AN ADVENTURE IN ALCOHOL
Closer, better, harder, stronger. The options for what to drink has evolved and the range is expanding at a rate of knots. And the best thing? It’s all on our doorstep
Last night as the Food and Travel team met in the pub, we mused on how it has changed. There were 12 taps serving lagers and ales, six bottled craft beers, 15 whiskies, 12 gins, ten wines by the glass and a happy-hour sign peddling two Aperol spritzes for £10. Twenty years ago the same pub – while supporting local brewers – offered a quarter of this range. Our choice of tipple is wider than ever.
That said, we are drinking less. ‘Alcohol consumption has been in steady decline over the past ten years,’ says Rebekah Kendrick of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. ‘Drinks companies have had to ensure their products are responsibly produced, sold and distributed.’ We are drinking less but drinking better.
The world of wine is expanding. An increase in output from the New World and the ‘New-New World’ has resulted in competitive prices from established producers. ‘It has become easy to find thrilling, confidently made, good-value wines from South Africa in particular,’ says leading wine writer Douglas Blyde. It was once assumed that latitudes between 32 and 52 degrees, and 28 and 46 degrees in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres respectively would garner drinkable grapes, but we’ve seen styles from India, China, Israel, Canada and Kenya as they make use of altitude.
British wine is also booming. In the past decade the number of hectares planted with vines has grown 135 per cent, according to English Wine Producers, and over the next year we will plant one million vines, increasing yield by two million bottles annually, but this is still only 1 per cent of the sparkling wine we consume. Even the French are in on the act. Taittinger bought land for vineyards on the Kent coast last year. The region has the same chalky soil as in Champagne, so pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay – the champagne varieties – grow well.
The UK gin renaissance has been the most pronounced. In the past year, we’ve seen 28 new brands. Sales topped £1bn in 2016 and experts attribute its rise to the popularity of the aperitif and the fact that more producers are making it as the return is high and it only takes nine months to distil. Whisky brands are producing a wider range, experimenting with beer and sherry casks.
This brewing style is defined by small-scale production using the finest ingredients. ‘It’s an extension of the quality food revolution in the Noughties,’ says Mike Hill of Utobeer. Gordon Brown’s progressive beer duty was introduced in 2002, helping smaller brands up production and get into supermarkets. Craft beer now has 12 per cent of the market from a standing start 20 years ago.
Softies and water
UK brand Fever Tree pioneered the premium mixer: the fastest-growing area of the softdrinks market. Having launched in 2005, it’s worth £1.8bn, just less than Britvic, which launched in 1845. Water is also in flux. As they wise up to corporate responsibility, restaurants are installing taps from brands such as Grohe for filtered still and sparkling water at a fraction of the cost of bottled.