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2019: The Year of Zero Alcohol?

As January begins, the excesses of the festive season come clearly into view: the morning after the night before, when a detox from all the rich food and booze seeming like the only corrective. “Dry January,” the movement of abstaining from alcohol for the entire first month of the year, has grown in popularity over the last few years, with “Veganuary” – a month of abstaining from all animal-derived food and beverages – gaining momentum as well. Both offer a kind of trial period for those tempted by significant lifestyle changes that have becoming increasingly popular among young and old alike, such as famed imbiber Keith Richards even giving up the booze.

Putting aside veganism for one moment, 2018 was another landmark year for low and no-alcohol beers, wines and spirits, with many mainstream beer brands launching their own no-alcohol beers, and sales during summer rising over 60% on 2017. With a third of 18-24 year olds foregoing alcohol altogether, and teetotalism becoming mainstream, there seems to be an awful lot more people questioning whether they need alcohol at all. And while Dry January will be for many people just a month break before getting back on it, it offers a glimpse of what a booze-free life is like that many are finding very attractive.

Part of the increase in popularity is due to there being many more high quality products on the market. There are the big brands such as Peroni, who have this week announced a new alcohol-free beer, as well as craft breweries such as Dig Drop, producing flavoursome, interesting and tasty products, giving consumers a choice beyond the traditional soft drinks and cordials when they feel like abstaining. It has shown people that when it comes to beer, wines and spirits, flavour and alcohol are not mutually exclusive. Nobody has proved this more than Seedlip, the producers of the world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirit, which is an intensely flavoured substitute for gin, although is now a product in its own right. And more are following their lead.

Where does this leave us in the wine trade? So often the last to change, the prevalent view is that low-alcohol wines are just grape juice and one should just not get drunk which seems to miss the point entirely. With the trend in wine growing towards natural, minimal-interventionist styles, manipulating the liquid to remove the alcohol seems counter-intuitive, especially since the job of the winemaker is to let the grapes and the terrior speak their truest voice. Perhaps low or no-alcohol is best left to those who start off with a palette of ingredients and have the choice to include alcohol or not.

Whatever the case with wine, 2019 looks set to be another year when the trend becomes more established. Should we as merchants of alcohol lament this? I don’t think so. From my perspective, spirits and beer offer the opporunity to try an ever-changing spectrum of interesting flavours and engage with different stories. Why should this be the sole domain of alcohol? So let’s see what 2019 brings.

James Phillips is the Spirits and Beer Buyer for Jeroboams.