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Clarity and education needed for maturing low ABV ‘spirits’ category

Labelling for low and lighter ABV drinks need to be easier for consumers to understand as the category matures, according to a panel of leading figures in the nascent alcohol-free beverage industry.

This year has seen yet more non-alcoholic spirits brands enter the market, despite lockdown threatening the global drinks sector’s revenues overall. In September, Devonshire-based Salcombe Distilling Co introduced a product called New London Light to its range of craft spirits, while renowned bartender Simone Caporale co-created a new non-alcoholic ‘spirit’ brand, called Zeo earlier this month.

These kinds of grown-up cocktail bases have found loyal fans this year as consumers have shifted to different drinking patterns, not least starting earlier in the day. Lyre’s non-alcoholic spirits, for example, reported a 400% increase in sales over the summer since the Covid-19 period began on the brand’s online shop.

In the UK, ‘low-alcohol drinks’ refers to drinks which have an ABV of between 0.05 and 1.2%, while ‘reduced alcohol’ means a drink has an alcohol content lower than the average strength of a particular type of drink. The European Union’s labelling rules, meanwhile, are slightly different. Any drink with an ABV of 0.5% or lower can be labelled as alcohol-free.

Much of the discussion on the low/no category has centred on beer, wine and spirit alternatives that fall under the 1.2% ABV threshold. However, some producers are now trying to tap into the rising number of sober-curious drinkers by simply offering ‘spirits’ with a slashed alcoholic volume. Scotch whisky maker Whyte & Mackay enter the low-alcohol category in May 2019 with the launch of 21.5% ABV option, while more recently London startup Illogical Drinks released a low-calorie, low-alcohol botanical blend, called Mary. Coming in at 6% ABV, the company adds that each 25ml measure contains just nine calories.

Laura Willoughby, the co-founder of mindful drinking movement Club Soda, has told panelists at the Lo & No Summit last week that drinkers “don’t understand ABV” labelling, and a lack of cohesion presents a challenge for spirits brands that are hoping to appeal to consumers that are more conscious of their alcohol intake.

“Understanding a low ABV spirit as opposed to no-alcohol spirit is complex. There isn’t any language that helps us with low.”

Laura Diamond, the head of innovation for AB InBev in Europe, also added that low ABV and alcohol-free drinks sales from a range of brands are on the rise and consumers are now drinking from a greater repertoire as more brands are introduced to market. Ellie Webb, the founder of alcohol-free spirits brand Caleño, told the panel she was expanding her label’s range to include a dark spirit appeal to a larger customer base who like the taste of brown spirits, but without the alcohol.

“Most people who are drinking in low and no are moderate drinkers,” Willoughby said. “That makes it a market far bigger than anticipated before. It’s people cutting down Monday-Thursday.”

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