A wine lover’s guide to (relative) sobriety…
What DO wine lovers do when we want time off the booze? What’s the best lifestyle approach to minimise intake but maximise enjoyment? What are the best wine alternatives out there?
Inspired by a question sent in by listener John, in this episode we look beyond wine and explore how to make the most of not drinking. We talk to Stuart Elkington, founder of Dry Drinker, who shares some great stories and insights, as well as to the makers of Chilean booze-free ‘wine’ brand Sinzero.
On a personal note, we spill the beans on our own ‘Happy Medium’ (or FOTO) regime, the aim of which is to enjoy wine to the max while keeping the side effects to a minimum. We also recommend some great No & Low alternatives for wine lovers and EVEN take the drastic step of sharing our Intake Diary. (Deep breath…)
‘It’s a new way of drinking’ Stuart Elkington
‘The mother wine has to be good. But you can’t expect skimmed milk to taste the same as creamy milk.’ Cecilia Prat
‘I drink spritzers and no one seems to mind’ Hugh Johnson OBE
Here’s the link to Peter’s piece on No & Low alcohol wine in Decanter
Here’s the link to read Peter’s recommendations piece in Decanter magazine for Lighter Wines for Summer Drinking.
Stuart Elkington (SE): Dry Drinker came out of a bet, really. I was working for a pub company and my wife and I were trying for a family. And we’d been trying for about 3 years and one of our friends recommended we see a bit of an off-the-wall doc in London, which we kind of reluctantly went to see him, and he said: you’re in your 40s, it takes time, but try two things: to me, you stop drinking for 3 months, and to you (my wife) start drinking a bit more, and we can really get you relaxed and not focused on this baby thing and we can give it a go. So you can imagine. I thought he’d got the advice the wrong way round! So I walked out quite shell shocked.
Susie Barrie MW (SB): You got the short straw there
SE: Listen, we were desperate to have a family. We’d lived abroad and yes, we probably did drink too much. But I said: I’ll give it a go. And at that time in work, 8 years ago now, most people thought there was something wrong with me. Why aren’t you drinking?! Anyway, 3 months had gone by and she fell pregnant. And from that moment on, you get into this counting dates mode as first time periods – you wait 12 weeks then 20 weeks, then the baby’s born, then you don’t know what you’re doing for a year, and I’d kind of forgotten I’d not drank for about a year, and it was quite a revelation really. But I knew that when I did want that, ‘Ahh’ moment, there wasn’t really a selection out there. So we were on holiday in Spain and I remember my wife was 5 months pregnant, we drove to Spain, we were sitting on beach, guy came to us from the hotel offering us beer, he said we have San Miguel on draft. So we were both sitting there, she was 5 months pregnant, having a couple of pints thinking: this is great.
Over time at work, people used to say: have you stopped drinking. And I’d say: I drink dry. But I don’t like that so I flipped it to say: dry drinker. And I got a bit of a nickname within the company. Because I may have had a bit of a reputation for drinking…but anyway, I was now the dry drinker and that’s how it all started. And I thought: there must be a lot more people than me wanting not to give up but maybe change the way they drink. I don’t want to preach to anybody, I just wanted to kind of present the beers in the same way other alcohol drinks are presented so that’s in a nutshell how it started.
SB: So you stopped drinking, she drank a bit more. She got pregnant…
SE: She’s still doing that today by the way! I keep saying: that advice is now 9 years old, you don’t need to keep taking it!
SB: Do you drink now?
SE: No. I never went back. It’s so odd. I honestly thought it was going to be for a short time. There was no long-term plan, it was just how it happened. I get what I need now from alcohol-free beer or whatever we stock. Sometimes when I think about it, it does surprise me. But I’ve gone 8 years now and I can honestly tell you: I just don’t think I’ll go back.
SB: So you moved from working in the wine and spirits trade. And then you set up Dry Drinker. So 8 years on, how’s business, how’s the NOLO category?
