This very little sentence contains in it many truths that apply to my life – it defines, for example, what kind of a person I am when it comes to going out. It lets people know that I indulge in alcoholic beverages. Hell, it might even resonate with some old school boilermaker fans as a statement that simply lets the bar know that I’m there for the right reason.
But in this context, this opening, I’m using it to express an intrinsic part of my being: the part that enjoys the history, the rituals, and the methods of imbibing alcohol whose entire story is entwined with the history of the human race.
Humans have always drank, going back all the way to the beginning – from fermented beverages which became alcoholic without even the knowledge of the group which started the process, to kingdoms that came and went, alcohol has always been a there: a companion, a friend, and sometimes the enemy, sneaking in the back, ready to strike out.
Being a drinker means I’m eternally fascinated with three key questions: What? Why? How? What am I drinking, i.e. what do I fancy today, what’s my mood, what is the feeling I want to capture, what’s the place I want to visit for the drink? Why covers how the said drink came about; why a negroni, why a whisky sour, why is pastis served like that but soju like this? Finally, how is the process of creating it – how do you layer a Black Velvet, how do you make a Martini colder, how do you improve on something already great, refining it further and further?
These three questions mean I end up traversing the length of this beautiful planet, meeting like-minded people who are obsessed with the same questions and who indulge my simple curiosity by exchanging ideas, talking, by revealing secrets, by telling stories. It’s the basic exchange of humanity that appeals to me on every level.
But there is, of course, a difficult side. That side is that drinking is not actually good for us, not in large quantities and the older we get, the more harm it can cause if we keep up a Gatsby-style seven days a week party. I’m painfully aware of this face, lurking in the back of my head as I sip another perfect cocktail hidden in the depths of a bar.
This year, with the miserable effects of the pandemic still sweeping through every fibre of my being, I decided to make a change. I decided I’d implement a regime – step-by-step that would allow me to curb my drinking in a way that’d be meaningful without ever turning into a battle of wills with my desire to enjoy myself.
Step 1 is to have a couple of alcohol free days a week, which started off well.
But these days also highlighted something I hadn’t considered in my anatomy of myself as a drinker: that the incredible world of cocktails and alcohol does not necessarily translate to non-drinkers.
I’m a 40-year-old man; to find my options when I drink non-alcoholic drinks were, by and large, relegated to sweet and cloying drinks is a huge disappointment. I’m not dismissing the whole market of course, but most of the shelf stuff is thoroughly disappointing.
So, I decided to give the fast growing world of non-alcoholic spirits a spin. This is a HUGE market, seeing a triple in growth over the pandemic with some brands seeing incredible jumps in sales, and for a moment I thought perhaps there was an opportunity to address a glaring gap in the adult beverages market.
Spoiler: I was disappointed.
Seedlip is the first of the non-alcoholic spirits that appeared on the market way back in 2014 and has seen steady growth since.
Unlike any of its competition at the time, Seedlip was the first brand to claim to distill a non-alcoholic spirit, macerated with aromatics in the same way gin would be made – an interesting approach to a market that, at the time, was yet to see any innovation.
Its success resonated enough in the industry that by 2019 Diageo had stepped in to buy the majority shares in the company. As of right now, Seedlip has three varieties plus a side business which produces non-alcoholic herbal amari type non-spirits.
To be honest, I’d read so much about Seedlip that almost unconsciously it was the first brand I went for when I decided to take some time off alcohol.
I ended up going for Seedlip 94 – Aromatic which retails for £22.99, which is not cheap.
Seedlip 94 Aromatic – Review
Color: Clear, like gin or vodka.
On the nose: A pleasant herbal smell that is reminiscent of fresh mountain thyme with touches of fir. Interestingly, it has a beautiful depth that suggests a spirit of layers; if I was to encounter this in a bottle of gin upon opening, I’d be incredibly excited.
In the mouth: Thin and insipid mouthfeel; it’s the equivalent of flavored water. Those herbal notes on the nose do not translate into any sort of flavor. Instead, it’s a one-note disappointment of cucumber and an undiagnosed herb note.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment here is that as impressive as its CV sounds, Seedlip feels like it really has no purpose for a drinker. If I’m going to create non-alcoholic drinks, I can do it just as well using natural ingredients. Seedlip brings nothing to the table, not in the flavor or the mouthfeel department.
I feel slightly cheated.
The other bottle I found myself purchasing on this new journey was entirely opposite spectrum to Seedlip. Caleño claims to take its inspiration from the flavors of Colombia and produced a variety of non-alcoholic spirits with tropical flavors. This bottle in particular is said to contain pineapple, black cardamom, coconut, ginger, lime, kola nut, and vanilla.
This bottle of Caleño retails for around £17.95.
Caleño Dark & Spicy – Review
Color: Cloudy apple juice, sort of muddled yellow
On the nose: Sweet cola haribo, a little bit of vanilla, some cardamom buried at the back but not entirely enticing to an adult, giving the impression we are about to drink a whole glass of melted Haribo.
In the mouth: Better than Seedlip; there’s a pleasant sweetness that is offset by lime and cardamom, mouthfeel is still thin and insipid and there’s no finish to speak of.
A touch better experience than the Seedlip but still, the question remains in my mind, burning: Why would I add this to my backbar? What does it bring to the experience of the non-drinker other than the ability to pretend that we get spirits, too? It’s the equivalent of a play kitchen for children where they can pretend to make meals.
For the sake of journalistic (and drinker) integrity I also tried the spirits in a round of cocktails.
For the Seedlip, I went the classic way of a Gin & Tonic, but with the addition of an Elderflower syrup to see if I can unlock some of the herbal notes, maybe even create an aromatic elixir. The result is my already thin water just elongated with the flavor of Elderflower. I’ve not been able to revisit it since forcing myself to finish it.
With the Caleño, I created a kind of simple rum & lime with soda water… and what do you know, it is a pleasant enough distraction. I still feel like a six-year-old playing adult and imitating the adults drinking, but at least this is palatable enough that I am not haunted by it in my dreams.
As a coda, let me say that there are good products out there. Since my tangle with these two spirits, I’ve been working my way steadily through what’s available to the consumer and have discovered to my delight that beer and wine makers have been creating some excellent stuff. I’ve found IPAs that fulfill all my needs and a couple of bottles of sparkling rosé that accompany dinners excellently, with their flavors working in tandem with the flavors of the food just as wine does.
So, this is an article of two halves, I guess. The non-alcoholic market is still in its infancy compared to the world of alcoholic drinks and stands to find its footing… if only it can shake the idea that the drinks need to imitate alcohol in a way that only speaks of play-acting. Vegetarian foods went through a similar process before finding ways to create flavors that worked to satisfy the palate rather than just pale imitations and it’s only my growing hope that this can also happen in this space… just not yet. For now, we must contend with some of these flavored waters and look forward to the future.