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Lockdown has been hard on us all and, while alcohol can be a comfort, it can also make things worse. Cutting down on the booze this January may help your physical and mental health, but you don't have to miss out on interesting, flavourful drinks in the process.
To help, read our wine expert's pick of low-to-no alcohol drinks just for grown-ups. There are low-alcohol and non-alcoholic lagers and ales, white and red wines, sparkling white wine and rosé, and a selection of gin and spirits alternatives.
You've had a hard day working from home, it's dark outside and the kids are finally in bed. Feels like it's time for a glass of wine or a beer, but all too often that glass has morphed into half a bottle and the beer has become two or three (as they're only little bottles, right?)
The dangers of alcohol as well as the potential benefits are so frequently covered in the media that it can become difficult to separate truth from opinion. One thing is certain: excessive, prolonged alcohol consumption is not good for you.
There is an alternative to fizzy water or lemonade, however, and that's the increasing range of low- and no-alcohol products that are readily available both online and in mainstream supermarkets. After all, we don't just drink alcoholic drinks for the alcohol; if we did, we'd all drink nothing but vodka.
It's the diversity of flavours and styles which are so personal to us that make the difference, and help an evening drink to give you that warm feeling as you transition from work to leisure that can be so important for our wellbeing.
The low/no offer seems to fall broadly into two categories – mass-market products with internationally recognisable labels made by the giants of the industry, and tiny, artisan producers who specialise in the field, available through small online businesses.
The list of products below is far from exhaustive, but aims to be a round-up of some of the biggest names and the best the industry has to offer. Whether a drink is any good is a matter of personal taste, which is why these reviews are more about deciding if a product is good at what it is designed to do: how complex are the flavours, how much balance is there, are the products refreshing, does the flavour last, is there the right level of sweetness or acidity, and how intense are the aromas and flavours.
Unlike many lagers, this is brewed in Italy and imported, which might explain why it's expensive. It's the right colour, has a good bubble to it and a good head. It doesn't smell of Peroni, though. Very light, lemony hops, cloves – more like a new wave IPA than a lager, but it does smell of beer.
The palate feels a little thin, and it lacks acidity and crispness. This was drunk straight out of the fridge and being really ice cold may improve things.
This is a darker, richer-looking beer than the Peroni. Much closer to the fully leaded version on the nose, this smells just like a lager, but with a touch of white bread to it.
Sadly the palate is very thin, with no real substance at all: it basically tastes like watery lager, with no acidity and little refreshing bite.
It feels like more than one of these would leave you bloated.
By far the best mousse and head. This is reminiscent of the old Heineken, back in the 3.3% days and the bright green can.
Here at last is a lager that tastes of lager. Good fizz, good bite, some acidity to make it refreshing and more flavour that its rivals.
This is a perfectly decent glass of beer.
This lager is 0.4% alcohol, so not one for purists, but that little alcohol isn't going to have any effect on anyone's health. A darker lager in the New York style, it promises an unexpected piney aroma, but for me it smells very clearly of aromatic grapes and drinking chocolate.
Immediately sweeter on the palate than the other beers and with far more flavour, this is more an American-style IPA than a lager, but is still a very good beer with the right balance of flavour, sweetness and acidity.
Perhaps it's the hoppiness and bitter finish, but this does convince you that you have a beer in your glass. Well done.
If you have tried BrewDog's Punk IPA, you may have high hopes of this being a success.
First impressions are good, as the Punk AF does look and smell OK.
However, it tastes of old dishwater and soap and leaves a lingering bitter taste that is way too overpowering.
This is another one with 0.5% alcohol, so not completely free.
Very dark and very frothy. On the nose it's slightly chemically, which continues through to the palate.
Watery, with a bitter lemon peel finish. We can see why some would like this, but it's very niche.
Styled as a 'Citrus Pale Ale', the Southwold brewery has come up with a beer that looks and smells like a pint of ale, and a flavour profile that sits somewhere between a best bitter and a shandy (that'll be the citrus).
We'd be interested to try this on a proper pub pump from a cask; from the bottle it just lacks a bit of depth, but is still a very credible effort.
Smells of compost and leaf mould. Slightly sweet, mushroomy, a sweet finish, but this is certainly closer to an ale than the rest and has a deal more flavour.
We'd prefer something with a slightly cleaner finish, but this is actually rather good and we suspect an ale drinker might not know this is alcohol-free.
