Last: What to drink in 2024 – low- and no-alcohol bevvies on the rise

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A recent study, published in the Lancet, suggested that all alcohol consumption is bad for you, and media outlets around the globe ran with it. That particular study was funded by the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation, and therein lies the problem with studies in general. Previous studies indicated just the opposite, and some of those, as it turns out, were funded by big players in the alcohol industry.

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Getting unbiased reports on just about anything these days is problematic as special interest groups hold a lot of sway but very few studies cite just who those groups are and the motivation behind the massive amounts of cash they throw at researchers.

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I’d take them more seriously if I thought our best interests were their priority, but journeying down those rabbit holes often indicates otherwise. Much of the problem seems to reside in the demographics they chose to study – meta-analysis is the new buzzword attached to those studies – and they appear to be about as valid as political polls are these days. Polls have become little more than political tools using skewered meta-analysis to influence voters, no surprise when you consider misinformation has always been a powerful tool.

Despite whatever flaws the studies on alcohol consumption may have, I think it’s safe to say that moderation, at the very least, is a wise path to take. This, in a circuitous way, takes me to this; what should we drink in the peril-fraught world of 2024?

Last year, the dealcoholized/mocktail category took off in a major way. Shops are opening all over catering solely to this category, and I expect it’s just a matter of time before we see them here. Most liquor stores now have a section dedicated to this category, and there is no question that the better examples provide a viable alternative to alcohol. I had a mocktail at the fashionable nouveau Mexican restaurant Milpa a couple of months ago and they mixed up an apple cucumber spritz that consisted of freshly squeezed apple and cucumber juice with lemon and a little sugar, and it turned out to be one of the tastiest things to pass my lips last year. Of course, being me, I couldn’t help but wonder what a once-and-a-half of good gin might have done for it.

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Alcohol-free Heineken 0.0 on the conveyor belt during production in Den Bosch. Lex van Lieshout / ANP / AFP Photo by LEX VAN LIESHOUT /ANP/AFP via Getty Images

I’ve tried some alcohol-free beers that come close to the real deal, including my much-loved Guinness (et tu brute?). Guinness got it pretty close and, as such, it’s been sold out for a while but don’t worry, they’ll make more. Seedlip makes a range of non-alcoholic distillations that are well ahead of the curve. Brit Ben Branson began experimenting with herbal distillations after reading The Art of Distillation by John French, published in 1651. After some experimenting of his own, he launched his first effort – Spice 94 – at Selfridges in London in 2015 and sold all 1,000 bottles in under a month.

What makes these products special is that they were created by someone passionate about the art of distillation and it shows. I’ve been less enamoured with the dealcoholized wines I’ve tried to date; while they are better than the burnt offerings of the past, all I can say about them is they taste like wine, crappy wine, but wine, nonetheless.

I’ve noticed a gravitation to lower-alcohol wines over the years. Maybe it’s my body telling me to clean up my act, but the likelier scenario is that the warming planet is contributing to wines with over 16 per cent alcohol, and I find that too much, making the wine taste unbalanced and hot. Riesling goes unnoticed in my body, but I feel it when it’s in the mid-teens of alcohol percentage. There are dry wines now hitting 17 per cent alcohol, almost as much as port, and that’s a wine that’s fortified with brandy.

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The process of removing alcohol from wine is complex and, at this stage of the game, it accounts for the unpleasantries, but I expect someone will get it right. At that point, I’ll buy it because, for me, a good meal is incomplete without a good glass of wine.

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Natural wines require less intervention and additives. cal

Natural wines seem to have peaked and fallen off somewhat in the Calgary market but it’s a different story elsewhere. I was in Montreal this summer and that category dominates the market, at least in the trendy restaurant scene. Natural wines are typically lower in alcohol as well, and since they’re natural, they must be good for you, right? In a sense they are, in that there are no additives other than sulphur, and believe me, large-scale, mass-produced wines contain lots of things we would rather not know about, such as colouring agents, enzymes, pesticide and fertilizer residues, acids, oak flavouring, etc. I continue to gravitate towards producers who strike a nice balance between the two camps, wines that are made with as little interference as possible but that don’t taste like kombucha or a failed science experiment

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As for wine regions, look to countries like Germany, especially where pinot noir is concerned, as Germany is now the third-largest pinot producer in the world and quality is on the rise. Sicily, particularly Etna, is delivering some really exciting red wines and Portugal continues to offer great value with marked increases in quality. When I was in Sonoma last year, I was impressed with many of the pinot noirs I tasted, especially those made in the Burgundian style, although be prepared to open the wallet for the top examples.

One thing is for certain; drinking is a lot more complicated than it used to be. There are more options than ever. As for me, as long as I can get a well-made martini or Manhattan and a glass of good wine, I’m happy. A good bartender and a good wine merchant are essential.

Good luck navigating the boozy (or booze-free) waters of 2024; may your journey be a safe one.

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On a sad note, a Calgary wine institution, J Webb Wine Merchants, has closed its doors after 30-plus years in the business. This was one of the original shops that started when Alberta initially opened the door to privatization. I worked there in the early days of my career, and many friendships were formed among like-minded individuals drawn together by a common love of wine.

Geoff Last is a long-time Calgary wine merchant writer, instructor, and broadcaster. He can be heard every Friday on CJSW’s Road Pops program between 4 -6 p.m. He was awarded a fellowship at Napa Valley’s Symposium of Professional Wine Writers for articles that have appeared in this column. Media inquiries can be directed to [email protected]

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