Shaken not slurred: How non-alcoholic cocktails became cool - plus sober springtime recipes

Tom Cruise with a mocktail twist in the 1988 movie 'Cocktail'
Tom Cruise with a mocktail twist in the 1988 movie 'Cocktail' Copyright Photo by Archive Photos - © 2012 Getty Images - Image courtesy gettyimages.com
By Amber Louise Bryce
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Once considered "kiddy", mocktails have matured to quench the thirst of an increasingly sober Europe.

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Don’t say ‘mocktail’ in front of Dan Shell.

Despite being a UK brand ambassador for Lyre’s, one of the biggest mocktail (oops) companies in the world, the award-winning bartender still winces at the word: "It's juicy, kiddy, nasty." 

Instead, Shell prefers to call them "non-alcoholics". 

“The whole thing with non-alcoholic cocktails is, they're an adult, grown up, non-alcoholic beverage, and that's something that didn't exist before,” he tells Euronews Culture.

Dan Shell, award-winning bartender and brand ambassador for the non-alcoholic brand Lyre's
Dan Shell, award-winning bartender and brand ambassador for the non-alcoholic brand Lyre'sLyre's/Dan Shell

Indeed, the new wave of alcohol-free cocktails have had a glow-up, exuding flair, flavour and clear-headed-class. 

From sweet n’ smoky malts to a tart tongued Italian spritz, companies are conjuring the spirits of traditional liquor for a refreshingly familiar drinking experience, sans hangover.

"Lyre's has stand-ins for all the different categories, which basically means I can make all the old drinks that I've been making for the last 20 or 30 years with alcohol or with no alcohol, and they taste just as amazing," says Shell.

Seedlip, the pioneers of "distilled-non-alcoholic spirits", was founded in 2014 by Ben Branson and is widely considered to have kickstarted the market for luxury alcohol substitutes. 

More and more start-ups are now exploring the market in increasingly innovative ways, like the UK-based Three Spirit, which utilises the cognitive-enhancing effects of specific plants.

"We wanted to create a third way of drinking for people who still enjoy the social aspects and rituals that come with alcohol," says co-founder Tatiana Mercer.

"We're here to show people that alcohol-free doesn’t mean pleasure-free, and we want to power those social occasions with plants." 

'It’s cool not to drink'

A Sober Girl Society 'mixer' event
A Sober Girl Society 'mixer' eventMillie Gooch/Sober Girl Society

The rapid rise of non-alcoholic drinks coincides with a decline in alcohol consumption across Europe. 

There was a 0.5 litre decrease between 2010 and 2020, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Younger people in particular, now more conscious of alcohol's negative effects on physical and mental wellbeing, are bucking the boozy behaviours of past generations. 

A YouGov study found that 44 per cent of British people aged 18-24 are choosing low or non-alcoholic alternatives instead.

"Today, it’s socially acceptable—even cool—not to drink, with a few key reasons driving the choice to opt out," says Mercer. 

"Historically, drinking alcohol was an uncontested rite of passage to adulthood, buoyed as an essential component to interpersonal connections and pleasure. As individuals focus more on what’s right for them, cultural systems around alcohol are being challenged and losing hold," she continues. 

"It's really mirrored the vegan rise," says Shell. "We're much more aware of what we're putting in our bodies, whether that's food or drugs or alcohol - caffeine, even."

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Recent socio-economic events, including the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent cost of living crisis, have further re-defined our relationships with alcohol, prompting reflections about its costs - both financial and personal.

“One thing that people tend to forget about alcohol is it’s a mood enhancer, but it doesn't matter what mood you're in,” says Shell. “If you're bored and maybe depressed and a little lonely, drinking is going to make you more bored and more depressed and more lonely.”

The pervasiveness of drinking culture, especially in countries like the UK, can make it difficult to quit or cut back without feeling socially alienated.

To combat this, people turn to online communities and support groups, like the UK-based ‘Sober Girl Society’, founded by 31-year-old Millie Gooch in 2018.

Millie Gooch, founder of Sober Girl Society
Millie Gooch, founder of Sober Girl SocietyMillie Gooch

“I always felt so alone in that, how am I the only person that wakes up the next day of drinking and feels this insane hangover anxiety? I would talk to my friend and they’d be like, you're fine,” says Gooch.

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“And then when I started ‘Sober Girl Society’, I realised it's actually one of the least unique experiences on the planet.”

Her community, which has over 200k followers on Instagram and millions of views on TikTok, mostly attracts “party girls who were binge drinking, taking it too far and really struggling with their mental health as a result,” Gooch explains.

She also notes an influx of younger members - some of whom have never even tried alcohol and been put off by their parents’ drinking habits.

Out with the Old Fashioned

For sober communities like Millie's, non-alcoholic replicas of spirits, beers and wines have allowed them to enjoy the buzzy rituals of socialising without its ill-effects. 

