All you need to know
non alcoholic spirits
in a nutshell
Why exploring the world of non-alcoholic spirits in a website dedicated to alcoholic beverages?
1/ It has to do with distillation
2/ It is a growing movement that is also influencing the alcoholic beverages (why not expanding the range of taste???), so why ignoring it?
Spiritsfully attempted to make a list of non alc spirits that went on the market lately….. But there are no many now! Here is a list of those which comes first in a search engine lately for example.
Ceders Non alcoholic Gin
Herbie Gin Virgin
Surendran & Bownes
Contrary to most of the categories on that website, the category of non-alcoholic spirits does not exist at all in a legal sense. Indeed, both the word spirits and non-alcoholic raise issues here.
To qualify as a spirit, in the European Union, a liquid must have a minimum content of 15% percent alcohol. In the United States, it is even higher as the term “distilled spirit” can be only used if there is at least 40% percent alcohol. The EU regimentation also stipulates that a spirit drink must be produced by the “distillation, (…) of fermented products, the maceration or similar processing of plant materials in ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin, or by the addition of flavourings, sugars, other sweetening products or other agricultural products to ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin.”
By definition, in the US, non-alcoholic drinks refer to any drink with less than 0.5% abv. In the EU, a product is considered as alcoholic if it is above 1.2 percent alcohol*. In other words, a non alcoholic product can actually legally contain alcohol. It is also considered as non alcoholic as soon as it is under 0,5% abv. Only is there is no alcohol can the mention 0,0% abv be added on the label.
This said, let’s try to understand how they are made. This class will not have the same structure of the other, obviously and will ask more questions than giving answers. Let’s dive.
*Why is that so? So that you can still buy Kombucha in Europe, even if you are under age. And for information any over ripe fruits such as banana or mango do contain up to 0,5 alcohol. This is actually because we were attracted to those fruit that our bodies became accustomed to ethanol:-)….. But this is another story.
Almost everything can be used. It is as much the style of spirits that the producers is trying to emulate than the techniques he or she will decide to use as well the presence of a tiny quantity of alcohol that will decide the choice of base material.
In this article, Morten Sørensen, the founder of the Danish company ish spirits explains that he uses capsicum: “To compensate, the Firemnich team isolates capscium, which they extract from the shells of chili seeds. “That’s what gives it that burn in the back of the throat,” Sørensen says. “We need that heat to make it satisfying—to make it that adult drink.”
Many techniques are in use.
Where does the flavour come from? How is the flavour extracted?
# 1 maceration/infusion/percolation or in other words extracted botanicals in hydrolats for most of the spirits
# 2 distilled botanicals (alcohol is removed via steam or vaccum distillation, or the amount of alcohol is so low that it stays) for many of them. Sometimes some ingredients’flavours require to be extracted via distillation and other via maceration and they are all blended afterwards.
# 3 fermentation
Where are the products made?
Very few have their own distilleries. Mostly works with flavour makers.
The products are sometimes made in distillery by master distillers but it can also be made in a bar (yes, bars have labs and … rotovaps!) or in a flavour company distilleries.
What is very hard is to renounce to the use of alcohol, as it is 1/a carrier of taste 2/ a conservative. Without alcohol there is no other way for the producers to use conservatives. The question is: which ones?
Making non alcoholic drinks with distillation and with alcohol
Distillation can be used at each of the steps.
Example of Seedlip
“It takes us six weeks to make Seedlip,” says Branson. “We effectively use the same equipment and ingredients as our alcoholic counterpart but we use them in different ways and for different reasons.” Seedlip starts out as neutral grain spirit (NGS); each botanical is macerated in a specific style of NGS, with abv strengths and base grains differing from one ingredient to another. After maceration, each botanical is distilled twice: once to remove the alcohol through evaporation, and a second time to “bring everything else over and capture and concentrate the fantastic flavour of the plant”. That equates to 36 distillations before the distillates are blended, filtered and bottled.
Distillation is actually one of several ingredient-specific extraction methods, along macerating, steaming and decanting.