SE: So I stopped for 8 years. But Dry Drinker is 3.5 years old. I did carry on in trade. But then I had that moment when every good idea you never do. Always the wrong time. And we had our son and then very quickly had our daughter. SO we kind of … actually you have to put line in sand and say ‘I’m gonna do it, start my own business’. Three and a half years – it’s funny, we’ve obviously seen an explosion of alcohol-free products coming onto the market, and there’s a lot more acceptance now actually of customers opening their minds to the fact there could be a different way of drinking.
We really aim for drinkers not non drinkers. Because most people who buy from us now, and certainly over the last year of the pandemic, people just want to blend their drinks. They like the option of alcohol free drinks during the week and then they can have as they call it a proper drink at the weekend.
SB: On that note, what effect has lockdown had? Are people drinking more no and low alcohol? Or more of everything?
SE: It’s interesting. Certainly as we found the first lockdown last March, there was a real kind of holiday feel around the first 4 weeks. Everyone at home, real lockdown, you could open that special bottle at 4pm and shut the laptop a bit earlier. And the weather was good. But we found then after that our sales grew phenomenally and I think people were thinking: crikey, if this goes on for another 3 months we can’t carry on like this, is there another way… But I like the taste. And that’s kind of for us where we had that phenomenal growth, middle of March, early April, certainly when I was talking to my neighbours over the recycling, it was taking longer than normal. Shouldn’t take me half an hour! That’s when it was set into people’s minds.
SB: If it only had been 3 months! But what are your most popular products?
SE: What we’re seeing at the moment – certainly, lots of new customers coming in. And what they’re doing is really investing in their non-drinking. So we see average order: trying some beers, trying some wines, maybe some non alcoholic spirits. Just dipping into those categories, saying if I’m doing it, not going to just stick with boring case of 12 beers. So then we’re seeing them coming back and buying with confidence. So I must say probably last year it was more of the beer market. Obviously the summer and good weather did drive that, lagers and IPAs. But we are seeing lots more interest in alcohol-free wine, and certainly this dry January, this category is up 30% on last year, and people are willing to give new categories a go.
SB: Is that because the wine is getting better? Beer and spirits have done well with non-alcohol. When you look at wine, it’s lagged behind, is that changing, are there better wines out there in your opinion?
SE: There certainly are. Compared to 3-4 years ago. And they’re only getting better. As an ex-wine drinker myself, the number one question we get is: I drink a 13% Malbec, what would you recommend? And I always say: a 13% Malbec! Because I don’t have a silver bullet. There is no silver bullet. But when the customer reads the product pages and realise they are going to lose something, the flavour is there, they actually take it for what it is. It’s very Marmite, customer reviews. They either rave saying: ‘I never realised, this is not bad, this is great.’ Or you get the other end of the spectrum: ‘absolutely rubbish Ribena, tipped it down the drain’. Once customers understand it’s not a like-for-like, it’s a different category. I say: I drink most of my alcohol-free wine with food, and that’s where I get most of my enjoyment and pleasure from it.
SB: So we had a listener question, John: loves wine but he wants to drink less. What would be your tips to help him to do that, and any specific products you’d recommend?
SE: Yeah, it’s a great question. When I started Dry Drinker, because I was a beer lover, that’s what I stuck with. At that time, I didn’t want to introduce wine because I didn’t think it was quite there yet for the stamp of approval. So when I did, I wanted to make sure that some of the brands we sell may not be familiar to UK customers. So we sell in singles. I always suggest to our customers: buy a range of reds and wines, build your own box to your own budget, and you will find your favourites. I do have my personal favourites, but the pre-mixed cases we’ve kind of created with the customer in mind to give them a variety of grape and taste so they’ll hopefully find a great red or white. We’ve got wines starting at £6.99 and sparkling that ends at £15.99. So hopefully we’ve got something in there that John will find and enjoy.
