Profile series: Innovators in the low/no alcohol industry

My Drynuary: ‘The no/low space shares many principles with its alcoholic counterpart: It’s fundamentally about bringing people together, allowing them to share moments and have a good time’

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

What does the alcohol-free wine category need to do to have the same success as the alcohol-free beer category? Pic: Wednesday's Domaine
What does the alcohol-free wine category need to do to have the same success as the alcohol-free beer category? Pic: Wednesday's Domaine

Related tags My Drynuary alcohol-free Dry January NABLAB non-alcoholic

UK alcohol-free wine Wednesday’s Domaine is on a mission to become the midweek wine alternative of choice for food and drink lovers. In our series profiling innovators in the low/no alcohol industry, founder Luke Hemsley tells us why alcohol-free wine is more than a glorified grape juice… and how he’s getting that message across to consumers.

Introduce us to Wednesday’s Domaine

I began work on the business during COVID, with the idea for a great tasting, beautifully branded alcohol free wine first coming about in late 2020.

We brought the brand to market in July 2022, launching two still wines across several channels.

Our point of difference is that we begin where most others finish: rather than use de-alcoholised wine as the finished product, we use it as a base on which to build, combining the wines with natural ingredients and flavours to the benefit of the liquids taste, aromas and texture.

What do your wines taste like?

First and foremost, we’re looking to replicate the experience of drinking wine. To create liquids that have the same body, aromas, mouthfeel, etc that you associate with wine.

From there, we have worked to create liquids that are associated with certain styles or varietals, whilst acknowledging the constraints that exist in the absence of alcohol.

Our red wine, Sanguine, is made with a Tempranillo base yet drinks like a lighter red. It’s fruit forward, with lots of red fruits and dark fruits on the palate that give way to a soft tannic finish.

Our white wine, Piquant, is made with an Airen base and frequently described as very “fresh” when people first taste it. It has a lovely balance of citrus fruit and green apples, with more savoury, toasted notes on the finish.

Your production technique takes dealcoholized wines from the La Mancha region of Spain and combines them with natural flavors. How easy was it to create a product you were happy with?

It was extremely hard and took close to a year of development work to be happy with the products that we brought to market.

Ultimately, we think there are a number of key elements that go into creating a brilliant alcohol free wine - the base wine, the de-alcoholisation technology and the choice of additions you choose to make.

At the minute, the addition of those natural flavours serves to create the complexity that you associate with wines (in contrast to something like a soft drink), but we’re working across all three elements to continue developing and evolving our wines, seeking to simplify our formulations and to let the wines sing with minimal intervention.

Some people would say non-alcoholic wine is just a glorified grape juice. What do you say to that?

luke wednesdays domaine
Luke Hemsley

This is a common refrain and one that I think comes from a lack of familiarity with the space and legacy products that typically have been overly sweet or cloying.

That lack of familiarity is completely understandable and historically alcohol free wines have been loaded up with sugar to create mouthfeel and impart flavour in the absence of alcohol. 

Part of our role as one of the newer wave of producers and as an industry is to educate drinkers on how our wines are produced and why they’re so much more than typical perceptions of them.

Sharing the fact that our wines actually go through a three step process - becoming a full strength wine, de-alcoholisation, blending with other elements - helps to dispel this, but ultimately, it comes down to taste and being able to prove to our customers that you can have a product with all the complexity of a full strength wine, yet without the alcohol.

Where can we find your products?

We operate across several different channels (off-trade, on-trade and D2C), working on the basis that we want our wines to pop up where our target audience expects to find them.

Initially this meant independent wine shops, delis and local restaurants, whereby we could benefit from the passion of those operators in building interest around our products.

We’re now working with several on-trade groups, namely The Pig Hotels, as part of their commitment to bolster their range of great No&Low options for their guests.

We’re currently only UK-based, but in conversations with several importers in different regions that would allow us to test export markets in a very controlled and structured way (famous last words).

Your wine is stocked in Michelin star restaurants, which is pretty impressive. How did those partnerships come about?

