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Londoners want more cocktails, but less booze, say bartenders

As low-abv events become increasingly popular in the capital, one globe-trotting mixologist is hoping to cash in on the trend by bringing sober serves to east London next month.

The Treehugger, one of the cocktails on the menu at incoming pop-up MISC (Photo: Social Beverage).

Shinyoung Lyu, who runs social beverages, an events businesses focused on non-alcoholic drinks, is opening a new pop-up bar called The Ministry of International Specialist Concoctions (M.I.S.C.). within the courtyard of a church in Hackney wick, serving booze-free drinks inspired by cocktails she has discovered throughout 10 years of travelling the world for university and work.

Lyu, who studied a masters degree in Culture, Policy and Management at City University London, before moving to Shanghai to take up a senior marketing role at healthcare company Philips, told the drinks business that mocktails have come a long way in a short space of time. Her menu combines ingredients like wolfberry, beetroot, and coffee, or Kombucha with Shikhye — a sweet rice drink found in her native Korea.

“These are not just alternatives to alcohol – these drinks will take you on a journey of complex flavours from savoury bitterness to subtle florals,” she said.

But her sober cocktail bar — which will open from 3 September to 2 October — isn’t the first to grace the capital. Last month, non-alcoholic distiller Seedlip, which now has three separate booze-free spirits in its portfolio, announced plans to launch “No-Lo” – a non-alcoholic “bar” which would be housed in some of the world’s most renowned cocktail bars over one weekend in July. Around a dozen venues partnered with Seedlip on the initiative from Bon Voyage in San Fransisco, to Dandelyan, owned by  Ryan Chetiyawardana, one of London’s most famous mixologists-turned entrepreneurs.

Cocktails, on the whole, have become far more popular in recent years. They are now worth more than £500 million in the UK, According to research from CGA, prompting drinks giants like Pernod Ricard to devise food-pairing guides to help bar and restaurant owners shift their spirits, but there’s a case to be made for a new category of crafted drinks with a lower alcoholic volume.

Even in traditional haunts like Scarfe’s Bar in Holborn’s Rosewood Hotel, bartenders are noticing a shift away from heady serves to long drinks that are big on flavour, but less so on the ABV.

“The best-sellers now, especially when it comes to our vodka cocktails, are those that use Champagne or are longer,” Martin Siska, the new manager at Scarfe’s, who worked with outgoing mixologist Greg Almeida on the bar’s new menu, told me last week. We were discussing premium vodka at the time for an upcoming magazine issue, but given the current trends in the on-trade, the subject shifted to low-and-no.

This year’s card contains a number of new fragrant and floral serves which are either lower in alcohol or contain none at all, from a gimlet which replaces gin with vodka, to a cucumber and green pea-flavoured serve using Seedlip as its base.

“We’re not selling as many martinis as much as the long drinks. It’s more about refreshing, lighter cocktails you can enjoy over a longer time,” he said. “People want to have a good time, but they don’t want to compromise on their health.”

It’s hard to ignore the statistics. Sales of non-alcoholic beer rose by almost 60% in the 12 weeks to 12 August, according to figures from Kantar Worldpanel, while an earlier report noticed a dramatic rise in the sales of low-abv spirits.

The shift towards lower alcohol beverages poses new challenges for drinks producers, particularly in the spirits category Some distillers, such as Edinburgh Gin, are tapping into the long-drinks trend by producing a range of lower ABV liqueurs.

But not everyone thinks this is the way forward for the on-trade. Mathias Tönnesson, who heads up ultra-premium vodka brand Purity, just returned to Sweden after launching two new vodkas in the US, and plans to release them in the UK next month. The vodkas are still the usual strength, and they aren’t infused with fruits, but their difference lies in the production process (one is distilled 17 times, while the other gets 51 turns in the still. Tonneson said the two vodkas provide different bases for different kinds of cocktails, and hopes that No. 17 will prove a hit with mindful drinkers.

“This is the one we think provides a clean base for bartenders to play with,” he said. It’s worth noting at this point how complex cocktail making has become in recent years. Scarfe’s bar has its own laboratory, where the mixologists produce their own plum sake, banana wine, and infused vodkas.

“We want to give them something clean that they can then play with, and from there they can make the spirit work for the consumer,” he said.

But while traditional distillers find new ways to appeal to health-conscious drinkers, mixologists like Shinyoung Lyu are still confident there is a market for what she calls “guilt-free” cocktails.

“Alcohol-free lifestyle is on the up, and people are frustrated because there’s limited options in bars,” Lyu said.

“These are not mocktails, organic juices or craft soda, but a completely different category of beverage.”

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