In January of this year, Müller launched its newest yoghurts as part of the ‘Light’ range: gin & tonic and pink gin & elderflower. Despite being practically alcohol-free (pots containing less than 0.5%), the product launch became, momentarily, a focal point for the debate about the normalisation of alcohol consumption. While Müller says it knows "from feedback from our consumers [that] they are enjoying it", the move was criticised by Dr Nigel Wells as "unnecessary and counterproductive to public health", especially given it was Dry January.
Müller is hardly the first brand to pair food with booze – if anything, it’s just an extreme example of what we’ve been buying for years.
There is a long history of alcohol being used in food where its inclusion is integral to the flavour, experience and cooking process of a dish. Think the wine in coq au vin or the marsala in tiramisu. But the Müller yoghurts are of a different ilk, part of a parade of snack foods that are jumping on popular drink trends. Gin, prosecco, rosé and beer as well as a range of cocktail flavours have been added to gummies, crisps, ice creams, chocolate, popcorn, marmalades and, now, yoghurts. Some of these foods contain up to 5% alcohol, others so little as to be considered alcohol-free, but all proudly signpost their boozy flavour profile. Many of them are genuinely delicious but for every perfect gin-infused experience there is another that falls flat. Which begs the question: when has the trend gone too far?
It was the 20th century that saw the proliferation of novelty alcoholic items. In 2008, the European Centre for Monitoring Alcohol Marketing (EUCAM) looked into the phenomenon, citing a whisky-flavoured toothpaste (no!) from 1954 as an early example. They looked at both non-branded (wine sorbet) and branded (Jack Daniel’s chocolates) iterations, and pointed to a growing trend for novelty combinations (like champagne-flavoured Marmite, which now goes for up to £20 on eBay). Since then, the market has only grown bigger.
According to Kantar, the data, insights and consulting company, there’s been a 53.5% increase in beer-flavoured and a 106% increase in sparkling wine-flavoured crisps and snacks since January 2016. This is echoed in the sale of gin sweets, which has grown by 3% since January 2019 and 972% since 2017 (though it’s worth pointing out this comes from a fairly small base figure). Prosecco, however, seems to have hit its peak back in 2018 with sales having fallen by 67% since 2019.
It seems that where drinks trends lead, food will follow. While there was no mention of gin or prosecco in the 2008 EUCAM report, the seemingly unstoppable rise of mother’s ruin has provided more snack manufacturers the chance to jump on the bandwagon. Similarly, while prosecco sales are declining for the first time since the ‘prosecco boom’ in 2014, it is an alcohol that continues to draw in consumers.
When thought of as a treat, it's for no one to condemn or criticise. But that positioning doesn't account for the larger trend of how we talk about and consume alcohol more generally.
Given the history of alcohol-flavoured food, and the popularity of key drinks in the UK market, it’s hardly surprising that both independent and big brand snack manufacturers are keying into the demand. The pairing is still novel and therefore intriguing. This is definitely part of the motivation for Smith & Sinclair, an alcoholic candy company whose mission, according to its website, is to "make Adult More Fun" with its "candy for grown-ups". Emile Bernard, one of the cofounders, tells me that making cocktails into food form allows you to layer the flavours, which is harder to do with liquids. "That means that with our Alcoholic Cocktail Gummies, the more you chew the more you taste, so we can take people on a flavour journey as they pick out the individual herbs, spirits and fruits used to make them." There is some food science to back this up: just as wine is used to deglaze a pan, spirits can be used to enhance dishes "because alcohol bonds with both fat and water molecules, which allows it to carry aromas and flavour."
When done well, it’s hard to deny the appeal of the flavour combinations. But we need to look beyond the product itself to the message that it carries. The majority of gin, prosecco, cocktail or beer-flavoured snacks seem to fall into two camps: trying to imbue the everyday with luxury (like a packet of crisps flavoured with prosecco and dusted in edible gold stars) or taking something that was a childish treat and making it, as Smith & Sinclair says, more grown-up. Beyond the flavour novelty, the draw to new, relatively cheap snacks is hardly surprising given the state of stress and anxiety in which so many of us live. When wages are stagnating while house prices rise, why wouldn’t we want to find small, cheaper ways to bring ourselves some luxury? Or end a stressful work week with something playful that also gets us, or reminds us of getting, tipsy? When thought of as just that – a treat, a fun flavour that you already enjoy brought into a new experience – it’s for no one to condemn or criticise. But that positioning doesn’t account for the larger trend of how we talk about and consume alcohol more generally.
Millie Gooch, the writer and founder behind Sober Girls Society, tells me that she thinks the fact these products normalise alcohol is a fundamental problem. "Alcohol is a drug and one that kills more people than heroin and more than all the other drugs combined." She continues: "We have this blind spot when it comes to alcohol because it comes in lovely packaging and everyone drinks it, we just see it as normal." She’s not suggesting that we ban Guinness-flavoured crisps, which feels like hyperbolic temperance behaviour, but that measures are put in place to remind us to be more thoughtful. "I do think that there should be more regulations around where these products are stocked and that they should have warning labels on them." She notes the irony that we have hidden cigarettes in unmarked packages with horrible pictures and behind guarded shutters, "yet alcohol has heavy links to seven different types of cancer and we’re adding it to ice creams like it’s some kind of superfood."
"I don’t have a problem with people buying them in the same way that I don’t have a problem with someone smoking but I don’t think they should be advertised on Facebook and sold in your local supermarket as cute additions to a girls' night in."
Then there’s the question of how often these combinations taste good. When we tried the Smith & Sinclair cocktail jellies in the office, reviews ranged from delight ("I’m into the jellies! 7% vol and you can TELL. I feel lightheaded, like I’ve had a shot.") to indifference ("I can imagine me putting away quite a few watching a film, but I would not eat when I wanted actual sweets") to disgust ("No no no. Oddly herbal. Medicine maybe?"). On the other end, the Lidl 'Just Gin' white chocolate and 'Prosecco and Raspberry' milk chocolate Easter eggs barely get a look in: the resounding opinion is that neither tastes like its supposed alcohol. As for the Smith & Sinclair Gin Dipper, one reviewer said: "This gin-flavoured gel in actual fact tasted of a really sour version of Calpol. It was very bitter and slimy. Look, I get it. It is very novelty but if you're a real gin lover, I'd stick to the bottle."
Ultimately, it’s hard to argue whether booze-flavoured and -infused snacks are a net positive or negative. At any rate, they’re definitely not going away. But our snack food shouldn’t be given a pass just because some people like the flavour. It’s not a matter of 'all these products are bad' or that they shouldn’t exist, but that the way we consume alcohol on a wider scale should be questioned. Especially if it’s in a yoghurt that "tastes like kitchen cleaner".