The non-alcoholic drinks category has boomed in recent years but a lack of mental availability and innovative distribution threaten to slow its success.
It’s a Saturday night and I’m in a bar in Clapham. Observing Gen Ys and Zs in their natural habitat. I’ve been struck recently by trend reports’ declaration of a neo-puritanical decline in alcohol assumption amongst young people. According to the latest research, one quarter of 16 to 24 year-olds identify as teetotal. And two thirds of them profess that alcohol isn’t important to their social lives. However, you definitely wouldn’t think that from where I’m perched. The liquor is flowing.
Still, this bar in Yuppie-white-collar-labour-middle-class-avocadoes-every-morning-matcha-tea-every- night cliché Clapham is not representative of the whole country. And, on closer inspection, it is certainly not representative of the 16-24 year old audience. As a geriatric of the category (I’m 22), I look to be one of the youngest here.
Despite this, brands such as Purdey’s, Seedlip and zero-alcohol versions of well-known beers like Heineken, have identified this ABC 1 audience as their target demographic, as reflected in their price- point and product design.
The question we need to ask ourselves is this, in 2026 when one quarter of today’s supposedly teetotal 16 year olds are 24, will the same number of them still be cheerily abjuring alcohol in this affluent setting? The latest research would certainly have us believe so.
Understanding the current consumer palette
This question can’t be explored without better understanding the current appetite for non-alcoholic drinks, so I speak to those who know best; the people behind the bar.
I venture the research statistics to the bartender. ‘Absolutely not true’, she scoffs, ‘for those in their twenties anyway’. She raises her arms, gesturing to the myriad of glasses filled with G&Ts, beer, cider, and spirits in evidence.
We talk numbers. Together, the bar staff estimate that at most, 10% of drinks sold to young people are non-alcoholic. Importantly, those that had worked in the on-trade for a few years did think that younger people were consuming less alcohol. However, from their perspective, this was not due to a nascent teetotalism as the research suggests, but rather a desire to be healthier through practising ‘alternate rounds’ (one alcoholic then one non-alcoholic drink), and taking the occasional ‘night off’ drinking.
Given this, the bartenders do expect more young people to drink less as the years go by, but the figure of one-quarter teetotalers still felt outlandish to them.
We discuss what non-alcoholic drinks are the most popular with this audience and it’s definitely not the more expensive craft sodas. Revealingly, when people chose not to drink, they overwhelmingly default to traditional options, such as coke, lemonade, and fruit juices. Moreover, the bartender at The Rookery told me that despite working at this particular bar for more than 6 months, she has sold less than ten ‘mocktails.’
Interestingly, yet unsurprisingly, these drinks sold better earlier in the day; when paired with brunch or the afternoon sun. Indeed, in the Victoria branch of All Bar One, the bartender remarked that the overwhelming majority were sold to middle-aged women during the day. It’s in this daytime consumer mind-set that people have time to properly peruse the menu, not default to hackneyed choices under pressure in a queue at the bar.
There is still plenty of work to be done to increase penetration for these non-alcohol brands. Despite their increasingly physical availability, they do not seem to be top-of-mind for consumers. Backing up my discussion with bartenders, during a quick focus group with friends, it was revealed that few had tried, or even heard of, these brands.
My conversation with industry professionals taught me three things. Firstly, though not as black and white as it first appeared, the trend of younger people drinking less, seems undeniable. Secondly, these people, (at present) are not the ‘discerning’ customer, research agencies would have us believe, but are defaulting to traditional so drinks. Finally, there is a stronger appetite for non-alcoholic drinks earlier in the day, around occasions not typically defined by alcohol that current brands could do more to take ownership of.
The future of the non-alcoholic category
It’s important to remember why people between 16 and 24 are currently able to drink less than their older counterparts. They have less disposable income, have grown up on social media, (possibly having witnessed their elder siblings being ‘socially shamed’), and pop culture icons are now the protein- shaking-stars of Love Island not the apocalyptically drunken cast of Geordie Shore. Most importantly, there’s a good chance they’re too young for an office job and some won’t have started university yet.
It’s these latter two milestones I’m particularly interested in for the non-alcoholic drinks category because both have embedded alcohol consumption into their social fabric. If someone didn’t drink before they go to university, chances are they’ll start during fresher’s week. And if someone didn’t drink at school or university, there’s also a chance they’ll ask for a beer to alleviate awkward post-work chit- chat.
What we need to start measuring to understand this decline in alcohol consumption are the changes taking place in these institutions. Are students drinking less than ever? Are ‘post-work drinks’ in decline? If not, are so er drinks being consumed without stigma or surprise?
The answer to these questions appears to be no. Recent NUS studies show that 85% of university students agree that drinking and getting drunk is part of university culture.
Last week I got alcohol-free beer signed off at my place of work by the CFO. Access to a variety of non- alcoholic drinks in agencies isn’t the norm because the expectation is that most people will fancy a post-work beverage. And they certainly seem to. When I choose to order a non-alcoholic drink at a work social, it does not go unnoticed. Though this isn’t surprising since I’m with older colleagues, it is further evidence that the workplace is currently a site of high alcohol acceptance and low tolerance of moderation outside of sober sabbaticals like ‘Dry January’.
Insights & Opportunities: The bar is not the only battleground
Currently, non-alcoholic products don’t appear to have mental availability within the drinking occasion. The implication is that brands must build top-of-mind awareness. As well as focusing on disruptive tactics that speak clearly to teetotal and moderation motivations within the bar setting itself, these brands should also consider where they can seed loyalty. We know that university and the workplace are key sites of conversion from low or no alcohol consumption, to regular consumption, so it makes sense for brands to recognise these institutions as pivotal opportunities in their distribution strategies.
These brands also need to realise their potential, not just earlier in their consumers’ lives, but earlier in the day too. The breed of healthy, vitamin-added so drinks should pose a threat to old school herbal teas, calorific smoothies and juices as well as lighter alcoholic drinks consumed over brunch, or offered in gyms and spas.
These brands then, have the opportunity, not just to compete with their alcoholic counterparts on a like-for-like basis, but to become part of the fabric of other social occasions where people want to keep their head.
Semioticians of late have also remarked that the trend towards lower alcohol consumption is due to a desire to ‘experience life in a fuller way’. One could reasonably argue that there’s a limit to how fulfilling an experience sitting in a pub, sober, can be. These brands need to become entrenched in middle class mores by casting their nets further to more immersive experiences like artistic partnerships (i.e. Uniqlo Tate Lates), replacing alcoholic badging at festivals, and being on offer at luxury cinemas and gyms.
There’s no doubt that the non-alcoholic category is riding the crest of a consumer trend, but in order to truly capitalise on this, it needs to think of itself as more than just an alternative to alcohol, but as an offering in and of itself.