Gins that taste like fruit? Beer that tastes like coconut! Enough’s enough, says our columnist
Why Tony Naylor’s had enough of novelty drinks
In 2018, new food and drink products are widely regarded as self-justifying. Different is de facto desirable. In this era of information overload, novelty sells, as long as it looks great on Instagram. To question this is to be shouted down as a Luddite. Ask, ‘is a world in which I am being told to drink frosés (rosé slushies) or milkshake IPAS (lactose-sweetened beers flavoured with, for instance, marshmallows or waffles) one which is going to hell?’ and you will be derided as an old killjoy. It is often implicit by the very marketing of these drinks – there is big money in this constant ‘innovation’.
But this Christmas, I am asking you to inject a little scepticism into your drinking. We need to interrogate our alcohol intake and demand of all new trends, particularly those pushed by the multinationals of Big Booze: is this genuinely fresh? Or is it a fad? Note: I am totally open to new alcohol experiences. But I also know that at this point – 10 million years after the enzyme ADH4 mutated to enable us to efficiently process alcohol, and 9,000 years after wine was first made in China – almost everything that could be creatively achieved in alcoholic drinks has been tried and rigorously market-tested – and only the strongest ideas have survived. Tellingly, the most compelling ‘new’ drinks of this decade were in no way new. From craft beer to gin, natural wine to the spritz craze, it is rediscoveries of historic styles and production methods that have proven the most interesting. The ‘craft drinks’ scene may give these libations a modern tweak (dramatically so in how they are sold, styled or garnished) but, fundamentally, their success is rooted in hundreds of years of painstaking refinement. Baffled by this return to a preindustrial emphasis on quality and flavour complexity, Big Booze has preferred, in contrast, to flail about in search of the next cider-over-ice marketing master stroke. The current brand-driven trends, such as fruit ciders, easy-drinking rosés and fruit-flavoured pink gin all fit a template. They are sweet and fairly one-dimensional, usually colourful (often so-called ‘millennial pink’), regularly feature an unnecessary ‘twist’ and are primarily designed to look attractive in adverts.
And it works. Fruit ciders now account for almost a third of the UK’S cider sales, which is a threat to West Country orchards as the demand for bittersweet apples falls and big players pull out. According to analysts CGA, UK sales of fruitflavoured pink gins were up 2,194% in the year to February 2018 – ‘including some so sweet you question whether they should even be described as gin,’ wrote Fiona Beckett in The Guardian.
Even my beloved craft beer is not immune. A US micro-trend for pastry stouts (designed in coconut and chocolate flavours to mimic desserts) seems like a quirky attempt to court a new audience who dislike, well, the taste of beer. Craft beer has always been provocative. But is it now in its blackly funny creative death throes? I hope not.
What I do know is that this churning out of fruity/forgettable/ zany drinks is a recipe for, if not disaster, mediocre drinking. You may argue it is just frivolous, crowd-pleasing good fun. But treating alcohol as a serious, adult pleasure is a positive thing to do, for many different reasons. We should attempt to derive maximum satisfaction from it. That starts by asking: do I truly love this tipple? Or was I suckered by the marketing? This Christmas, please drink responsibly.