Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

FoodJuly 29, 2022

A sobering search for the best non-alcoholic spirit in New Zealand

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

You can now stock your liquor cabinet with booze-free spirits. But are any of them decent? Our panel of experts put their tastebuds on the line to find out. 

As has already been established on this very website, the zero alcohol trend is here to stay. Chalking up two years in a global pandemic has forced many of us to reassess our relationship with drinking and health, helped along by personal primetime reflections from the likes of Paddy Gower and Guyon Espiner. But if you are looking to take a night off the booze and don’t want to neck an infantilising orange juice, where are you to turn? 

Thankfully, most liquor stores these days boast a plethora of non-alcoholic options that put Keri’s finest to shame. There’s zero gin, zero whisk(e)y, zero Aperol, zero rum, even zero absinthe, the last of which truly feels like it is opening a wormhole between different dimensions. 

In order to avoid you forking out $70 for a bottle of “watery BO”, as one non-boozer recently experienced, we decided to round up as many spirit options as we could and put them to the test. This year’s tasting panel comprised Spinoffers Sam Brooks, Alex Casey, Shanti Mathias, Stewart Sowman-Lund, Alice Neville and Charlotte Muru-Lanning with a cameo appearance from former Spinoffer Hayden Donnell. 

Each spirit was supplied to us by the brand or distributor or, in the case of numbers 15, 8 and 1, by new non-alcoholic drinks store The Chiller. Each was combined with its typical mixer of choice, apart from numbers 12 and 4, which were tried in their premixed form, and all were consumed blind in random order to ensure scientific accuracy and bias-free assessment. Finally, we’re very aware that this is not every non-alcoholic spirit in New Zealand, but we were constrained by time and capacity – sorry to any that were missed. Here are our sobering findings, ranked from worst to best. 

– Alex Casey, convenor

The zero alcohol booze gauntlet (Photo: Bianca Cross)

16) Terps and Co Tequila-Style

750ml, $52.25 from drinkterps.co.nz

Score: -61/10

A resounding wretch rang through The Spinoff lunchroom when the panel got stuck into this tequila-inspired offering. “This is the most disgusting thing that has ever happened to me,” bellowed Hayden Donnell, who wasn’t actually invited to the tasting but was early for his meeting elsewhere in the building. “This is cleaning me from the inside out,” wept Sam Brooks. “It feels like if you mixed all of the liquor cabinet and then all the cleaning stuff under the sink.” 

Other flavour notes included “banana skin”, “the bottom of a bin” and that it tasted “like smoking”. Alice Neville took to yelling “how can that be for human consumption” to the non-alcohol gods above, and Alex Casey asserted that the liquid was, “quite literally, not safe for work”. The good news is, this is the only entrant that scored negative points. 

15) Rumish

350ml, $35 from The Chiller

Score: 1.75/10

Our panel was immediately impressed with the nose on this rum replica. “That smells like alcohol, which I enjoy,” said Neville. “This is a Cody’s,” said Brooks, nostrils flaring in suspicion. But the Cody’s sensory simulacrum did not receive a positive response by all. “The smell takes me back to a really bad place,” said a quivering Casey. 

Unfortunately, the taste deviated wildly from the encouraging smell. “It tastes like a vivid!” screamed Stewart Sowman-Lund. “Antiseptic,” offered Shanti Mathias. “Medicinal,” said Charlotte Muru-Lanning. “Jesus,” said Neville, once again addressing a higher power, “that tastes like cough medicine.” Things do get better, we promise. 

14) Terps & Co Whiskey-Feel

750ml, $52.25 from drinkterps.co.nz

Score: 2.1/10

Another evil temptress who lured us in with a delightful scent to reveal a frankly shocking taste. “It smells like Curio Noir ‘Tobacco Feels’,” said Muru-Lanning, who said she enjoyed the “festive” aroma. “I would like this smell on a person,” said Brooks. But which person exactly? “It smells like Marlon Williams,” asserted Neville with absolutely no elaboration. 

Alas, we could not “make way for love” when it came to the taste of this whiskey. “It’s kind of like expensive whiskey but not in a good way,” said Brooks. Much hullabaloo was made about the smokiness. Mathias wondered if “they put too much liquid smoke in” and noted that the drink is possibly “trying to be complex when it is not”. Aren’t we all? 

