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There’s no doubt about it: whether it’s full-time or on a casual basis, more and more people are embracing alcohol-free drinks. According to Drinks Ireland, sales of non-alcoholic beers in Ireland more than tripled between 2017 and 2021. And data platform Statista has reported that the worldwide non-alcoholic drinks market is projected to generate an eye-watering US$1.6tn in 2024!
With all this interest in living an alcohol-free or “sober curious” life, demand for great-tasting drinks is only set to grow, which means lots more choice on the shelves… and, perhaps, more confusion too.
Yes, it’s a convoluted world with terms like No/Lo (no- or low-alcohol), alcohol-free, non-alcoholic and low-alcohol popping up everywhere. And while there are strict laws in Ireland and Europe on the sale of alcohol - including rules on what can be called Irish whiskey, for example - there are few official guidelines around non- and low-alcohol "spirits".
People opt for alcohol-free drinks for all sorts of reasons so it’s always a good idea check the labels on anything you’re buying to ensure it’s what you’re looking for. But here, we’ve deciphered some of the common terms to make it all a little easier.
Alcohol-free versus non-alcoholic
Ireland’s Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018 defines an alcoholic beverage as any drink with an alcoholic strength more than 0.5% ABV (Alcohol By Volume). So, for a product to be “alcohol-free” it needs to have less than 0.5% ABV.
The term “non-alcoholic” is often used in the same way as “alcohol-free” although this isn’t always the case. For example, in the UK it's recommended that “non-alcoholic” does not appear alongside a name commonly associated with an alcoholic drink - so you shouldn’t find the term on things like beer, for example.
The term “low-alcohol” isn’t yet defined in Irish law; however, it’s generally accepted by state agencies here that “low alcohol” is 1.2% ABV or below.
This term can be used for drinks that were made in a similar way to a standard alcoholic drink, but then had the alcohol extracted.
Have you ever noticed that your favourite go-to alcohol-free “gin” doesn’t mention gin on the label? That’s because it’s not actually gin! And the use of names like gin or whiskey on non- or low- alcohol "spirits" is prohibited under the EU’s Spirit Drinks Regulation.
In the current absence of Irish or EU laws on no- and low- alcohol drinks, spiritsEUROPE, a Belgium-based trade group, created a guideline document to provide some clarity for consumers. You can read it here.