How zero-alcohol drinks went from niche to mainstream

Zero alcohol allows individuals to enjoy social occasions without feeling pressured to drink alcohol. Picture: Rirri /Unsplash

Zero alcohol allows individuals to enjoy social occasions without feeling pressured to drink alcohol. Picture: Rirri /Unsplash

Published Mar 22, 2024


The rise of zero-alcohol drinks from niche to mainstream can be attributed to several factors. One reason is the increasing awareness of the negative health effects of alcohol consumption, leading many people to seek alternatives.

There is a growing trend towards wellness and mindful drinking, with more individuals choosing to moderate their alcohol intake or abstain.

The benefits of this new trend include providing more options for those who do not consume alcohol, whether for health, religious, or personal reasons. It also allows individuals to enjoy social occasions without feeling pressured to drink alcohol.

Zero-alcohol drinks offer a wide variety of flavours and ingredients, appealing to a broader audience and providing an alternative to traditional alcoholic beverages.

In the not-so-distant past, if you were out at a bar, restaurant, or party and didn’t want an alcoholic drink, your options were pretty limited.

You could ask for a simple lime and tonic, have a soft drink in a glass, or hope that the place you were at had a non-alcoholic cocktail that wasn’t too sweet and loaded with calories.

But things have changed! There’s been a bit of a revolution in the world of non-alcoholic and low-alcohol (NoLo) drinks.

Now, you can stroll down the aisles of most supermarkets and find a variety of non-alcoholic beers, wines, and spirits.

These drinks, with more sophisticated mocktails, are easy to find at restaurants, bars, hotels, and events.

These drinks, along with more sophisticated mocktails, are easy to find at restaurants, bars, hotels, and events. Picture: Food Photographer | Jennifer Pallian/Unsplash

This increase in availability is also showing up in the industry's earnings. According to IWSR, a trusted source of data and insight on the global beverage alcohol market, the value of the no/low alcohol category surpassed US$11 billion in 2022, up from US$8n in 2018.

It’s expected that by 2026, the value of the no/low-alcohol category across 10 markets will grow by more than a third, mainly driven by alcohol-free products, and is projected to exceed US$624bn by 2031. It’s no surprise that major alcohol brands are getting in on the action.

Even though the no-alcohol sector in South Africa is quite new, there’s a growing demand.

According to a 2021 study, South Africa was expected to see annual sales growth of 16% or more leading up to 2024. This put it on a higher growth path than many wealthy countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, and Japan.

But what’s driving this growth? And how did zero-alcohol drinks capture the mainstream imagination?

A growing awareness of health and wellness

It seems that part of the reason for the surge in non-alcoholic drinks on South African shelves can be traced back to the Covid-19 pandemic. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, South Africa put in place one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, which included a ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages.

At the same time, the pandemic made a lot of people think more about their mental and physical health. In the US, for example, NielsenIQ research discovered that 41% of drinkers are choosing no and low-alcohol drinks because of health and wellness reasons.

Young adults in their late teens and early 20s, who are usually more willing to take risks than older folks, are getting on board with this trend.

According to research from NCS Solutions, 36% of US Gen Zs are choosing to go alcohol-free for their mental health. Similar patterns are showing up in the UK, where a 2023 study found that 38% of Gen Zs hadn’t had a drink in the past year.

Ayanda Mvandaba, CEO of Drink Nil, an e-commerce retailer specialising in non-alcoholic drinks, says: “There’s no doubt that people are becoming more conscious of their physical and mental well-being and the impact that alcohol has on them.

“Young people, in particular, are growing up in a world where this kind of well-being is being celebrated. They’ve also grown up on social media, where wellness influencers have millions of followers.”

Greater choice and availability

In the UK, for example, 25% of drinkers say that having more options available has led them to consume more low and no-alcohol drinks. However, there are still some challenges, with 17% of people saying that there isn’t enough choice in non-alcoholic drinks.

And even when there are options, finding them in stores can be tough, as anyone who has searched for their favourite non-alcoholic beer, wine, or spirit in their local supermarket can attest.

These frustrations were what prompted Mvandaba to take over Drink Nil and expand its offerings.

“When I was pregnant, I was frustrated by the limited availability of non-alcoholic drinks in most stores and restaurants. What made it even more frustrating was knowing that there were fantastic non-alcoholic brands out there.

“So when I discovered Drink Nil, I was thrilled that it brought many of those brands together in one convenient online location,” Mvandaba says.

You don’t have to quit drinking

Mvandaba’s experience also sheds light on the growth of the low and no-alcohol market: you don’t have to completely give up drinking to be part of the NoLo movement.

Whether you’re pregnant, serving as a designated driver, or not in the mood for alcohol, non-alcoholic drinks mean you never have to feel left out at social gatherings.

“Just because you choose a non-alcoholic gin or beer doesn't mean the party’s over. It’s just a different experience.”

This mixed approach is supported by the numbers as well. According to NielsenIQ research, 82% of non-alcoholic drink buyers also purchase alcoholic beer, wine, or spirits.

On a global scale, only 17% of drinkers completely abstain from alcohol.

“We call this group of consumers ‘blenders’ – they consume alcohol but also choose to have no or low alcohol drinks at certain times. Ultimately, it’s about having options,” Mvandaba says.

“You can choose to completely avoid alcohol or only have it when necessary or desired. Whatever your choice, you should have access to the same flavours, packaging, and experience (minus the intoxication) that you get with alcoholic drinks.”