13) Terps & Co Vodka-Vibe

750ml, $52.25 from drinkterps.co.nz

Score: 4.5/10

Where previous entries overwhelmed with their smoky, bile-inspired flavours, this offering stumped our panel for a completely different reason. “A disconcerting lack of smell,” said Neville. “It smells like if someone opened a packet of sherbet in the next room,” added Brooks. Some picked up distant floral notes, with Muru-Lanning getting faint whiffs of “grandma’s pot pourri”. 

Without a lot of smell, it was time for the taste. “That tastes like water, if water could somehow go off,” said Donnell, who strangely still hadn’t left for his meeting. “Like what a drain would taste like after a storm.” Casey was slightly more generous, likening it to post-bubblebath bathwater. 

12) Lyre’s American Malt & Cola

250ml x 4, $19-$21 from various retailers including Fine O Wine, Freasy and Clear Head Drinks

Score: 4.6/10

The first entrant that didn’t offend anyone on the panel. “It’s not fizzy enough,” barked Neville. “It’s a Coke!” bellowed Donnell, who was now surely running late for his meeting. “It has a syrupy feel, like it has been sitting in a McDonald’s Coke machine for too long.” The rest of the judges were subdued in their responses, stating that it was “middling” and “lacking in flavour” but definitely not the worst. 

11) Brunswick Aces Sapiir

700ml, $54-$60 from various retailers including Whisky and More, Advintage and Regional Wines

Score: 4.8/10

The panel was completely divided on this. In camp “scared” was Neville, Brooks and Casey, whose impassioned remarks upon sipping included “what the fuck” and “this tastes like an angry tree” and “my teeth are retacting into my skull”. In camp “not scared” was Muru-Lanning and Mathias, who were much more open to the “chocolatey”  but “slightly metallic” liquid. “Maybe it’s supposed to be like Frangelico?” posited Muru-Lanning, who confessed to being a big Frangelico fan. “If it was in a sour, this would be great.” The final word went to Mathias, who uttered the highest praise heard in this ranking so far: “I could finish this.”

The tasting panel (and Stanley, who abstained) in action (Photo: Bianca Cross)

10) Lyre’s Italian Orange

700ml, $55 from lyres.co.nz and other retailers

Score: 5/10

There was no getting past our eagle-eyed judges with this one, which was clearly trying to mimic a beloved summer spritz ingredient. “Obviously this is trying to be like Aperol,” mused Neville, adjusting her monocle from beneath her top hat. “It has a bitterness that, while nowhere near as nice, goes some way towards achieving that.”

Casey was also impressed despite tasting early notes of “Tuimato” sauce, remarking that if someone gave this to her on an aeroplane with lots of ice in it, she would say “thank you, very nice”. Other judges focused on the therapeutic qualities, likening it to liquid panadol and Robotussin. “It’s definitely medicinal, but I don’t hate it,” concluded Neville. 

9) Terps & Co Rum-Esque

750ml, $52.25 from drinkterps.co.nz

Score: 5.6/10

Repeating what is sure to become her catchphrase, Neville – who is eight months pregnant – said she also didn’t “hate” this one. “The burn reminds me of alcohol. As someone who hasn’t had alcohol in months (not through choice), I appreciate that.” Sowman-Lund was similarly dazzled by the likeness to real alcohol. “This is like the taste I’d have in my mouth if I woke up after a night on the rum,” he mused. Calum Henderson, who quickly disappeared because he didn’t want to be on The Spinoff’s TikTok, branded it a “winter warmer” that he “quite liked”. 

8) Clean Co Clean R Non-Alcoholic Golden Spiced Spirit

700ml, $55 from The Chiller

Score: 6.1/10

All panellists were in agreement that this was the sweetest entrant of the entire experiment. For some, that was a positive thing – “that tastes like a vanilla Karma Cola” – and for others that was a negative thing – “too sweet, too vanilla-y and I do not like it”. Some were moved to tears by the flavour, with Muru-Lanning expressing that the beverage tasted “a bit sad”. Mathias, on the other hand, was moved to reveal her deepest, darkest, unspoken cravings. “It’s like when you smell vanilla essence and you look at the wee bottle and imagine what it would be like to drink the whole thing,” she sighed.

