liked both, but the whisky-ish, rum-esque Spiced Oak was a winner. I’ll definitely be buying some (it launches on 19 December).
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Buy ZEO spirits

New London Light

NLL – Coming from acclaimed distillers Salcombe, NLL (New London Light) had a pleasant, grassy taste with tonic. But, as the name suggests, this was light, and lacked flavour for me, so there wasn’t enough pushback for my taste. Perhaps a bit too subtle for a wizened old boozer like me.
⭐️ ⭐️ (PR)
More info on NLL

Ceders

Ceder’s – I’d heard a lot of good things about Ceder’s range of ‘gin alternatives’ so was excited to try them. I sampled two of their four-flavour range – the white ‘Crisp’, which has cucumbery undertones so probably has a lot in common with Hendricks in the tippling parallel universe, and the ‘Pink Rose’, which… well, it’s pink gin. I liked both, but the pink was the best of the two: herby, a delightful tang of hibiscus (I can’t believe I just typed that) and that all-important resistance that had me sipping away. Will definitely be trying the other varieties eventually.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ (PR)
Take a look at the full Ceder’s range

Warners Juniper Double

Warner’s – Based on a Northamptonshire farm, Warner’s distillery produces a terrific range of alcoholic gins and two ‘botanical garden spirits’: Juniper Double Dry and Pink Berry – so, nolo gins, basically. The packaging is colourful and eyecatching; they would work well as gifts. The Juniper Double Dry was very impressive – one of the best nolo white gins I tried, tasty and floral with just the right flicker of bitterness that stands up well to a flavoured tonic. The Pink Berry wasn’t on the same level at all, I’m afraid – even regular tonic completely drowned out the taste.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ (PR)
Buy the 0% Botanic Garden range from Warner’s

Seedlip and Tom Dixon

Seedlip – They may not have been the first, but Seedlip have established themselves as a trailblazer in changing the way people think about alcohol-free alternatives. Their core range has three gin-esque spirits: zesty Grove 42, aromatic Spice 94, and the herby Garden 108. Many non-drinkers are divided over whether they’re actually any good or just great at marketing, and maybe it’s both – I’ve tried them all (although I was sent Spice 94 for this piece) and found that while they definitely have distinctive flavours, they’ve not quite mastered the pushback. They’ve recently launched a series of aperitifs too under the Aecorn brand.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️  (PR/Bought)
Full Seedlip range in their online shop

NONA June

NONA June – Another gin alternative, this one is heavy on the juniper and has a great herby aftertaste that makes it easy to drink but interesting enough that you don’t forget it straightaway and knock it back.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ (PR)
Buy NONA June at Your Drink Box

Lyres spirit

Lyre’s – In terms of range, Lyre’s is pretty untouchable. They have a nolo version of pretty much every mainstream spirit you can think of. White rum, dark rum, aperitifs, whisky… even absinthe. And (of those I tried) they’re pretty decent; I made myself a very convincing martini with the Dry London and the Aperitif Dry. Would definitely give these a go. Packaging is great too – also feels like it would be a great gift.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ (PR)
See the full range of Lyre’s spirits

Thanks for reading and if you have any suggestions of drinks you’ve tried, get in touch – I’ll no doubt do an update later in 2021.


See all the pieces in this nolo drinking series, including beers, cocktails, shrubs, wine, and kombucha

I wrote in GQ about why this winter might be a great time to stop drinking

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Read my (frighteningly bitchy, considering) Blind Date reviews

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1 Comment

  1. Your post couldn’t have come at a more suitable time…. Much sorrow started with a dear person’s drinking (too much).
    I don’t like spirits but love wine. But only as long as I can (and do) enjoy it. I never “got” the Getting Drunk appeal when I lived in God’s Waiting Room Torquay. They were a sorry sight. We put it down to a different genetic make but now I feel I ‘d quite like to try some of your nolo drinks! What are you doing here? 🙃
    Hope you will have a great Christmas and that those who have to justify their drinking (problem) with negative remarks wake up before they ruin their health and the lives of their families. Cheers

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