Are you dreaming of a booze-free Christmas? Join the (soda) club

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The concept of a Christmas without champagne, wine or whisky is counterintuitive to many. But this festive season, growing numbers of Britons are eschewing alcohol and gearing up for a teetotal – or at least partially so – celebration, according to retailers.

Sales in the no- and low-alcohol category, also known as “NoLo”, are expected to grow by 17% in the UK this year, reports IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, and will hit almost 19 million cases and a value of $741m (£558m). Meanwhile, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Tesco all report that sales of NoLo drinks have seen huge rises year on year, a trend they expect to continue in the run-up to Christmas, amid a rise in “mindful drinking”.

Low-alcohol wine, cider and beer have all seen increases in popularity but the biggest rise is in alcohol-free spirits. Tesco, which expects around a quarter of UK adults to drink only no- and low-alcohol drinks this Christmas, said sales of NoLo spirits have soared by 106% since the beginning of the year; Sainsbury’s said it had seen a 91% year-on-year increase.

Nichola Joyce, no- and low-alcohol buyer at Waitrose, where sales in the category overall have grown by 24% compared to last year, said she expects the pattern to continue. “Especially over the festive season as people are looking for ways to embrace moderation and a flexitarian approach to their drink choices.”

Laura Willoughby, founder of mindful drinking community Club Soda, said the shift towards non-alcoholic drinks is driven by availability of a wide variety of options, improved taste and drinking habits moving in the direction of either abstinence or, in most cases, more moderation.

“No longer do people say [of a no-alcohol drink] ‘that tastes really terrible – I would rather have a soda’,” she said. “They will now go ‘actually, this is a really good alcohol-free beer’ or ‘this is a really good grownup kombucha champagne bottle’.

“The producers have focused on presentation, taste and creating what feels like an adult drinking moment.”

She believes that this Christmas many people are planning to cut back on alcoholic drinks because they want to “be present” with friends and family amid the pandemic and because it’s important to protect their mental health “at a time of year which we all know can be a little bit stressful and we often get upset at a time that’s supposed to be fun and enjoyable”.

She added “People are going ‘Well, maybe if I drink a little bit less I can spend the time as I want and not end up in an argument. I’ll be a lot calmer, a lot more relaxed and a lot happier.’”

When Willoughby started Club Soda in 2015 as a Facebook group she felt, she says, “like a lone voice”, but now she is seeing a “cross-generational shift that I think has pushed this market harder and faster in the UK than it has been in other parts of the world”.

Later this month she is launching what is believed to be the UK’s first alcohol-free off-licence in central London. The pop-up shop will stock more than 60 brands including Everleaf non-alcoholic aperitifs and beers by Lucky Saint and Adnams, and will host classes on cocktails, wine and beer.

Russell Kirkham, customer marketing director of spirits company Quintessential Brands, whose products include a no alcohol gin & tonic by Bloom, said the category has been a “hotbed of innovation” in recent years, but that beer has remained the most popular with shoppers, meaning it still has huge potential to grow in other areas.

“Whilst health and wellness is important to these consumers, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to socialise – they just want to socialise without drinking alcohol on occasion, or at least drink less alcohol when socialising.”

A 2018 UCL study, which analysed thousands of 16- to 24-year-olds over 10 years, found that increasing numbers of young people did not drink alcohol at all and reported significant decreases in the number of young people who drank above recommended limits or binged.

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“Our research found that this trend was notable among younger and not older adults, representing a generational shift in drinking habits,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Linda Ng Fat. “The trend was widespread among young adults, occurring across social and demographic groups, suggesting that the shift is cultural, and drinking may be less of a popular activity than it was for older generations.”

But she added that the rise in popularity of no- and low-alcohol products could be a sign that the attitudes of young people are catching on more widely.

However, she warned there is evidence to suggest that harmful drinking may have increased during the pandemic, amid an increase in alcohol-related liver disease and deaths among those seeking treatment for alcohol misuse.

“Therefore a trend for no- or lower-alcohol consumption, especially for these at-risk groups, should be welcomed.”

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