Largely through knocking on doors and not being afraid to ask the question. A number of these restaurants have brilliantly forward-thinking sommeliers and bar managers who are constantly on the lookout for products to pair with their food menus. 

'I'd like to give a shout-out to the fantastic distributors we work with'

Throw in the fact that a number of these places offer their guests multi-course tasting menus, including drinks pairings, and you have a heightened need for quality alcohol free options that can stand proudly alongside the food they’re producing.

Hospitality is also a relatively small world, where one partnership can often lead quickly to another through introductions.

This is also a chance to shout out the handful of fantastic distributors that we work with, who often have these relationships and are able to make qualified recommendations on alcohol free options to their clients. You know who you are, so thank you!

What does your job involve?

Depends on which day you ask me! The greatest joy and the biggest challenge of my role, and I think this is true of many founders, is its sheer variety.

I’m often moving between sales conversations, into production discussions, before discussing our digital marketing or fulfilment costs.

That said, I’m constantly working hard to strip things back and just focus on what is central to growing the business. At this point in time, that’s product, distribution, brand and fundraising.

There’s still a lot in there and those are four quite broad churches, but if something doesn’t sit within those areas, it’s going to the bottom of the pile quite often.

What does January look like for Wednesday’s Domaine?

It’s a massively busy time for us given the enormous increase in interest in No&Low products that comes with Dry January, with an uptick in sales and interest in sampling our wines.

That said, it’s encouraging to see demand flatten out across the year, which we’re taking as a sign of No&Low products moving into the mainstream and becoming a regular part of drinkers’ lives.

We’re also an early-stage, growing business, so whilst January is certainly busy, everything is always quite busy, new and exciting as we work out how to navigate the next phase of our evolution.

And what should we look out for from your company in the rest of 2024?

Growing our range is a big one. Watch this space, but we’re planning to bring several new products to market in the first half of 2024, allowing us to reach new consumers, target new drinking occasions and continue growing awareness of the broader No&Low space.

We’re also interested in further developing our brand and the way our products fit into our customers’ lives. By and large, our customers love their food and drink (alcoholic or not), so thinking more about how we can become a part of that presents some interesting creative challenges we’re looking forward to tackling.

The non-alcoholic wine category has been slower to take off than the non-alcoholic beer category. Why is this – and what does the industry need to do boost its prospects?

Two primary reasons, to my mind - creating a delicious alcohol free wine is a more difficult technical problem and the wine industry has historically been less forward-thinking or innovative than say beers or spirits.

As more producers come into the space, and dedicated alcohol free ones at that, we’re spending more time exploring different varietals that are best suited to de-alcoholisation and working closely with the technology providers to understand how the wines change through de-alcoholisation. 

This influx of independents is also awakening the larger players to the opportunity, creating a virtuous cycle of investment in both technology and advertising. In much the same way that independents like Lucky Saint [alcohol-free beer] stand to benefit from the likes of Heineken and Peroni sponsoring international sporting events, we’ll benefit from international wine brands extending their No&Low ranges and shining a light on the space.

This all assumes that the quality of those offerings continues to grow, but I feel this is now a one-way path as interest and investment in the space continues to grow.

What inspires you as you continue to carve out your place in this category?

The No&Low space shares a number of the same principles as its alcoholic counterpart. It’s fundamentally about bringing people together, allowing them to share moments and have a good time.

Being part of that and thinking about “hospitality” in its broadest sense - whether out and about or at home - is what motivates me as a founder and us as a business.

I also believe that we’re living through a generational shift in our drinking habits - you never meet anyone who is looking to drink more! - and we’re excited to be at the forefront of that.

We’ve never once said that people shouldn’t drink alcohol - we simply believe in giving people better options at certain moments - and given that we’re right at the start of that journey, I’m excited to think about all of the different ways we can bring that sentiment to life.

ISH-morten-2

Fellow alcohol-free wine innovator ISH Spirits also produces alcohol-free spirits and canned cocktails.

Find out how the Danish company - led by Morten Sørensen - uses the hulls of chili seeds to replicate that 'kick'​ for a drinking experience as close as possible to a traditional alcoholic beverage.

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