Deputy Culture Editor – Food & Drink / Writer
We headed along to Glasgow’s first alcohol-free festival to get the lowdown on the Club Soda movement and the ever-growing non-alcoholic market
Okay, we get it — drinking culture and university go hand in hand. There’s so many events during an academic year, be it club nights, birthdays, flat parties, and plenty more that don’t immediately spring to mind, occasions that come around and almost teasingly “require” you to drink to enjoy them. And that’s absolutely fine. But what if you didn’t actually want to drink? What are the challenges facing students who don’t want to drink, and what are their alternatives to alcohol on those nights out?
One group aiming to give some answers to those questions are Club Soda, a movement promoting “mindful drinking” whilst aiming to “create a world where nobody feels out of place for not drinking alcohol”. In order to find out more about this movement, we attended their Mindful Drinking Festival in the Briggait to speak to the co-founder of the organisation, Laura Willoughby MBE, and have the chance to sample some of the eye-raising alcohol-free beverages on offer.
Stepping foot through the doors we taken aback by the scale of the event and the multiple stalls dotted around the venue. Our eyes were first drawn to the large stage at the back of the hall, which was currently hosting a celebrity discussion panel on “How to Socialise Sober”. This was just one of the many events which took place on the stage, with others including a “Mindful Mixologist Grand Slam” and a host of live music.
We were soon whisked upstairs to speak to Laura about the event and the inspiration behind Club Soda. When asked about the motivation behind Club Soda, Laura explained: “people kept asking me for advice on what to drink when they’re not drinking alcohol, and I kept giving advice. New products also kept appearing so we decided to curate all of our favourite drinks into one place. Now we’ve got 23,000 members, with a good proportion of those in Scotland”.
As Laura described it, “the event is full of all of the best alcohol-free drinks for adults, with panel discussions, workshops, tastings and live music.” And it looks like she’s not wrong too. As we look around the room, we take in the wide ranges of stalls and products on display, ranging from Heineken’s 0.0 lager to Eisberg’s alcohol-free wines.
One question we’re keen to find out is how Laura believed Club Soda could appeal to students. “What I notice about younger people is they’re far more in tune with their mental health than anybody else,” Laura said. “There’s a lot more discussion about how alcohol impacts on mental health, so even if students are drinking, they’re recognising that they want to make sure that they’re not getting out of control or not drinking so much that it affects their anxiety or other things”. Laura advises students “to be more demanding about what they want to drink, and get their student bars to question what they’ve got behind the bar. It’s all about saying what you want and need”.
After speaking to Laura, we headed back downstairs to the event to sample some of alcohol-free treats on offer. What first stood out to us was “Big Willie’s” ginger beer, with its distinctive tattooed-sailor mascot branding. We were quickly offered a sample served with a wedge of lime, and were surprised to taste vanilla notes hidden behind the fiery kick of ginger. One samples wasn’t enough as we soon found ourselves wanting more, so it won’t be surprising to find out that this was one of our favourite drinks for the day. The next drink we sampled was the Teetotal G&T and we were extremely taken aback at how similar to the real deal it tasted. One of our favourite things about this drink is that it comes in a vintage inspired glass bottle, ready prepared with tonic. We also managed to sample one of their Cuba Libre drinks, an alcohol-free rum and coke. Again, we were surprised at the likeliness the drink had to rum.
Desperate to sample some IPAs, we headed to Big Drop Brewing’s stall which had an enticing display of award winning beers including a stout, a pale ale, a sour and a lager. Our favourite was the pale ale, which had plenty of tropical notes and hops, so packed with flavour we couldn’t notice the lack of alcohol this 0.5% beer had. Eisberg wine, with its great variety of non-alcoholic wine, from red to white to rose and even a selection of sparkling tipples too, are another of the more established non-alcoholic drinks available in a host of supermarkets. Their drinks on the day tasted great too, really capturing the punch of an alcoholic wine, without the key ingredient.
As we leave the venue, feeling psychologically confused that drinking so much beer, wine and gin could leave you not even the tiniest bit drunk, we’re a bit taken aback at just how much non-alcoholic drinks there are now out on the market. What today’s Mindful Drinking Event, and Club Soda to a larger extent, are doing, is showing people that if you don’t want to drink, you don’t actually have to. There are a lot of small businesses — and even big mega-breweries, like Heineken and Adnams — offering non-alcoholic alternatives, making it easier for non-drinkers to enjoy nights out, without having to stick to pints of Diet Coke. The alcohol-free movement is one to keep an eye out for, because it’s certainly going to get a whole lot bigger in years to come.