Premium non-alcoholic drinks are pricey. When they don’t have the same tax burn or require the same lengthy processes, why should the healthier option be as expensive? Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi investigates.
If you’ve ever done Dry January, tried to cut the booze before an event or been too hungover to face another night on the vodka, you may have ordered a low- or non-alcoholic drink at a bar. I’ve got a mate who regularly downs eight pints on a night out but religiously orders Heineken Zero at least one month a year.
When I was going through a dry few years a little while back, pubs were slightly awkward places to socialise. Diet Coke is exorbitant when bought by the pint, endless glasses of soda water make you look cheap and there’s only so much J20 a person can drink. Then kombucha arrived on the east London scene and my gut health got a near-daily workout. These days, however, it’s never been easier to have a sober evening out. Whether you’re a beer, spirits or wine drinker, there’s an alcohol-free option for everyone.
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The issue, however, is the price. I’ve ordered fresh fruit mocktails that taste slightly less incredible when I’ve clocked that they cost the same as a proper margarita. Bottles of botanical gin alternatives cost as much if not more than your bog-standard spirit down Tesco.
In London, we think nothing of dropping a tenner on a cocktail or £8.50 on a double G&T, but when it comes to a low-alcohol spirit drink, we shudder at the prospect of paying more than the price of a soft drink. Does that suggest that we’re more interested in the alcohol content of drinks – the way booze makes us feel – than the taste and process? Or do we inherently believe that more quality and expertise goes into making a bottle of plonk over a low-alcohol bev?
Should non-alcoholic drinks be cheaper than the ‘real’ thing?
When I ask nutritionist Kimberely Neve, she says that non-alcoholic drinks “definitely need to be cheaper” because “they’re surely cheaper to produce”. She makes the interesting social point that because they’re undoubtedly healthier for us, they should be made more accessible – although she notes that it “hasn’t worked out for food yet”. She, like many others I talk to, admits that she “just sees them as soft drinks” – and grossly expensive ones at that.
Kate, a friend from university, says that alcohol is expensive because of tax, so questions why non-alcoholic alternatives would be anywhere near the same prices. “Surely that means a higher profit margin for the maker? The ingredients would have to be amazing quality to be able to charge such a high price.”
And perhaps she’s hit the nail on the head there. As influencer and ultra-runner Flora Beverley tells Stylist: “Most of the spirits are specialist/artisan drinks. It’s like buying a nice bottle of gin (which you’d expect to spend £30+ on). I wish they were cheaper but that’s probably the reason they’re not.”
CleanCo, one premium non-alcoholic spirits brand, sells its 70ml bottles for £19. Belvoir cordial in Sainbury’s, by comparison, is £3.30. The reason for that difference in price? “We’ve had to distil 50% more of our key ingredients to get the taste impact we need,” says CleanCo. “This is both expensive and laborious, but we believe the flavour of our spirits shows it’s worth all the hard work. We want to use the best techniques and botanicals to create the best liquids, without compromise.”
That artisanal process is something Alistair Frost, founder of drinks brand Pentire, cites when I ask about prices. “We make our drinks by distilling pure, whole fresh plants, so there’s no dried cloves or spices, no dry botanicals. It’s made with all seasonally sourced, sustainable ingredients,” he says, that are all native to the part of Cornwall that Pentire is based in.
“So first, you’ve got really good quality ingredients that are fresh and then you’ve got the distillation process. Ingredients are blended, then filtered, pasteurised and bottled. And so that naturally creates the cost of our products.”
He’s keen to stress that premium non-alcohol drinks aren’t trying to mimic anything. You’re not drinking these to get the taste of alcohol and you’re not going to feel any different afterwards.
The thing is, if you don’t want to drink alcohol or have something that’s high in sugar, what are you supposed to do? Drink kombucha until you pop? For many of us, it’s not realistic to swear off alcohol completely; in fact, 80% of Pentire’s customers drink alcohol. These more expensive no-alcohol options are more a tasty buffer zone for people who want a break.
I tend to have non-alcoholic options as an aperitif or a sundowner. Beers like Lucky Saint are perfect for ploughing through emails at 3pm, while a Ceder’s and tonic is an ideal golden hour drink – especially if I’ve got a long run planned the next morning. Perhaps it’s active consumers like me who are more likely to spend big on these upper-end drinks because of that need to stay on top of our game.
Why don’t we think of drink in the same way we do food?
“We know that going on a run makes us feel amazing; we know that eating well makes you feel amazing… but there’s still a disconnect between how we feel and what we drink,” Frost says. We’re either drinking mocktails and abstaining or we’re having a good time with a glass of wine. But if we’re in the pursuit of wellness, drinking can and should be part of both our at-home healthy rituals and our social life.
Marthe, a long-time runner, accepts that but still believes that they should “definitely be cheaper. You might as well just buy a fizzy drink or juice if it’s going to be just as expensive as buying alcohol. As a consumer, I think I’d rather opt for cheaper options if I’m not drinking. I’ve always assumed it’s the alcohol content you’re paying for.”
While undoubtedly a lot of time goes into these drinks (some are fermented, others distilled and non-alc beers are brewed and then have to have their alcohol removed), Marthe’s really touched on the crux of the matter: loads of us probably value the alcohol itself, rather than the taste or ingredients. Is that a problem? Not necessarily, but it is interesting that we see drink as this anti-inhibitor.
These kinds of more expensive drinks, Frost says, “are great for people who don’t want to stop drinking entirely. This is about an overarching shift in consumer behaviour towards health and understanding more about the things that make us feel good.”
For some, that’ll be a fizzy Vimto. For others, it might be a glass of rioja. And with the cost of living only getting higher, there’ll definitely be loads of people who’ll agree that dropping £20 on a bottle of anything is a waste of money. But if we’re prepared to spend the same amount on ‘real’ gin, vodka or rum, we have to ask ourselves: are we valuing drinking for its mind-numbing abilities over taste?
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