Spirits in the sky?
Alcohol free “spirits”.
The next big thing in cocktails is going to be low and no alcohol cocktails. Trust me on this. The potential market is large and includes tee-totallers, responsible drivers, the health conscious, the religiously observant and the likes of me who would just like to enjoy just one or two more cocktails without turning into a gibbering idiot. I’m going to dive into this new category by tasting two relatively new offerings, Fluère and Siegfried Wonderleaf, as pictured above astride a Bee’s Knees.
Let’s first look at what these two new products have in common because I’m still trying to work out a way of reviewing something as quirky as this without any frame of reference. Neither of these products claim to be gin, 1) because they can’t, as most markets have a minimum alcohol requirement (usually 37.5% or 40%) and 2) because, hey, why limit yourself? Nonetheless I’m treating them as gins as they both contain botanicals. Each claim to be a conventionally distilled product and each claim to have a “secret” process for removing the alcohol. I’m assuming this isn’t quite as secret as they’d like as I’ve noticed a considerable improvement in the flavour of many low/no alcohol products (especially beers) in recent times. Now, as everyone probably knows, the market leader in this minuscule category is Seedlip which is highly regarded but kinda pricey. Of course I should be testing Seedlip along with these newcomers but that brings me to an issue common to all of these alcohol free spirits which is their limited shelf life. As they only keep for a few weeks I really didn’t want to have three open at the same time. Good God, I wouldn’t have time to make any drinks with actual gin in them before they went off! If you’re lucky I might review some Seedlip soon to see what all the fuss is about. Am I rambling again? Sorry, where was I? Ah yes, both of the above come in a little cheaper that Seedlip (once you factor in Wonderleaf’s smaller bottle) which is welcome but I feel they should all be cheaper still since there is no alcohol tax on them*. In both cases alcohol content is zero and calories essentially insignificant. Both come very nicely packaged. Fluère’s tall 700ml blue glass bottle with twisted fluting is as beautiful as it is practical, providing a good grip and some protection from strong sunlight. It seals well with an imitation, but convincing, “metal” cap. The label is pretty classy too with its reproduction of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. I like. The Wondeleaf 500ml bottle is quite the opposite being of the simple apothecary style, clear, squat and stable but with a very nice wood/synthetic stopper with a classy botanical imprint on top**. The smaller bottle for a smaller price (€17 is typical) seems like a sensible idea in the face of a limited shelf-life. I approve. Next up I tasted each on their own and then make some test cocktails which were the inevitable Gin & Tonic and the Bee’s Knees, the latter being a drink that allows the base spirit make its mark. The fact that both of these drinks contain no other alcoholic components also helps in the evaluation.
Where these two really differ is in taste and mixability. A quick sniff of Fluère confirms that it is definitely trying to be a gin and it proves quite pleasant to sip on its own possessing a gentle citrus and floral profile. But therein lies its problem; it’s too gentle and tends to disappear amongst the other flavours in a cocktail. For example in our Bee’s Knees we taste little input from the Fluère and end up with a rather dull lemon and honey drink. Sure, Fluère provides a solid base but not much more than that. It’s a similar story with our Gin & Tonic and I’m left a little disappointed. I really wanted to like this elegantly bottled ingredient but they really need to beef up the flavours if they want to make it something that can be mixed with. Wonderleaf was quite the opposite. Tasted neat it’s an all-out clove assault that at first I found a bit jarring but it became apparent that it has a mouthfeel a bit more like a real spirit whereas Fluère comes over a little “thin” – always a problem when the alcohol content is low and a big problem when it’s zero. Now Wonderleaf may be a little one-dimensional in flavour but it really can stand up in a cocktail and I’m assuming the producers knew exactly what they were doing here. In both my test drinks the Wonderleaf punched through and imprinted its clove-forward character on the finished drink. In particular the Bee’s Knees was really transformed and might even be my preferred version. In the Gin & Tonic there were moments where I completely forgot that I was drinking something that contained no alcohol whatsoever. While I happened to like the resultant cocktails I’m more than aware that the clove-averse may not be quite so delighted and should proceed with caution. Interestingly I found a 50:50 mix of Fluère and Wonderleaf to be a pleasant compromise but given the limited shelf-lives hardly a practical one for most home mixers.
At this stage in the game with a sample of just two I’m simply not prepared to mark either of these “spirits” on my usual A-F grading system but for a little more perspective I feel like Wonderleaf is something I’ll keep in stock in my home bar and I’ll just keep an eye on Fluère for any improved versions. However, I must stress that I am delighted that efforts are being made to bring the wonders of cocktaildom to those who are unable to enjoy alcohol. I don’t think we shouldn’t expect miracles from these alcohol-free spirits but I’m convinced that there is definitely some potential here and will be exploring this sector further in future.
*Full disclosure: The Seigfried Wonderleaf was a free sample from their Netherlands distributor, André Kerstens BV, and I shoplifted the Fluère from Gall & Gall.
**Which will definitely be re-purposed as a container for my home-made gins!