I take a sip of my No Sleep till Brooklyn, a cocktail featuring two types of alcohol-free whisky, and I have to admit that it tastes pretty darn like the real thing. It even has the ‘slow burn’ feel of whisky in the mouth. “You see!” says Laura Willougby, co-founder of Club Soda, London’s first and only alcohol-free bar, throwing her hands up in the air.
“Seedlip led the way but things have moved on a long way since then,” adds Willoughby. Club Soda takes drinking seriously: it has a speakeasy downstairs and sometimes on Thursday nights and at weekends, there’s not a spare seat, says Joe, the 18-year-old barman who works there. In some ways, Joe epitomes the Club Soda customer. It’s not that he doesn’t drink – he just prioritises other things, he says.
Many of us are starting to feel the same: sales of low and non-alcoholic beer at Tesco were 25% higher this June than they were during ‘dry January’, and Gen Z are slowing drinking, with 25% not touching the stuff at all. Ahead of Sober October, Laura Willoughby shares her five takeaways from running an alcohol-free bar.
WE COULD ALL LEARN SOMETHING FROM GEN Z “Younger people are drinking less overall, they might have three drinks in an evening instead of five. They may never have drunk alcohol, so they come in here for sweeter drinks, same for our Muslim customers, because they’re not looking to replicate alcohol. If you’ve learned to love alcohol but you’re now cutting back, you want to keep to those same tastes you’ve got used to. We constantly talk to companies who say younger people don’t want to drink and don’t understand this boozy culture so they need to make sure they do other things.”
LET’S BANISH MOCKTAILS “A mocktail is a load of fruit juices smashed together, a non-alcoholic cocktail is made with alcohol free spirits and is blended with the same body, flavour and texture that you’d get in an alcoholic cocktail. There’s a lot more craft in it. It takes a lot to make up for other things you might lose from alcohol ‘cause alcohol does add flavour and body. It’s a complicated process and I’d like to banish the world of really badly made mocktails that have watery ice. Everyone deserves better than that. People often think that alcohol free drinks are just soft drinks and they’re not.”
NO ALCOHOL BEER IS HEALTHY! “Once there’s no alcohol in beer it’s basically a health drink. No sugar, no nasties, 66 calories or less, full of Vitamin B-12. It goes from unhealthy to healthy just by taking the alcohol away from it.”
SOBER OCTOBER CAN SET YOU UP FOR A LOWER ALCOHOL LIFE… It teaches you things that will take you through the year. Come in and find a good alcohol free drink and it’s not just about getting you through Sober October. You can have it in the fridge and have it instead of that bottle of wine you polish off on a Tuesday night. Swap that for something else and it still feels like it’s a reward. Alcohol free drinks separate you from the coke you’ve been drinking all day. It’s about going, ‘this is my time now, I want something more exciting that goes with my food and my film.’
IT’S NOT ABOUT TAKING ALCOHOL AWAY “My aim in life wasn’t to open up an alcohol free space. It’s about making sure there are drinks for everyone. We’ve got a bit of low alcohol too. All of our spirits are under 3% once served, our beers are under 3% and our wines are 6% and under. Club Soda’s aim is quite simple: for there to be choice for everyone. What you drink when you are drinking is just as important as what you drink when you’re not. More people are moderating, taking days off, reducing, saving drinking for a time, a place and drink they like the most. A venue with good alcohol free drinks is code for a damn good venue, because what they care about is the experience of everybody who talks through their door. I don’t drink anymore but I’ve still got the same amount of money to spend.
HAVING ALCOHOL FREE OPTIONS MAKES DRINKING MORE SOCIAL “The owner of Vagabond Wines said I gave him a bollocking! But I’m sure that’s not true. I said to him, ‘you’re only buying drinks for you and not everybody.’ So they reviewed their alcohol free range. They’ve got a good range now and they said their group bookings have increased because of it. When people bring a group together, they need something vegan, something gluten free, alcohol free for whoever’s driving or doesn’t drink. We want to make sure when we’re out as groups that everyone’s getting an equal experience.