Seedlip was the first alcohol-free spirit to mimic the flavours (and price) of gin. It was followed by many others, the best of which offer a genuinely interesting alternative to the real thing. Under EU law, gin must have an abv of 37.5 per cent, so none of these can legally call themselves gin, although I see a lot of the English versions do. Instead, look for the word juniper on the label.
Based on my own experience, few of them taste like gin when tasted neat. However, served well chilled with plenty of good tonic water, telling the difference is not so easy. Certainly, if you are having a dry January, they offer a good alternative to a G&T.
I didn’t think former rugby star Paul Wallace, late of Munster, Ireland and the Lions, would have many friends in South Africa. After all, the tighthead prop starred in all three Lions tests there in 1997, famously besting South African loosehead Os du Randt in the scrum. But that is not the case. “I spent a lot of time in South Africa during my rugby career, and have lots of good friends there,“ he says. “I loved the food and drink scene down there. I did have conversations about bringing in a rum, but the cost was prohibitive and to be honest, the heathy, natural foods and drinks looked more interesting.”
Fellow former Saracens player Schalke Britz introduced him to the John Ross range of botanicals. Wallace now imports these as well as Barker & Quin tonic water. “They sent these over, I tasted and I thought they were amazing. I had tasted some other botanicals and wasn’t impressed with some them — they had lots of additives and sugar. Everyone who tried these came back with positive reviews. The botanicals are unique to South Africa and that’s what makes it special. There are no sweeteners whatsoever; the fynbos and honeybush act as natural preservatives. There is never any alcohol in it, so nothing is taken out.” Fynbos is a name given to shrubland found in the Western and Eastern Cape. Honeybush, similar to Rooibos, is often drunk as tea.
I tasted them alongside Saoirse, Aldi’s Irish-made non-alcoholic alternative, which is less than half the price of the John Ross drinks. Both John Ross drinks had a lot more flavour and complexity, and are worth the premium. All three tasted a lot better with the addition of some tonic water. Wallace says the Barker & Quin tonic water is light in sugar, with 2.1g, the lowest in the market, a third less than Fevertree Light and half that of Poachers.
Saoirse Non-alcoholic Distilled Spirit
Light and refreshing with subtle floral notes and plenty of juniper. From: Aldi.
John Ross The Hebarium
Packed full of flavour; juniper, rosemary and other botanicals combine to make a delicious refreshing drink. From: Widely available from independents including Mitchell & Son; Sweeneys D3; O’Donovan’s, Cork, Redmond’s.
John Ross The Pioneer
Rooibos tea, honey and bitter orange peel with a lightly tannic finish. Great with tonic water. From: Mitchell & Son; Sweeneys D3; O’Donovan’s, Cork and other independents.
Barker & Quin Honeybush Orange Tonic Water
0%, €6-6.50 for a 4 x 200ml pack
Very refreshing and dry with a good bite of quinine, alongside citrus and subtle orange notes. From: O’Donovans, Cork; Baggot St Wines; Deveney’s, Dundrum; Thomas, Foxrock; Swans Grocer, Naas; Robbie’s, Kilmacud; SC Grocer, Deansgrange.