After four days on the beer test we'll admit to taking a break from alcohol-free drinks; the 0% wines didn't cut it for last night's cheese sauce, so some of the alcoholic version found its way into the sauce and the chef.
Tonight we're back on the wagon, and with Thursday being the new Friday, we are going to try seven different still wines. Crazy times.
You won't see many of the usual grape varieties in de-alcoholised whites, as they generally don't have the strength of flavour required to ride out the de-alcoholisation process.
Torres Natureo 2018 is made from one of the most aromatic grapes of all – Muscat. Most wines don't actually taste of grapes, rather lemon or grapefruit, gooseberry or blackcurrant, but Muscat genuinely does.
To look at, you'd never know the Natureo Muscat was anything other than the real deal. This does not immediately smell of fresh fruit, but more a faintly medicinal, doctor's waiting room smell with a hint of moisturiser. The palate is disappointing. There's a very slight spritz but the slightly wheatgerm flavour isn't a pleasant experience. It also lacks acidity, which to my mind is the biggest problem.
It does redeem itself on the finish a little, but on this display you'd be better off with a bottle of Schloer.
Attractive packaging and the wine looks fresh and vibrant. It also clearly states the grape varieties. Still some hints of moisturiser – we're not entirely sure why.
On the palate it's basically pretty bland, but it does at least have a bit more flavour to it than the Torres. An initial hit of pear drop/boiled sweets, which fades really quickly. It really needs more acidity and frankly more flavour. Maybe put a slice of lemon in it, or grapefruit?
Our high hopes for this one hinged on the grape – Verdejo is a native Spanish grape that makes the zesty and delicious wines of Rueda. The bottle has the words Consomire Muy Frio – 'drink very cold'. This should ring some alarm bells, as a trick for disguising the flavour of poor-quality hooch is to chill it to within an inch of its life.
Darker than the others, more gold than green, the nose is tinned peaches with a bit of creaminess. Just like the others, it doesn't smell of wine. The palate is odd: a sort of watery peach juice with a dash of tangerine. Quite sweet and cloying; we can see why they say serve really cold, as this will deaden the sweetness and bring up what little acidity there is. Maybe drink with ice?
The three de-alcoholised wines we tested are some of the most popular and widely available, but for a wine drinker they are simply not good enough; it seems that so many of the complex flavours that make wines interesting are bound up with the alcoholic fermentation that turns it from grape juice into wine. Genuinely, products like Shloer have much more flavour and balance.
So, what to do if you want something that's like wine but isn't 13%? One is to drink German wines. The German wine industry produces some of the very best white wines in the world from Riesling grapes, and the northerly location of the vineyards means they get full-flavoured, high-acidity grapes which are fermented to 7 or 8% alcohol: a lot easier on the system than a 14% Pinot Grigio.
Your other option is to do things Roman style. Admittedly this works better with reds than whites and it doesn't look as convincing as the de-alcoholised drinks, but a glass with 100ml of purified water and 50ml of wine has roughly four percent alcohol and tastes rather more like wine than any of the de-alcoholised stuff on the market.
Our recommendation would be to find the strongest flavoured white you can and water it to your taste.
On to the reds, which we tried with food: a simple tomato-based pasta.
A classic grape blend found in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, loads of Australian reds and of course Spain. This looks great: an appealing cherry red. It also smells, praise be, of wine!
The flavour doesn't really deliver what the nose does, and this is still more like fruit juice with a bit of tannin and vanilla flavour, but it's far, far better than any of the whites.
Tempranillo is the main grape of Spain's finest wine regions, and will be familiar to most as the backbone of Rioja. Bags of colour here: it really looks the part. The nose is a little sour and plummy, and there's a weird brown bread aroma.
On the palate, it's just really odd. Little acidity, a bit of tannin and soft over-ripe cherry-cola fruit. Not easily confused with wine apart from the look.
Made in Belgium from 95% Australian ingredients, this is described as a 'wine-based beverage'.
It looks like wine, but it smells like an accident involving a punnet of blackberries and some silage.
No acidity, little in the way of flavour outside of what you pick up on the nose.
This smells of potpourri to such a degree that we were actually slightly nervous of tasting it. It certainly smells and tastes nothing like any red wine we have ever come across. It is beautifully packaged, but eye-wateringly expensive.
It's more like something you would put in a bowl with some scent sticks in the downstairs cloakroom than anything we would want to drink.
