The rise and rise of non-alcoholic spirits

Two non-alcoholic cocktails using Aecorn products.

Aecorn founder and member Claire Warner on tapping into the growing trend for ‘low and no’ cocktails

By Mina Holland   Monday 20 January, 2020

Having been pregnant in the last year, I speak from recent experience when I say that dinner parties as a non-drinker can be pretty lacklustre. And not just because others got stuck in while I stayed sober. Non-alcoholic drinks options can seem both limited and unsophisticated: Coke, tonic, sparkling water (a bit like it was for vegetarians in the 1990s, those pre-Ottolenghi days when risotto was a given). While the boozers might move from cocktails to a series of wines that complement the food, only rarely is thought given to what non-alcoholic drinks can offer beyond quenching the thirst. There is an assumption, perhaps, that abstention from booze is also abstention from fun.

But London member Claire Warner – founder and managing director of Aecorn Aperitifs, the world’s first range of non-alcoholic aperitifs for adults – is challenging all that. ‘We want to deliver something that is an enhanced experience, beyond a tonic or a fizzy water – something that’s akin to an alcoholic experience, without the alcohol,’ she says. Warner, who spent 15 years developing vodkas as head of spirit creation and mixology at LVMH brand Belvedere, feels that alcohol offers a complexity of flavour to beverages which has, conventionally, not been matched by its soft-drink counterparts.

This dawned on Warner in her last years at Belvedere when low- and no-alcohol drinks took on a new appeal to her personally. ‘I travelled about 80 per cent of the year and became quite sick. I was full of anxiety, run down, and started to look for ways to look after myself in a job that was seemingly glamorous but actually quite gruelling.’ She became interested in cutting down on sugar (for example, reducing the quantity of syrup used in cocktails) and in exploring the ingredients offered by nature. ‘This all came from a desire to be in the drinks industry and be healthy, which at the time didn’t feel possible. Alcohol wasn’t the problem so much as there being very little to choose from.’
What did exist was Ben Branson’s revolutionary brand, Seedlip, which Warner had admired for some time. Seedlip is a distillation of botanicals (in other words, a non-alcoholic spirit), ‘which enabled me to talk about “low and no” at Belvedere, and quite literally seeded the idea of sophisticated non-alcoholic options’. It was a gateway brand in a non-alcoholic movement that was gaining traction; Selfridges reported last year that sales of non-alcoholic spirits were up 50 per cent year on year and the whole low- and no-alcohol drinks industry is said to be worth some £100m in Britain alone.

Warner and Branson became friends and it wasn’t long before he approached her to collaborate. He felt that, in order to truly change the world of non-alcoholic drinks, Seedlip needed a partner brand that could be enjoyed with meals and stand up to food. The challenge was one that Warner couldn’t resist. Aecorn is the result, named after a recipe for acorn wine they found in in John French’s The Art Of Distillation from the 1600s. ‘Acorns were traditionally used in Britain to aid digestion as they are very bitter,’ Warner tells me. ‘That got us thinking about the aperitif culture in Europe and how bitter drinks are used to prepare the stomach for food.’ While the recipe for acorn wine didn’t make for a delicious aperitif – ‘It was so gross!’ – the pair felt it to be a good starting point; they’d found a forgotten British bitter ingredient, which inspired their next steps.
A bright drink with ice on a table with olives
They decided to develop three drinks, each with different botanicals, to be enjoyed before, during and after food. But they needed a base – something interesting, not just water – so once again they looked to history. Verjus, or ‘green juice’, the juice of wine grapes pressed before they change colour, kept coming up in old books of recipes and herbal remedies. ‘In the UK, we used verjus in cooking before we had citrus, so it’s a classic ingredient,’ says Warner. She explains that until the 18th century, when the climate became colder, there was an abundance of grapes in Britain, but that global warming has enabled viticulture here again since the 1970s, evidenced by a small but booming industry in English sparkling wine. ‘When you take alcohol out of the equation, drinks lose the mouthfeel, body and structure, which you need in a drink to be had with food. Verjus gives some of that back.’ While verjus is usually the result of waste grapes, Aecorn’s producer grows grapes specifically for verjus, ‘so there’s a lovely balance of acidity and sweetness’.

Aecorn is a blend of that verjus base, fresh botanicals and a stabiliser that Warner and Branson keep top secret. There’s the bright-red Aecorn Bitter for before dinner – a blend of acorns, bitter citrus, gentian, Sancho pepper, bay leaf and coffee that’s designed to be drunk as a spritz or used as an ingredient in a ‘NOgroni’, which is served at Soho House. The other two are somewhere between wine and vermouth: Aecorn Dry is a blend of black tea, quassia, camomile, clary sage, English oak, seaweed and Maldon salt, to be sipped with foods like white fish, light meats and anything creamy that it can cut through, while Aecorn Aromatic, reminiscent of an old-world red wine, has notes of vanilla, clove, cassia, cola and French oak – perfect to finish a meal alongside cheese, chocolate or coffee, where you might normally drink a port.

While an absence of alcohol is the basis for both Aecorn and Seedlip’s business models, Warner observes that, across the board, drinks companies are now embracing ‘low and no’ as a means of making the industry more creative. Sparkling water and tonic be warned: there’s competition in town. And, pregnant or otherwise, I'm stocking up.

Aecorn Aperitifs are served at all Soho Houses in the UK as part of the NOgroni. Find out more at
Images courtesy of Aecorn.