Alcopops were a crucial part of my adolescence. At the sticky-floored bars and house parties of my teenage years, I was a keen imbiber of Bacardi Breezers, WKDs and VKs. They came in flavours like watermelon, tropical lime and – more cryptically – blue. Each one was trashy, sickly and showed you were out to have fun. Yet by the time I started drinking them, in the late 2000s, the brightly-coloured drinks were distinctly unfashionable. In the 1990s alcopops had rivalled “mad cow” disease as Britain’s public-health enemy number one, accused among other things of being designed to appeal to children. High taxes and public opprobrium caused the alcopops bubble to burst. But there remained a committed hardcore of (often underage) drinkers who knew that you couldn’t really enjoy a night out unless your drink contained at least four E numbers.
As I have grown up, so have Britain’s booze habits. Sophisticated spirits and craft beers are turning a nation of binge drinkers into connoisseurs. There has been a fall in teenage drinking across most of Europe and one of the sharpest rates of decline is in Britain. Many teenagers are choosing to focus on good grades and wholesome extracurricular activities instead of necking WKDs, or each other.
In America, however, one drink appears to have picked up where alcopops left off, albeit with a health-conscious twist. Hard seltzer – carbonated water spiked with alcohol and fruity flavours – has been dubbed 2019’s hottest tipple. Sales of the drinks, with twee names like Truly (#livetruly) and Bon & Viv, fizzed by 169% in 2018, with consumers lured by a low calorie count, bouji flavour combinations (lime lemongrass, clementine hibiscus) and Instagrammable labels. Drinks companies are now trying to push it around the world. Balans, the first British pretender, went on sale earlier this year.
At first, the success of hard seltzer gave me hope. The next generation might be more hard-working, healthy and self-aware than my own, but maybe they won’t all be square. White Claw, a brand that accounts for half of America’s sales of hard seltzer, elicits fierce loyalty from young fans who parrot ironic catchphrases like “ain’t no laws when you’re drinking Claws!” “White Claw bros” who don’t want to get bloated from beer are chugging the cans at frat parties, and in August Four Loko, the makers of a caffeinated alcoholic drink that has been accused of attracting teenage drinkers (much like the vape brand Juul has experienced for its sweet tasting e-cigs), launched the “hardest seltzer in the universe”. Eater, a food and drink website, described Four Loko’s concoction as being “at the corner of wellness and apocalypse”. Alcopops appeared to be back, just with fewer calories than ever before.
I wanted to try some hard seltzer, to see if it could put the fun back into drinking and save Gen Z from going down in history as an irredeemable bunch of dweebs. But if I was going to see what all the fuss was about, I’d have to go to America. In Britain, hard seltzers are yet to take off. Only a handful of brands are available and you’d struggle to find them on sale. Ignoring protests from my editor about sensible use of the magazine’s travel budget, I flew to New York and headed for the closest bar to the The Economist’s Manhattan office.
While my colleagues ordered a round of beers, a slightly bemused server dutifully produced a matte-white can of wild-berry-flavoured Truly. I cracked it open and took a sip, eagerly anticipating the sugary hit of an alcopop followed by the familiar boozy buzz. Instead I got a stale taste of fruit and a mild alcoholic kick. It wasn’t offensive, but that was the problem.
Alcopops of old were brash, offering puckering sweetness and vibrant hues that made them a clear indulgence. This unabashed sense of fun was their downfall: they enticed young people and were very obviously not good for them. Hard seltzer, by contrast, is an apology of a drink. By essentially spiking La Croix, the upmarket sparkling water that aspirational twenty-somethings obsess over, the makers of hard seltzer have cynically exploited the “wellness” trend, positioning their drinks as a salubrious way to get steaming drunk on a sunny afternoon. The result? Every insipid swig reminds you of its apparent worthiness; it’s a fairly efficient way to get drunk but offers little pleasure. Hard seltzer is booze masquerading as something far more dull: water.
Although many drinks-industry bigwigs insist that hard seltzer is here to stay, I suspect that hard seltzers will be a harder sell in Britain. Although we are tipping towards healthier habits, there’s a cynicism and determination at the core of British drinking culture that makes it hard to picture an occassion being toasted without the inclusion of the classics, whether that’s a round of pints, or the popping of (yet another) bottle of prosecco. Hard seltzer probably won’t be demonised in the same way as alcopops, but next summer it might find itself eclipsed by something a bit less virtuous, with more flavour and a sense of fun. Something like a good old-fashioned gin and tonic.