It's now Saturday, and with a rugby match on TV it would normally be off to the rugby club for a couple of ales with the other coaches, but the club is closed, we are not allowed to socialise and there's a job to do, so for the first time ever it will be rugby and alcohol-free sparkling wine.
Very green in colour: this looks the part. However, unlike actual sparkling wines, this is made using carbonation so has a small number of big bubbles. The nose is very ripe and and has a hint of pear drops.
It promises light, fruity enjoyment, and that's exactly what you get. It's fresh, grape- and pear-flavoured, a nice amount of fizz and at long last an alcohol-free wine with some decent acidity. Overall very good.
A blend of carbonated water, non-alcoholic fermented grape juice and green tea.
It looks the part – again like a bottle of prosecco. Another product that smells right; you could be forgiven for thinking this really is prosecco, and the palate follows that through – it's not quite vinous and the green tea isn't really in evidence either, but it does have a pleasing balance of sweetness and acidity and a good spritz.
Champagne expert Richard Juhlin has lent his name to a sparkling wine made from French Chardonnay grapes from the Languedoc region. The back label (in Swedish) tells us that it has a nose of Granny Smith apples – we disagree and would say this is more Golden Delicious and custard, reminiscent of demi-sec champagnes.
The palate carries through from the nose, and this is very close to the real thing (sparkling wine, not champagne, which is much more complex.)
If you are looking for something close to a brut champagne it will be a little on the sugary side, but good acidity and a persistent mousse make it a winner.
Lurid pink, this looks a little artificial. On the nose it's like one of those pick'n'mix sweet counters at the cinema – if you've ever had a strawberry lace or a pink prawn, then that's the aroma combo.
There's a slightly unfortunate dog-biscuit aroma going on, too: perhaps the green tea? This is sickly-sweet and cloying, no acidity, very basic confectionary flavour like weak strawberry jam. There's little to recommend this as an adult beverage.
Elegant and refined, this is the colour of a Provence rosé or saignée champagne. The nose is a little light with some slight cereal notes, but it's still pleasant and interesting.
The palate is, once again, a little on the sweet side, but at least there is acidity and a pleasant fizz which is closer to prosecco than cola. Alongside its Blanc de Blancs counterpart we could quite happily raise a glass of this in a toast.
A couple of glasses might make you think it's a bit sickly, but it is streets ahead of the competition.
Having tasted a number of spirits alternatives both prior to and during this exercise, we feel that these might be better to style themselves not to make an alcohol-free gin and tonic, but as drinks in their own right.
Effectively these are cordials and should be treated as such. The main issue is cost – compared to the more common cordials these are hugely expensive.
Our select group was tasted neat and with the suggested mixer, which was broadly tonic water. For uniformity we used Schweppes Indian Tonic Water from 150ml cans and served the recommended amount of each drink with the corresponding amount of tonic over ice, with no additional fruit or other garnish.
Looks great, very smart bottle. Nose is soapy, not at all attractive, very much like washing detergent. Palate is exactly the same. This is hideous.
This starts out quite well – it looks the part and on the nose there's bit of cucumber going on reminiscent of Hendricks gin. There's coriander, sage, juniper and basil in there, and it's possibly the basil that gives it that lighter cucumber flavour.
There's also some heat from somewhere, which could be the coriander. It's an exotic flavour and quite powerful, complex and interesting. Experimenting with flavoured tonics could yield some excellent results.
Oranges come through strongly on the nose, very pleasant and certainly quite festive. This is very refreshing and not at all overpowering – interesting that it does not list juniper as an ingredient.
If you like your gin and tonic with a slice of orange, this will be right up your street. If you are more of a juniper purist or have it with lime, the Stryyk Not Gin would be more suitable.
Spice 94 has a distinctive aroma and the flavour of dentist's mouthwash: the pink stuff they give you to swill out your mouth.
It's such an overriding flavour that we cannot imagine this ever being an enjoyable drink (unless you particularly enjoy your trips to the hygienist).
Seedlip is the market leader and, at £23, is more expensive than some fairly well-regarded gins. Undeniably, though, this is the closest to an actual gin and tonic experience you are likely to get.
It smells of gin – that lifted juniper note and slightly earthy background – and it has the right combination of flavours to match ideally with the tonic. Served blind, you would be hard-pushed to know that this wasn't the real deal.
Chris Hambleton is an independent wine writer and auctioneer. He owns and runs Bacchus Wine Auctions: the UK's only specialist wines and spirits auction house.