"I got quite used to literally just having Diet Coke, and then all of a sudden all these incredible drinks started emerging," says Gooch, who also thinks they can be beneficial in easing people off the real stuff. 

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"It's so hard to break the habit and with alcohol-free drinks, you can almost keep that habit but just change what's in your glass."

For most people, the non-alcoholic options allow for moderation, inclusion and a better sense of self-control on night's out. 

"It's a very simple flow in and out of alcohol and non-alc. That's why I think our range [Lyre's] works so well, because you can be sat drinking a daiquiri with rum and then have a non-alcoholic daiquiri, and it looks the same," says Shell. 

"Even though this non-alcoholic thing has risen exponentially, I think people are still kind of nervous about being like, I'm not drinking," he continues. 

The only reservations Gooch has is about the ways in which these drinks could continue to encourage toxic drinking culture.

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"If you're going to have a non-alcoholic beer instead of, say, a coffee, we might be entrenching that kind of drinking mentality into spaces and times where it might not be there before." 

'Things are only going to get better'

The no and low-alcohol market continues to grow in popularity as people seek out safer ways to socialise.
The no and low-alcohol market continues to grow in popularity as people seek out safer ways to socialise.Canva

The no to low-alcohol market was worth £221 (€258) million in 2021 and has continued to rise since then, according to a report by the University of Sheffield. 

As these high quality products become more commonplace in traditionally alcohol-focused settings, we're likely to see lower pricing and a destigmatisation of those that don't drink, inspiring more innovation from the industry. 

"You already see the new breed of bartenders coming in and they're all about experimenting with non-alcoholic and trying to make new drinks," says Shell. 

"I think we've seen the tip of the iceberg and nothing more. I think things are only going to get better."

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The revelation that, as a drug, alcohol isn't all that great, has led a growing number of people to seek out alternative forms of escapism.

This leaves a huge gap in the market for something in between alcohol and abstinence: a beverage that makes you relaxed or excitable, without the loss of emotional control and hanxiety. 

Shell calls these "functional non-alcoholic spirits," which include drinks like Three Spirit that infuse plant-based ingredients to induce calming or nootropic (substances that improve memory and focus) effects. 

On the frontlines of "safer alcoholic alternatives" research is Professor David Nutt, a British neuropsychopharmacologist (try saying that after a few non-alcs) who developed Sentia Spirits, a herbal drink that works by targeting the GABA receptors in our brain, mimicking alcohol's mellowing abilities.

In America, brands like Cali Sober have isolated THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) the chemical compound in cannabis that makes people feel zany and zoned out.

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The idea that we could get drunk or high without any negative side effects is the ultimate dream - but is it realistic? Until more research is conducted, Shell remains hopeful - but cautious. 

"We know when we have a glass of wine what effect it's going to have on us," says Shell.

"Stuff like these functional spirits and Sentia, it's still a bit of a grey area."

One thing's for sure: You're never going to feel worse after having a mocktai- we mean non-alcoholic cocktail. 

The mumbly ambience of a bar. One of those tiny little napkins. The clink and crackle of ice cubes. That first sip of flavour, foamy against your lips. 

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"It feels like we're giving ourselves something special. A nice little treat," says Shell. "Placebos can be just as amazing."  

🍹Sober spring recipes 🍹

The Coconut Tree’s ‘Fallen Porn Star’

The 'Fallen Porn Star' mocktail
The 'Fallen Porn Star' mocktailThe Coconut Tree

Pre-chill a glass with ice, then shake the following ingredients:

  • Pineapple-Coconut syrup: 20mL 
  • Passion fruit puree: 20mL
  • Pineapple Juice: 40mL
  • Caleño Dark and Spicy (or any other alcohol-free spirit): 40mL
  • Aquafaba (Or 1 egg white): 15mL
  • Garnish with half a passion fruit.

Lyre's Gin Gin Mule

Add the following ingredients to a highball glass, fill with ice, stir:

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  • Lyre's Dry London Spirit: 60mL
  • Premium ginger ale: 90mL
  • Lime juice: 15mL
  • White sugar syrup (1:1)/li>: 7.5mL 
  • Garnish with 8 mint leaves and lime wedge.

Three Spirit's Fierce Spritz

  • Three Spirit Livener: 50mL
  • Pink grapefruit juice: 25mL
  • Kombucha or lemonade: 100mL
  • Garnish with a grapefruit slice.

Lyre's Rose Negroni

  • Lyre’s Italian Spritz: 45mL
  • Lyre’s Dry London Spirit: 15mL
  • Lyre’s Apéritif Rosso: 30mL
  • 4 fresh raspberries
  • Garnish with lemon wheel and rosemary sprig.
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