Dry January may be over but that doesn’t mean that Irish people are out on the tiles. Even though we have a reputation for being heavy drinkers, we are increasingly health conscious and as a result, we are consuming less alcohol. One in five of us doesn’t drink any at all.

Once upon a time, teetotallers had very little choice when ordering a drink in a bar. Sugary soft drinks, sparkling water and tea or coffee were their only options.

The market is now beginning to offer different alternatives. Two people who are to the forefront of this change are husband and wife team Andrew and Tracy Oates. They have created Silk Tree, Ireland’s first non-alcoholic spirit.

Andrew and Tracy were long-time gin and tonic drinkers. “Drinking gin seemed so much more sophisticated than pints of beer,” said Andrew. “We really liked the taste and loved to experiment with the craft gins that were coming to market.”

However, their drinking had a negative side. “We’d wake up in a heap after a big night out,” says Andrew. “The turning point came when we woke up in a state one morning and had to do the football run with the kids and then attend a communion party. We gave ourselves a good scolding and decided we would cut out the booze for a while.”

They were unimpressed with the alcohol-free alternatives on offer and couldn’t find any good alternatives to gin.

As members of www.oneyearnobeer.com, an online group of people who are cutting back on alcohol consumption, they realised there were plenty of other people like them.

“We could see the potential for a worthy alcohol-free alternative to act as a treat to replace that Thirsty Thursday habit,” said Andrew. “That’s why we decided to try making our own.”

Having researched how gin was distilled, they bought their own still and tried to mimic the distilling process without using alcohol.

“It was fun,” said Andrew. “We always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes, so the process was an extension of that. We tried different botanicals, eliminating flavours we didn’t like and mixing those that we did. We tried it out on family and friends and got lots of great advice from herbalists and botanists.”

After months of experimentation, they came up with a drink that consists of juniper seeds, cinnamon, coriander seeds and lemon verbena. Distilled in traditional fashion in a copper still, it contains no sugars, preservatives or artificial ingredients.

The process results in a smooth, full-bodied drink that warms as it goes down, leaving a refreshing citrus aftertaste in its wake. It works well neat, with tonic, or mixed into cocktails such as a hot Toddy or a margarita.

Silk Tree is now distilled in small batches in Old Carrick Mill in Co. Monaghan. It is currently stocked in some SuperValu supermarkets, off licences and bars and restaurants nationwide. You can find the full range of stockists at www.silktreebotanics.com/stockists.

Andrew and Tracy are delighted with the response to date. “We launched at a gin festival last summer and that was the first time we came face to face with what we call our ‘moderate millennial consumer’,” he said. “They absolutely loved it and that’s when we knew we were on to something.”

They have even won over seasoned G&T drinkers. “They’re what we call the ‘sceptical consumer’ and it always gives me great pleasure when they come back for second helpings,” said Andrew.

They have had a positive response from the food industry too. “Being named as the best-tasting alcohol-free drink in the botanical category was really encouraging,” said Andrew.

He and Tracy have been so encouraged by the response that they are currently working on new flavours to extend the product range and give people even more of a choice.

“Concerns about health and wellness, tighter dietary regulations and zero tolerance are fuelling healthier and more moderate drinking habits,” said Andrew. “Quality non-alcoholic drinks pull wellness and indulgence together into one intoxicating mix. Non-alcoholic drink producers like ourselves are taking taste and visual cues from the alcohol industry and offering the same level of sophisticated indulgence to non-drinkers. This is a growing market and only in its infancy.”

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