The future is looking drier: the rise of “NOLO” drinks is here to stay

Mar 12, 2023 |4 min read
NOLO drinks

13th May 1806, marks the date when the first known definition of a cocktail was published (and now informally known as ‘World Cocktail Day’). “A stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters”, this technical explanation significantly downplays the immense range of alcoholic mixtures that have since been developed – from the classic to obscure. But 217 years later, there is a new word creating a buzz in the drinks industry and it lacks one key ingredient of the traditional cocktail.

If you haven’t heard of 'NOLO' yet, I’m sure you soon will. Meaning ’No- and Low- alcohol‘, NOLO drinks have disrupted the global drinks industry in recent years and their popularity is only expected to keep rising with market value surpassing $11 billion in 2022. So who is choosing to drink NOLO and how is the drinks industry responding?

Going NOLO?

The tide is turning on alcohol consumption. There has been a global shift in attitudes towards alcohol and  a growing proportion of the population are now choosing to reduce their intake. With ’damp drinking’” trending on TikTok earlier this year, the ’sober curious‘ movement has been gaining momentum and Gen Z is at the helm.  The proportion of 16-24 year olds in England who reported monthly drinking dropped from 67% to 41% between 2002 and 2019 with a combination of factors thought to be driving this decline.

Along with an increased understanding and focus on health and wellness, the rise of social media is now an added worry for young adults - something that previous generations did not have to think about. With 49% of Gen Z claiming their online image is always at the back of their mind when they go out socialising and drinking, many young people are becoming more sober curious and looking for alternative drinks to enjoy that don’t lead to ‘hangxiety’. This doesn’t mean cutting out alcohol completely, but being more conscious on choosing when to drink. With 78% of those drinking full-strength alcohol also consuming NOLO drinks, the potential audience for NOLO brands has never been greater.

How have brands responded?

This shift in attitude towards alcohol has moved in tandem with the market. Just search for ’NOLO drinks‘ in Google and an overwhelming number of results appear. There has been an explosion of new products in this category launching within the past few years. No longer are the non-alcoholic options perceived as dull and lacking in flavour. The brands now on offer are fun, quirky and rival almost all alcoholic drink types in terms of range and taste. Fancy a refreshing rhubarb-flavoured gin or perhaps a warming smoked whisky but at less than 0.05% ABV? No problem. What started as a niche area offering limited options has now grown into a booming market.NOLO has gone mainstream.

Numerous alcoholic drinks manufacturers have already sensed the huge opportunity in this area, with Tanqueray and Gordons both releasing non-alcoholic gin alternatives and many large beer brands including Peroni, Guinness and San Miguel all offering alcohol-free versions.  And when you start looking for NOLO-only brands, the choice becomes even greater. The sector is bursting with exciting new innovations from specialised manufacturers to brands offering a wide range of drink types. One rapidly growing brand that you may have spotted at your local supermarket CleanCo is who since launching in 2019, produce Rum, Tequila, Gin and Whisky alternatives.

Some brands have taken a different direction and are looking to replicate alcohol in other ways. An exciting example of this is SENTIA, which is a botanical spirit developed by a team of scientists and is the world’s first GABA spirit designed to enhance GABA (a neurotransmitter that is know for producing a calming effect). This drink has been created to provide the good-mood feeling people desire from alcohol but without negative effects.

The soft drinks category is also welcoming a whole host of new, exciting brands which feels like a breath of fresh air. The usual handful of sugar-laden fizzy drinks, that have been dominating this space for years, now face strong competition. Brands like DASH (sparkling-water infused by misshapen fruit that would have otherwise become food waste), and TRIP (CBD-infused botanical drinks and now the UKs fastest growing soft drinks brand, growing 522% in the last year), are taking the industry by storm and providing consumers with healthier, innovative soft drink alternatives.

This also applies in the hospitality industry. With a study last year finding that almost one in three pub visits in the UK does not involve an alcoholic drink, consumers are now expecting a mocktail list rivalling its cocktail counterpart and a wide range of interesting NOLO drink options. With countless blog posts on ’the best non-alcoholic bars’, bars and restaurants need to make sure they are keeping up with this rapidly growing trend.

In December last year, the ‘mindful drinking’ business Club Soda opened up The Tasting Room in London. Offering a range of over 150 NOLO brands to discover along with a variety of events, including cocktail masterclasses and a monthly alcohol-free wine club. The Tasting Room also provides training for those working in hospitality to advise on the best NOLO drinks for their venue.

The future for NOLO drinks

With the number of NOLO drinkers expected to keep growing, there is a huge opportunity within the category. But with different drinks all fighting to grab market share, brands need to be savvy. Products need to be accessible and easy to purchase, which means retailers and the hospitality industry play a huge role in providing NOLO drink choices and keeping up with consumer expectations. From spotting the product on a shop or pub shelf, people need to be persuaded when selecting from an ever-growing range. Great taste is now a basic requirement, with consumers now looking beyond this to understand what else the drink offers.

Brands need to be confident in the role their drink plays and make it known - whether it is focussing on key ingredients, the health and wellness benefits, or how their drink can be enjoyed in specific settings. So whether you are wanting to vary your alcohol consumption or just fancy a change from your usual cocktail, there is no shortage of NOLO drink options waiting to be poured and enjoyed.