Example of Ceder
Ceder’s takes a similar approach to its production, but does not distil all of the 18 botanicals used in its three expressions. While some ingredients, such as juniper, are distilled with NGS, other flavours are macerated and extracted without the introduction of alcohol. “This brand is more like a wine than a mass-produced spirit because depending on the crop of botanicals you are going to get slight changes in the product from batch to batch,” says Sehlstrom.
Making non alcoholic drinks without alcohol but involving distillation
Some develops other techniques, such as distillation but water distillation (=hydrolats). This is an extremely challenging process, as you can read in length in this interview of Roland Barics, the founder of Nogins Virgin.
Other brands such as Herbie Virgin, Stryyk and Fluère, use no alcohol at any stage of production.
Fluère, for example, creates flavour through steam distillation, which extracts essential oils from the botanicals by passing steam that’s been generated in a pot still through the ingredient. When this happens, small ‘pockets’ that hold the essential oils open to release the molecules without damaging them. The vapours are then collected in the condensing recipient before being separated using a florentine separator.
source for this example
This is challenging as you cannot play of the different boiling points among the liquids involved as you do with alcohol. Indeed, there is only water and it boils at a higher temperature so you have to be extremely careful not to destroy the characteristics of your fragile ingredients. Another challenge is to use ingredient which will be water soluble.
The new still technology allows precise temperature monitoring and hence, this new category of spirits.
Making non alcoholic drinks without alcohol nor distillation
Some use maceration and extracted botanicals in hydrolat.
The situation is not ideal. The lack of regulation opens the doors wide to all marketing innovations without paying attention to health. There is little we know about the ingredients other than what the producers are willing to announce. In other words, we have to take their word for it. Also, many producers are rather mysterious about their identity and processes. It’s worth nothing that behind many products are not individual distilleries, but aroma experts such as “Symrise”, “Döhler” or “Archer Daniels Midland”, who in turn purchase essences and flavors from other companies specializing in certain extraction processes.
Mindful drinking also have to do with transparency. And transparency is so far not controllable. Is putting the list of ingredients such as Seedlip or Three Spirits does, enough? It looks like transparency, and at the same time it is still blurry. One can only praise Stryyk’s initiative for example (see the screenshot below). Even though some ingredients are suspect, it at least shows what others are not disclosing. Which one is more serious than the other? Which one is a serious handcraft(wo)man and which one just about marketing and jumping into another trend, even more happily that this is not regulated?
Another issue is the blurriness of the terms. It took centuries to create spirits categories, with their do and don’t. A whiskey can only be made with alcohol. This is a bit disturbing to see that the same word are used to designate two realities, meaning also a non alcoholic product. There is a need for a proper terminology to avoid confusing consumers. Moreover, many enthusiastic alcohol free producers are making great advertising for alcohol categories without noticing it. Or will it be used by alcohol producers to circumvent the law?
The blurriness is not only about the use of a misleading category, but maybe only about the use of the word spirit in the first place. The word spirit refers to a high proof distilled alcoholic liquid. By associating this word with an alcohol-free product – even if alcohol was used at some stage of production – are consumers being mislead? Are they all just overpriced flavoured water? (see the interview of Roland Barics explaining why it is not).
Another misleading aspect is raising up. It is taking now a lot of energy to explain consumers to drink better and responsibly. Alcool is a poison we can consume but only at low quantity! One can wonder if non alcoholic beverages because they maintain the ambiguities in making the link with an alcohol category, are not going against?
Spiritsfully has two calls for the present time:
1/ A call to the law maker: the situation needs a regulative body, for example at the European level that gives definitions, guidelines and ruling tests. It would be nice that this category is not making the same mistakes than the food category with all those so called healthy products that bloomed a while ago.
2/ A call to the producers: emphasing the non alcoholic aspect is not enough, efforts should be put into taste. The idea is to be able to enjoy an adult beverage, complex and long lasting, as opposed to swapping a cocktail for a ginger beer, with full transparency on ingredients and techniques.