Free of Alcohol, Not Free of Flavour

As regular readers will know.  In 2009 I decided to make a New Year Resolution that was different from the one I usually make.  Well, I figured that after 5 years of the same resolution and it not working it was time to move on.  So, for 2009 I decided I would not drink alcohol and, with the exception of a bottle of Becks that someone bought me instead of Becks Blue I managed it.

Now, while I’ve gone through periods of not drinking before, I’ve never gone over 6 months. Usually because I’ve gotten sick and tired of paying pub/club prices for cola, lemonade and fruit juices and there’s only so much of each you can drink in a night.  Nowadays it’s much easier to find alcohol free beers, ciders and wines both in supermarkets, online and even in bars, pubs and clubs.

So, what about after the year was up?  I decided I would not stop drinking alcohol mainly due to the fact that I enjoyed wine and couldn’t imagine never drinking it again.  What I have found is that I very often don’t drink alcohol when I am out and when I do, I drink less than before.  At home I drink fruit juice, cordials or alcohol free beer with Bavaria 0.0% my favourite by a mile.  If I could find it in bars I’d be super happy as it’s so very tasty.  I’ve recently tried their wheat beer and it’s also very refreshing, especially in the recent warm weather we’ve been enjoying.

But back to the wine. My heart sank when I perused Tesco and discovered they still sold Eisberg alcohol free wine, my memories of it from 20 years ago left a lot to be desired but at £2.99 a bottle I thought why not!  that was until I tasted it… there are not enough words in the English language for me to describe how awful it is and even my limited Arabic, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Japanese can’t assist.  All I can say, politely, about it is the Chardonnay tasted like still cider that had been left in a glass overnight!

Thanks to Twitter I discovered The Alcohol Free Store, who could have guessed there were so many products that contained alcohol that a store could exist with alcohol free variations.  I was keen to try some of the red wines they stock but was reluctant to order 12 bottles in case I didn’t like them.  After all it’s not like regular wine where the alcohol numbs your taste buds and by the second glass you think it’s f*cking delicious!

John, the owner, very kindly allowed me to buy one bottle to sample and I’m glad I didn’t buy a case. I didn’t enjoy it at all. I like my reds big and beefy and this was well, light. Light and fruity and reminded me too much of Ribena.  It was very drinkable but not what my palate was used to or wanted, I finished a glass and a half and put it back on the shelf.  A few days later I went to pour another glass and got the shock of my life when I removed the cap, a strong vinegary smell filled my nostrils.  I’d clearly not paid attention to the label which advised it should be kept in the fridge once opened!  I can only suspect that as there is no alcohol in the wine there is nothing to preserve it. It looked like I was going to have to stick to alcoholic wines.

Then a few months ago John emailed me to say that they had now become the supplier of Ariel alcohol free wines, an offshoot of the J. Lohr  company in California. These are award winning wines from a well respected producer that had competed and won against alcoholic varieties.  Would I like to try them? I was hesitant, even tho there was a Cabernet Sauvignon in the range.  I told John I’d get back to him, promptly forgot and then was pleasantly surprised when a few weeks later a box arrived with a bottle each of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Rouge.

I tried the Cab Sav and was a little disappointed, it was certainly better than the previous one I’d tried but still lacked that earthy, full bodied flavour I was seeking.  However I accepted that I probably would never find it in an alcohol free wine, partly because it was probably the alcohol that contributed to the taste I was desiring. I put the other wines on the shelf and returned to drinking Bavaria 0.0%, until this evening!

With no cold beers ready and a dinner of ribeye steak and salad I decided it was time to give the Merlot a try.  What did I have to lose? My palate it seems had adjusted to life without full bodied alcoholic reds and so whilst the first sip cried out Weak! Fruity! it didn’t scream Ribena! which I took to be a good sign.  After finishing the glass I poured some more, You know what? This was good!  Sure it wasn’t big and earthy but it had a nice aroma and very good after taste.  Whilst it does state it should be refrigerated after opening it didn’t last long enough to be a concern!  You may also be interested to know that a 250ml glass contains only 60 calories. Yes, alcohol free drinks are good for those watching their weight!

As the Ariel wines are premium wines it means they are not cheap.  In the US they are around $9-$11 a bottle, factor in import duty (but no alcohol duty as they are under 0.5%) and shipping and VAT and whatever margin required for profit and you’re looking at £7.49 a bottle.  Which for some people might be double what the’d spend on supermarket plonk.  Even I’m not sure I’d want to buy 12 bottles at that price but I’m quite enjoying not waking in the morning with a groggy head so perhaps it’s a price worth paying?  Perhaps if I could buy 6 bottles at a time I’d perhaps treat myself every other month, I’m not sure.

I do however think that there should be more alcohol free offerings out there.  Bars and clubs are notorious for selling alcohol free beers and ciders at almost the same price as their alcoholic equivalents. Yesterday I paid £2.66 from Waitrose for 6 330ml bottles of Bavaria, that’s 44p a bottle.  275ml bottles of Becks Blue in an average bar, if you can get it, are around £2.45 while regular Becks is about £2.80 with a pint of orange juice and lemonade anything from £2 to £3.60 (the bar that charged me £3.60 sold Stella for £2.50 a pint!)

If bars sold alcohol free drinks for less I’d be more inclined to go out more often for a drink but when I can buy 6 bottles for the price of 1 you can understand why bars are being left to hardcore drinkers, landlords/brewers don’t exactly make it welcoming to non-drinkers.

Wetherspoons is an exception, I was taken aback recently when they charged me only £1.20 for a bottle of Becks Blue, not bad for London’s West End! However Becks Blue is perhaps the worst beer available and sadly stocked by just about everyone :(

Things can only get better for stay at home alcohol free drinkers with the recent revival of Soda Stream to the UK market, but that’s a story for another day ;)

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