Shaken, not slurred.

Picture the scene: central London on a beautiful, sunny day. A lunchtime crowd is gathered outside a pub, laughing, drinking… glasses of beer, fizz, G&T and wine in hand. So far so normal. But look a little closer and you’ll see this is no ordinary pub. This is, in fact, the UK’s first no and low alcohol pub – and it’s run by none other than Sainsbury’s. It’s the latest in a succession of zeitgeist-tapping experiential initiatives from the supermarket. But will it drive us all to a more sober future, buying cans of alcohol free beer, wine and spirits from its shelves? We went along for some wasabi peas and a (NoLo) drink to find out…

For two days this month, Sainsbury’s has taken over a real central London boozer and turned it into a no and low alcohol pub, with the rather ingenious name, ‘The Clean Vic’. It’s a canny move from the retailer; at a time when 65% of UK alcohol consumers aged 25 to 34 are reportedly “trying or have tried to cut back on their alcohol intake” and 1 in 3 16-24 year olds choosing not to drink alcohol at all, it’s clearly aiming to tap into the growing trend of near or full sobriety, driven mainly by Gen Z and Millennials.

It’s a ticketed event, with a fiver getting us a dedicated hour time slot, two drinks (with max 0.5 ABV) and two snacks. Not bad. Outside, the original pub fascia has been completely replaced with ‘The Clean Vic’, and the Sainsbury’s logo subtly placed underneath, while A-frames and window vinyls tell us that the pub is ‘proudly serving no and low alcohol’. Inside the place is pretty packed. A pub vibe. The usual chatter. A bit of background music. The usual wait at the bar. But all the pumps in front of us have been replaced with NoLo beers, and the shelves are stacked not with familiar brands of spirits, but fancy bottles of gin alternatives like Seedlip and Ceder’s and the UK’s first ‘whisky alternative’ Celtic Soul (a little wishywashy on first taste but with a pleasant kick after a few seconds, if you’re wondering).

All in all, there are over 20 different drinks available, including a Live Sparkling Kombucha (another Millennial favourite) – many turned into a dazzling array of mocktails by the pub’s own mixologists, wearing aprons coloured in the familiar Sainsbury’s orange. If it’s wine you’re after – you’ll find seven, from ‘Nosecco’ to Low Alcohol Sauv Blanc. Surprisingly though, only six of the drinks (all wines) are Sainsbury’s own brand. Is this whole event a testbed, we wonder, for the development of a Sainsbury’s own-brand range of NoLo spirits? If so, it’ll be a first.

Branding is kept to a minimum, and on the one hand that feels right. This experience, seems to be as much an experiment into how it feels to be in a familiar environment where there is no alcohol whatsoever, as much as it is to try the drinks themselves. And you know what, it feels good. There’s a happy vibe in the place with a kind of knowing little wink. We’re here drinking, but not drinking, and we’re not going to suffer the consequences as a result.
 It’s a sentiment echoed by the bartender, who tells us the place has been popular with local business people who want a lunchtime drink but don’t want to go back to the office with a fuzzy head. Fun 1. Hangover 0.

Elsewhere, there’s a subtle nod to the brand’s heritage, with all the hanging pictures in the pub replaced with nostalgic images of Sainsbury’s over the years; cleverly pulling the brand awareness lever in a way that feels native to a pub environment. It’s a gentle reminder that we’re in the supermarket’s space, and it’s a supermarket that knows its stuff.

So, has it worked? Will we be flocking to our local Sainsbury’s to stock up? We can’t help thinking Sainsbury’s has missed a trick not to feature more of its own brand products, and the branding could be a little more overt in places, but having tried in vain to find a low alcohol prosecco that doesn’t taste like slightly flat sour grape juice, we have been convinced there are good alternatives out there. And we’ll probably recall we tried them at that pop-up pub from Sainsbury’s one sweltering afternoon in July.

So having now given us a meat-free butchers and an alcohol free-pub, what other experiential tricks might Sainsbury’s have up its sleeve? Maybe a gluten-free bakers? Perhaps a dairy-free milkshake bar? Or what about an insect café? Hmm, now that’s a sobering thought.

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