Over the last four years, no- and low-ABV has taken hold of the spirits world.
Fueled by health-conscious drinkers and the growing sober-curious movement, we’ve seen everything from no-proof tequilas to low-proof amaro to alcohol-free wines hit the market.
Now, the newest player in the sober-curious game is 18.8: a line of lower-proof gins and vodkas that clock in at precisely 18.8% ABV. Strong spirit flavors, half the alcohol content.
“One of our product development requirements from day one was ensuring our vodka and gin would offer the same taste experience as standard full-proof spirits,” describes Chris Lund, chief creative officer of FLUID Assets Inc, the Canadian-based parent company for 18.8.
Each batch starts with 100% Canadian wheat and goes through the same process as any distilled spirit. 18.8 then undergoes a proprietary method for reaching 18.8% ABV. (An educated guess—it’s brought down further with distilled water, as is standard practice for spirits that are not bottled at cask strength.)
Lund and 18.8’s CEO Jakob Ripshtein started the brand with the intention of creating vodka for a conscious consumer—Low-cal is another big push in their branding.
“Throughout our distillation trials and many rounds of test samples, it was of the utmost importance to us that our product delivers the same nose and taste profile a vodka drinker would expect, to ensure consumers didn’t feel like they were sacrificing by making a more responsible choice,” describes Ripshtein.
The duo launched a gin almost immediately after. “We were able to keep up our momentum by extending into gin quite quickly after the launch of our vodka. Thanks to the lower alcohol content, 18.8 offers less burn and a smoother, more palatable drinking experience—which is ideal for a neutral spirit like vodka and helps elevate the botanical flavors in our gin,” he continues.
One of the major problems in the low-ABV world is that products are, well, underwhelming. Most, are watered down, whispers of their higher proof brethren—not usually something you’d like to sip neat.
But 18.8 does a surprisingly solid job of doing what it says it does. Swap in the vodka or gin in a cocktail and it’s a perfectly acceptable replacement.
The gin is floral and sweet on the nose, with a creamy palate and subtle botanicals. The finish is short though—no big burn or lingering juniper.
The vodka, on the other hand, has the hot nose of a regular proof vodka, though it’s subdued and slightly sweet on the palate.
I wouldn’t go about drinking these neat, but both have enough backbone to be a solid substitute in a cocktail.
Who opts for non-alcoholic spirits?
Many different consumers. There’s the designated driver, the health-conscious Millennial, the sober-curious or the person who has to be up early in the morning.
Thanks to these drinkers, over the last few years, the advent of the low- and no-ABV movement has spurred a fundamental shift in consumer drinking habits and consumer behavior.
A Bon Appétit survey, which mirrors a Nielsen CGA survey, notes low- and no-alcohol products are expected to grow 32% between 2018 and 2022 (note, these are pre-Covid numbers). The study also revealed that non-alcoholic beverages are worth $7 billion more at retail than they were four years ago.
This is largely fueled by not the non-drinker, but the sober-curious—drinkers who don’t want to completely abstain, but still want to pursue a healthier lifestyle. They sip lower-proof drinks, cut down overall alcohol consumption, and take extended breaks from alcohol (like Dry January).
In the spirits world, Seedlip is the flag bearer for the no-ABV movement. But brands like 18.8 are filling the gap between drinking and not, catering to the drinker who wants to slow down but not completely stop.
“We don’t expect it to fully replace your favorite full-strength spirit,” says Lund.
“But we do believe everyone has moments when they want to celebrate or unwind or just feel like they’re part of the group—but they also want to consume on their own terms. Maybe it’s going out for a drink with colleagues after work when you have a big presentation the next day. Perhaps it’s ordering a Bloody Mary at brunch when you want to make it to the gym later. Or maybe it’s a big wedding celebration and you want to pace yourself so you can make it through the night.”
To fit this need, there are a range of non-alcoholic spirits (like tequila alternative Ritual and aperitif riff Ghia) and canon of naturally low-proof cocktail staples: sherry, vermouth, cider, and wine.
But nothing really for the hard spirits lover.
“We’re actively exploring other categories—for now primarily white spirits—to ensure we can satisfy the preferences of all consumers and give more people the gift of choice,” describes Ripshtein.
While the brand is currently focused around pushing its Canadian presence, the wheels are in motion for a US expansion. “We’re already getting requests from international distribution companies and other industry players who love the idea of bringing a more responsible choice to their markets,” Ripshtein continues. “Our first step will likely be going into the United States, which is a conversation we’re currently engaged in and very excited about.”
The buzz will only continue for the brand, but the category as a whole.
Non-alcoholic drinks have always felt sub-par. Sodas, lemon water, “mocktails,” and other asinine adjectives that say your non-alcoholic drink is lacking flavor.
Now, thoughtful brands are pivoting the NA category from being a consolation prize to a top option.
“I would say the most heartfelt reactions have been from people who would have skipped an event altogether or picked a drink they didn’t actually like due to fear of over-consuming,” says Ripshtein. “These individuals are grateful that a new choice has been added to their experience. The same goes for those who love that they can try more than one cocktail and extend the occasion, but still keep their overall alcohol consumption down.”
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