Whether you’re team “Drink less, drink better”, part of the “Sober curious” squad or teetering between the two, you would most likely have come across an alcoholic drink made from flavoured carbonated water that’s making a big splash of late. The hard seltzer is a sparkling water combined with a dash of alcohol from fermented cane sugar, but with a lower alcohol by volume than your average beer, cider, wine or even spritzer.
Why has it become so popular? Steve Steinfeld, head judge of the American Express Dining Awards and a regular Wanted contributor who spends his days and nights eating and drinking his way through the best of food and wine around the country, believes there are myriad reasons.
“As people continuously become more health, wellness and fitness conscious there’s definitely been a movement towards low alcohol or low calorie beverages,” he says.
Steinfeld emphasises that he would never claim any alcohol is the “healthy option” but perhaps healthier than a cocktail or beer or glass of wine. And this trendy choice is definitely being pushed as that — particularly in the marketing of certain brands. Some are even marketed to athletes and consumers who want a “guilt-free night out on the town”, with testimonials from personal trainers and nutritionists. Others are said to be infused with prebiotics or “ingestible skincare ingredients”.
But is there any truth to this alcoholic juice as a legitimate option when you’re being more conscious about what you put into your body? Well, the boozy waters do also tend to have fewer calories and carbohydrates (some even have nixed any sugar or sweeteners) with alcohol by volume between 4% and 6%. But if you drink too many you won’t be able to avoid that hangover.
Still, Steinfeld believes there’s definitely a “drink less, drink better” culture that’s emerging. As part of the wellness revolution, people are even investing in “devices like the Coravin wine preservation system, [which] allows for glasses to be poured without opening a bottle meaning you can just have a glass or two of exceptional wine without having to discard the rest of the bottle”.
And as restaurants have adjusted to veganism, they’re also paying attention to the needs of the sober-curious crowd. “Many a top restaurant now offers a non-alcoholic pairing in addition to their wine pairing — using the likes of teas, cordials and juices,” Steinfeld says.
Eateries are also offering a mix of waters to accompany your favourite dish as water stewards step into the same spotlight as sommeliers. In Joburg, Kol Izakaya has a water menu, and Luke Dale Roberts — who has recently opened a new iteration of his award winning restaurant, The Test Kitchen Carbon — offers a 10-course menu with either a wine or tea pairing. I wonder if premium hard seltzers would ever find their way to a fine-dining offering.
According to a report issued by the International Wines and Spirits titled Record on the Five Key Trends That Will Shape The Global Beverage Alcohol Market In 2021 And Beyond, the volume growth of hard seltzers, flavoured alcohol beverages and pre-mixed cocktails is already “outpacing other types of drink outside the ready-to-drink category”. A New York Times article notes that in the US “sales exploded to $4 billion [in 2020], from about $500m in 2018”.
Beyond quality and health considerations, the IWSR report also touches on “portability and [the] single serve nature” of hard seltzers as two reasons for the drinks’ big appeal, as well as the need for more seemingly sophisticated alternatives to soft drinks when wanting to consume none or less alcohol.
Convenience is definitely another big plus. “You negate the need for mixers and glasses which makes it a very versatile choice suited to everything from parties to picnics,” Steinfeld says. In SA they’re often on the sweeter side of the alcohol spectrum, with fruitier flavours like berries, cherry, peach proving popular.
While Steinfeld is reluctant to voice his opinion on specific brands, when pressed he has enjoyed the local Skye Frost hard seltzer, which is produced in small batches in Cape Town.
Amass has three flavours — touted as containing clean botanicals and fermented organic cane sugar with no artificial preservatives — available at several locations of the private members’ club Soho House and at Michelin-starred restaurants and award-winning bars.