SB: That’s an interesting one – just picking up on price point. Do you feel NOLO should be a premium priced product? Some tend to be highly priced, even though they’re not paying alcohol duty. Do you think there needs to be an element of aspiration so you think you’re drinking something special?
SE: Pricing is interesting. Pricing generally across alcohol free is an interesting point. And I answer it by saying: there is still a process and a price to pay for making any drink. Just because it’s alcohol-free doesn’t mean it’s any less than versus any other drink. And actually the economies of scale are a lot less than their alcohol counterparts. So there’s a bit of cost to pay in there as well. All of our wine that we stock we have to import from Europe and further afield – US or Chile. So there is a price to pay for quality. You do pay for what you get in anything you buy. How we’ve tried to price all of our drinks is a reflection of the quality we sell.
SB: Given the time of year – what’s your opinion of Dry January?
SE: It’s a great introduction…I kind of do agree with people saying: it should be dry July. Cos January pretty depressing anyway. But we’ve had lots of interest from new customers just wanting to give it a go. It’s a great opportunity for people to try new things. And I know it’s Try January, and vegan month as well. So we’ve seen a lot of people try it. There’s Sober October too and other things. I think it’s a great way of showcasing what the alcohol-free community can do, and what’s out there, and push it in a very positive way. We’re a beer wine and spirit company just with different numbers on the back, without preaching and it’s all about taste. So – yeah, I think it’s a positive thing and if more people are trying to reduce alcohol intake then that can only be a good thing.
SB: So should it be more of a springboard based a little bit more on NOLO…because a lot of people argue, you shouldn’t give up for a whole month then go back, it’s far better to integrate NOLO into your life pattern.
SE: You’re absolutely right. As I mentioned – we call them the blenders: Mon-Fri alcohol-free warriors and then they drink at the weekends. And then you know, when I spent some time in Europe with our brands. They laugh at us: we haven’t understood, you know, start the night with a couple of alcohol-free, have a couple of pints, then finish off with alcohol free. You’re right. It’s just a great introduction toa new way of drinking. Showcasing products when there will be times when you can’t drink. Pregnancy. Recovering from an illness but you miss that flavour. Or you’ve got an early start but the football on and I want a couple of pints. So many reasons. But you’re right – it should be more of a showcase festival rather than a ‘thou shalt not drink in January.’
SB: I’m gonna say: I will admit that my drink of choice when it comes to No & Low, confess, is Seedlip Grove 42 with ic cube, orange zest and cucumber tonic. But what’s your drink of choice?
SE: What I’ve been really enjoying in January, cos my wife is doing Dry January. I will be getting a text: ‘don’t forget my order.’ We’re enjoying Lyre’s alcohol-free spirits, the American malt with a Fever Tree cola. That’s been a real change, we can get a bit stuck in ways – I‘m a beer lover through and through. But those spirits I’ve kind of got into. Something I didn’t realise I missed was that pre-dinner drink. So reconnecting with those ready-made drinks like the Clean & Co gin and tonic has been nice. And I can feel my appetite growing while waiting and chatting and dinner is on the stove. Really nice feeling after a long week, kids in bed and just to have that moment.
SB: Gets your taste buds going. Finally, what do you think is the future for No & Low?
SE: It will just be part of what we do. It will be accepted in our society that we will see more and more alcohol-free options in every walk of life, in every store, and it will be readily available, and it will be part of the culture. Having nights off, we’ll have a couple of pints of alcohol-free beer at the local pub, and the quality of alcohol-free drink will just be better. Even the guys in the warehouse, when I tell them: we used to smoke on planes and pubs. Mind blowing. It will just be part of who we are and we will look at alcohol in a different way. We’ll still enjoy alcohol, and I’m a great advocate, we should enjoy alcohol. But it’s how we can inter-weave alcohol-free with alcohol. And we’ll learn to do that much better than we’ve previously done.