Better a tepid tap water than a glass of alcohol-free wine would, prior to this week, have been my opinion. But two glasses in to the Noughty sparkling Chardonnay– and  I was enjoying it so much I felt just a tad, perhaps, drunk.

Alcohol-free wines don’t have the best reputation. According to Josh Kelly, the alcohol-free sommelier delivering a wine tasting at a Sober And Curious night in Edinburgh, that’s for a reason. At the beginning of the market, supermarkets made deals with producers of a first wave of alcohol-free wines that were too sweet.

Kelly, who is brand relationship manager at the Club Soda, an alcohol-free events organiser and shop, explained:  “That gave alcohol-free wine a bad rep. The other problem is customers aren’t prepared to pay what they need to pay to get really high-quality, alcohol-free wines and they don’t understand that it’s more expensive to make an alcohol-free wine than an alcohol-full wine." 

The reason being, essentially, that a lot more work goes in to the making of an alcohol-free wine. “There are at least," he described, "three extra processes in making an alcohol-free wine – sometimes four, sometimes five. You have to decide on what flavour palate you want, then you have to go and find the grapes or the full-strength wine which will give it that flavour palate once it has been de-alcoholised.”

Dealcoholising spikes the acidity, and sometimes increases the bitterness. To compensate for this, he said, “you have to blend different wines together or add other ingredients such as grape musk or juice or teas.

“Dealcoholisation is also expensive – and for the moment you can only really do it in Germany, Australia, France – there's nowhere in the UK that has their own. And we’re talking about £500 million for a machine that will do that job.”

The Herald: Vicky Allan shares a toast with the Sober AND Curious communityVicky Allan shares a toast with the Sober AND Curious community (Image: Gordon Terris)

For many, the availability of alcohol-free wine and other alcohol-free options is key to creating a hospitality sector in which sober people can socialise. 

Hence, the creation of Sober And Curious. Its founder is  Kristin Lamb who 18 months ago stopped drinking. A grey-area drinker who would binge drink at weekends and “not know when to stop”, she recalled days lost to hangovers. “Literally,” she explained, “the whole day in bed, passed out. I think one of the last straws was when I missed my nephew's fourth birthday party. That was a sore one.”

When she did stop drinking she struggled to find alternative drinks to consume on nights out with friends. “Lots of bars and venues that I went to had a really really poor selection. One or two alcohol free beers.”

“I started exploring all the alcohol-free market and found Club Soda and some of the other different organisations who were organising events but everything was down in London, Manchester, Brighton. There wasn’t really anything up in Edinburgh or Scotland at all – that's the reason I started organising my own events. I came from an events background.”

The Herald: Kristin Lamb, founder of Sober AND CuriousKristin Lamb, founder of Sober AND Curious (Image: Gordon Terris)

Events like these, however, aren't just about promoting alcohol-free wine – rather they’re more about creating a social away from alcohol, and a place for people who are both sober and 'sober curious' to meet.

Also present was another key influencer in the sober world, Kirsty Mulcahy, the coach and alcohol-free behind Sober Buzz CIC Scotland, who described the feel of it as like “a hen night or baby” shower - in other words attended chiefly by women, with a tiny sprinkling of men. These events, and those she organises, she said, are all about connection.

“There’s a famous quote in a TED talk by Johann Hari,” she said, “which is that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is human connection. And you don’t have to be an addict to make that connection – and when I stopped drinking over six years ago, I couldn’t find that connection.

“Alcoholics Anonymous wasn’t for me and that’s not to say that it’s not for lots of people and that’s why I started Sober Buzz – to connect with other people that I felt were like-minded. “I was noticing how people were  quite comfortable to start talking about not drinking when they were with other people who didn’t drink – whereas if they were in a group of people who do drink they weren’t.”

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"Events like this that are sober curious allow people who think they’d like to stop t come along and say I’m sober curious and nobody would question it.”

“People are terrified if they stop drinking that people will say they’ve got a problem. We don't talk about alcohol-dependent or alcoholism any more - we talk about alcohol use disorder. Under that umbrella could be someone like me who drank every day and had a problem, or somebody who binge drinks occasionally and thinks damn I wish I didn’t do that. These events allow everybody to mingle. They everybody to mix without people having to say I’m an alcoholic and I binge drink.”

Perhaps it was the buzz of the event or the experience of a sommelier directing my focus to the undertones of flavour in the drink, but it really did seem as if these wines were more “complex” as he put it than previous alcohol-free wines I’d tasted. Rose petals, pink apples, a hint of raspberry, all coming off a glass of Zeno alcohol-free rosé.

The Herald: Kirsty Mulcahy, left, of Sober Buzz Scotland at the Sober AND Curious tastingKirsty Mulcahy, left, of Sober Buzz Scotland at the Sober AND Curious tasting (Image: Gordon Terris)

“It’s the sugar,” said one of the guests, as I swung my glass giddily, “that gives you that slightly drunk kick, and the bubbles. You can even get a hangover if you drink enough alcohol-free wine – from the sulphides.”

“Another issue is that people,” explained Josh Kelly, “are asking more from alcohol-free wine than they’re asking from alcohol-full wine. You have to be low sugar and vegan and low on sulphides and at the moment alcohol-free, by law, has to have all the ingredients on the back of the bottle. Alcohol full doesn’t have to do that. So you’ve got people picking up an alcohol-free glass of wine and they can see the sugar in it. They go, ‘My God, there’s so much sugar in this!”

It says something about the rise of alcohol-free beverages that this year Kelly, who regards himself as “an accidental expert”  is set to be a judge of the new ‘no and low’ category at the Concours Mondiale de Bruxelles in Mexico.

“That,” he says is traditionally a full-strength wine event. This is a growing market. Wine sales in the UK are down 7% year on year, alcohol-free is up 9% year on year and the hospitality industry loses £8.5 million a year by not upselling from water. One in three pub visits are sober.”