7) Seedlip Spice 94

700ml, $65 from cookandnelson.com and various other retailers

Score: 6.3/10

It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas when our panel took a sip of this spicy little Seedlip offering. Fruit cake. Nutmeg. Ginger. Dr Pepper. “Could be a good for a New Zealand Christmas,” said Neville. “A little pine tree quality to it,” added Mathias. 

6) Terps & Co Gin-Like

750ml, $52.25 from drinkterps.co.nz

Score: 6.5/10

Perhaps the biggest spectacle of the entire ranking, this entrant was a dazzling yet disconcerting shade of turpentine purple. “The colour is absolutely entrancing,” said Casey, comparing it to something that she saw Kylie Jenner drink somewhere once but couldn’t remember anything about. “It was butterfly pea tea,” Muru-Lanning added sagely. 

The panel was in agreement that this drink was “nice” and really did taste quite a lot like a gin and tonic – although Brooks added maybe one you would get at a bowling alley. It was icy, it was glacial, it had hints of pine trees again, but we didn’t mind it at all. 

5) Seedlip Grove 42

700ml, $65 from cookandnelson.com and various other retailers

Score: 6.8/10

It was cucumbers across the board for this fresh drop from Seedlip. Some even thought it smelled and tasted alcoholic, with undertones of bath bomb. “It doesn’t have the complexity of some of the others,” said Neville, now inexplicably wearing a second monocle. “But it’s decent.” 

4) Lyre’s G&T

250ml x 4, $19-$21 from various retailers including Fine O Wine, Freasy and Clear Head Drinks

Score: 7.6/10

“This smells like a good old KGB,” exclaimed Brooks, pausing to sip. “This tastes like a good old KGB!” The nostalgia factor was huge for this entrant, with other panellists likening it to “those Jolly drink tray soda pops from a school disco” and “the lemonade drinks you get on the train in India”. Mathias said she would probably sprinkle chilli on this if she drank it again, whereas Donnell, whose next appointment was now standing next to him tapping her foot, concluded, “I’d just add alcohol to it.” 

3) Lyre’s Highland Malt

700ml, $55 from lyres.co.nz and other retailers

Score: 7.8/10

A stunning Scottish simulation. “If someone served this to me, I’d think it was the real thing,” said Muru-Lanning. “Tastes like a Jack and Coke,” said Brooks. “It’s got actual flavour, not just a chemical taste,” said Sowman-Lund, admitting that he was starting to feel “a little bit sick”. It was serving earthy, it was serving sarsaparilla, and it was even serving multiple servings for one panellist. “You could have quite a bit of this,” praised Mathias. 

2) Seedlip Garden 108

700ml, $65 from cookandnelson.com and various other retailers

Score: 8.3/10

Without knowing that this entrant was literally called “garden”, our panel of geniuses picked up what Seedlip was putting down almost immediately. Reviews included that it “smelt like freshly mown grass” that was equal parts “minty” and “cucumbery”. It was slightly savoury and very refreshing. “I feel like I’m drinking salad and salad dressing, but not in a bad way,” said Mathias. “If this had some herbs and greenery in it I would say ‘bravo’,” said Casey. “I think we all agree we could put leaves in this,” said Donnell, who was now being escorted out by security. 

1) Clean Co Clean G Non-Alcoholic Crisp Dry Botanical Spirit

700ml, $55 from The Chiller

Score: 8.5/10

The judges were frankly wowed by this, commending its complexity, depth and its “nice soap” scent. “I would pay $15 for this at a bar and be happy,” said Casey. “It really feels like a cocktail substitute,” said Brooks. The lemon was strong with this one, with comparisons ranging from lemonade Popsicle to “the seeds of a lemon” to a video on Facebook where local celebrity Colin Mathura-Jeffree shared his recipe for bunging a FruJu in a glass of gin. It tasted fancy, it tasted nice, and it didn’t feel like it was trying too hard. A huge win for this fake gin.


Read more blind taste tests: Zero-alcohol beers (2022) | Zero-alcohol beers (2020) | Low-alcohol beers | Hard seltzers | Fancy RTDs | Canned wines | Vegetarian sausages | Oat milks


 

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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