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Are Londoners really drinking less?

Londoners are increasingly opting for low or no alcohol all year round, but is there still a stigma attached to ‘I don’t drink’? Isabelle Aron meets the drinkers leading the zero-percent revolution

Isabelle Aron
Written by
Isabelle Aron

I’ve just knocked back my third cocktail and I’ve had no dinner. It might sound like I’m on track for a pounding headache come the morning but actually I don’t feel remotely tipsy. I’m not bragging about my ability to handle my drink; it’s because there’s something significant about the espresso martinis I’ve had tonight – they contain no alcohol.

A few years ago, it seemed like the only time Londoners would consider giving up booze was Dry January, begrudgingly clutching a pint of lime and soda down the pub. But recently it seems we’re beginning to drink less all year round. Figures from a 2018 survey carried out by the Office of National Statistics show that the number of people in England who say they’ve had a drink in the previous week decreased by 7 percent over the period 2007-2017. And the capital is leading the way: 27 percent of Londoners surveyed don’t drink at all, which is the highest proportion of teetotallers in the country. So how did we get here? And who is embracing the booze-swerving lifestyle? The cocktail masterclass I’m at seems like a good place to start finding out.

Held in a Mayfair pop-up filled with succulents and copper lamps, the event is packed with the sort of young couples and foodie friends you might have met at a gin workshop a couple of years ago. The difference here is it’s hosted by Seedlip, a drinks brand that distils spirits in a similar way to producing vodka or gin but without the alcohol.

Seedlip is one of a number of booze-free and low-ABV beverage-makers that have sprung up in London in recent years. There are two craft breweries creating low- and no-alcohol beers (Small Beer Brew Co in Bermondsey and Nirvana Brewery in Leyton), while drinks like vino alternative Botonique (from a London wine merchant) and fruity vinegar-based Shrb (made in Walthamstow) are just two of the more sophisticated soft options coming out of this city.

Seedlip founder Ben Branson says he’s seen a dramatic change in the choice available to non-drinkers in the last few years. When he launched his non-alcoholic spirit in 2015, he contacted lots of London venues asking if they did booze-free cocktails and most of them didn’t. ‘It’s come a huge way. We work with about 400 or 500 restaurants, bars and hotels in London now,’ says Branson. ‘I’ve definitely seen a change. Bartenders are more willing to offer somebody a grown-up, non-alcoholic drink that’s not just blended fruit juices.’

The result is that classy alcohol-free cocktails are popping up all over London. Booze-free bar-restaurant Redemption just opened its third branch, in Seven Dials, with a fully alcohol-free cocktail bar. The Clove Club offers a ‘soft pairing’ tasting menu. Dandelyan and the Savoy’s American Bar – the two best bars in the world (which happen to be in London) – are both shaking up inventive alcohol-free tipples. And demand for them is high.

For sisters Aisha and Nadia Ramzan, spirits like Seedlip are game-changing. They’re Muslim and don’t drink for religious reasons. ‘We used to end up at shisha bars because that was the only thing we could do,’ says Aisha. For them, the new wave of alcohol-free options is hugely welcome. ‘This opens up things for us,’ says Aisha. ‘If people are going for drinks, we don’t just have to have a Coke.’

‘It’s about how you feel in a social setting,’ Nadia explains. ‘I’ve always wanted to try a gin and tonic. You look at it and you’re like: What does that taste like? So when this [Seedlip] came out, it was very exciting.’

While Londoners like Aisha and Nadia have been teetotal their whole lives, there’s been a broader shift in drinking culture. It used to be that not drinking was met with suspicion or concern: ‘Are you pregnant?’, ‘Are you on antibiotics?’, ‘Are you okay?’ It seems now that there’s a real thirst for non-boozy options, and that the social awkwardness around not drinking is fading.

One explanation for this is that Londoners have become more interested in their health, from swapping beef burgers for vegan superfood salads, to replacing nights down the pub with workouts at bougie gyms. ‘People care more about their health and the quality of their food and drink now,’ says Branson. Although he adds that the demand for alcohol-free options isn’t just coming from fitness fans: London’s appetite for unusual pop-ups, posh cinemas and immersive events is a factor, as it means going out doesn’t have to revolve around the pub. ‘It’s not just this binary [choice of] “Are we going out drinking or are we staying in?” anymore.’

Consequently, not drinking is appealing to a wider audience than ever before. Laura Willoughby runs Club Soda, an alcohol-free meet-up that runs regular socials (such as Queers Without Beers), mindful pub crawls and the Mindful Drinking Festival. She says attendees are diverse and cross-generational: ‘We get people who are changing their drinking habits, pregnant women, foodies, Muslims, people who’ve never had an alcoholic drink.’ Willoughby believes that people being more open about mental health is a major factor in the low-alcohol movement. ‘Younger people are more in tune with the fact that alcohol makes things like anxiety worse,’ she says. ‘Lots of our younger members have changed their drinking habits to manage their mental health.’

It’s something I hear first-hand at a Club Soda meet-up at Syrup of Soot in Bloomsbury. It’s a cosy coffee shop and the place is heaving. People are queuing up to get their hands on booze-free fizz, wine and beer – there’s even an alcohol-free rum and Coke. I meet Niamh McBride and Megan Davis, who are sipping zero-percent cider. Davis went to Club Soda’s Mindful Drinking Festival this summer and is a regular at booze-free events like daytime rave Morning Gloryville. But she’s not teetotal. ‘I flip in and out. I can quite easily say “I’m not drinking tonight.”’ It’s different for McBride: ‘I can’t. I’m zero or 100.’ They both think the focus on wellbeing has a lot to do with more people ditching booze. Davis sees it as a way to avoid some anxiety too. ‘If you were sober, you wouldn’t have made a twat of yourself,’ she says, ‘and you wouldn’t have had anxiety for three days [after].’ The booze-fuelled existential crisis the morning after the night before is something that Ed Martoni hasn’t experienced. He’s a regular at Club Soda’s socials and has never drunk alcohol.

‘In the beginning, I felt like: Should I drink? Everyone else is,’ he says. ‘Part of me thought I should say that I’m allergic. But now I say I’ve chosen not to.’ Martoni is happy to go clubbing sober, but these socials provide a welcome booze-free space. When he discovered the monthly Queers Without Beers, it was a game-changer. ‘So many LGBT+ socials relate to drinking,’ he says. ‘To have something that combines the LGBT+ spectrum and not drinking was a huge deal for me.’

Whether it’s switching regular beer for the low-ABV stuff, going teetotal or exploring the city’s alcohol-free cocktails, it seems that kicking the booze (or at least cutting back) is trickling into the mainstream. Gordon’s has released a low-alcohol pre-mixed G&T, drinks giant Diageo is an investor in Seedlip (which is launching a new non-alcoholic aperitif brand this year) and the supermarkets are rapidly increasing their alcohol-free offering. Willoughby says that’s an indication the trend is here to stay: ‘These companies wouldn’t invest in it if they didn’t think it was going anywhere.’

That’s not to say we’ll all be swapping full-strength pints for zero-percent pale ales, but in London, drinking in moderation is becoming both easier and less commented-upon. No wonder so many of us are embracing the option. I’ll raise a glass to that.

Illustrations: Daniel Mitchell

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