I love this time of year. The blossom’s out, the birds are singing and I’ve just had my first alfresco breakfast. I’ve got my Glyndebourne tickets, my MCC pass has arrived, and summer’s finally on its way. Hooray! I’ve got a real spring in my step today and for once it’s not alcohol induced.
Indeed, despite the undoubted pleasures of getting happily blotto at a boozy picnic or toasting the lighter evenings, I find that my alcohol consumption tends to dip a bit in early summer. This is partly because I invariably need to shed yet more pounds in order to squeeze into my summer shorts and swimmers, and partly because May is when I am apt to do my bit as the “designated driver”.
I’d hate you to think that this is because I’ve gone soft. Au contraire, it’s all part of a crafty plan. When the festival/barbecue/wedding season really hots up come July and August, you see, I’ll have plenty of credit in the marital bank -“I drove last time, darling, don’t you remember?” – and I’ll be able to relax and knock it back with the best of them. The only problem is finding a decent soft drink. I’ve yet to taste a potable low-alcohol beer, for example. They all seem to taste of soap. It’s the same with low-alcohol wine, with one notable exception – Natureo from Spain’s leading wine-making family, Torres. The first time I tried it, I didn’t even realise it was alcohol-free (well, strictly speaking it’s 0.5%vol), so tasty was it.
Made from Muscat, it’s fresh, zesty and aromatic, quite peachy and, as with all Muscat wines, really grapey. Without the usual warming alcoholic backbone, it’s short on the finish, of course, but otherwise pretty decent. It looks like proper vino, too, and only the eagle-eyed would spot from the label that it was driver-and dieter-friendly (with half the calories of a conventional white).
Of course, apple juice is often the default setting when asking for something non-alcoholic. When I was younger the only ones available were Schloer and, later, that ghastly Appletise. These days, every bar, restaurant, pub, café or supermarket has several different examples on offer. Aspall is my current favourite but Pip organic cloudy apple juice runs it close, as does Copella, whose blended apple and pear I love.
The best juice I have ever had, though, was a couple of years back when I spent a day picking fruit from my in-laws’ four ancient apple trees in Devon. It was a bumper crop, especially once I’d included the windfalls. I piled them into the boot and took them to Rod Marsh at Middle Farm near my home in Brighton where, for a derisory couple of quid per gallon, he pulps and presses his customers’ and chums’ apples. My 120lb of fruit was rapidly turned into 7½ gallons of gorgeous, thirst-slaking, additive-free apple juice. I cleared the freezer and filled it with dozens of Marsh’s two-pint cartons which saw us well into the summer and beyond. It was a huge success. Homemade soft drinks are always best and I’m also particularly proud of my lemonade. I squeeze two lemons into a pint glass, top it up with Badoit, add a couple of spoons of sugar, some ice and mint. Et voilà!
Of course, making this in greater quantities can be a bit of a chore, in which case I opt for Belvoir Fruit Farms’ organic lemonade or Luscombe’s organic raspberry lemonade. Both are delicious and refreshing and about as natural as you can get. Oh, and Luscombe’s hot ginger beer is a belter too.
As for cordials, Pixley Berries makes the finest. Its blackcurrant and raspberry is simply made from fruit juice, sugar and water. Wonderfully refreshing when mixed with Badoit as a long drink, it’s also lip-smackingly fine when sloshed over vanilla ice-cream. I also always find room in my fridge for Big Tom Spiced Tomato Juice. It’s full-on, spicy and needs no doctoring at all as a Virgin Mary. Of course, it’s better as the base of a Bloody Mary, in which case simply
add vodka, amontillado sherry, fresh lemon and orange.
And, sadly, this is the point. For all my smugness about taking it easy on the alcohol in May, the truth is that almost all soft drinks taste better with a dash of alcohol. Add some gin to Luscombe’s raspberry lemonade, for example, and you have a thing of great beauty, a sort of Raspberry Collins.
Or add some Aspall apple juice to some Adnam’s gin (just on the market and utterly delicious), as I did accidentally the other day, and you have an exceptional cocktail, which I’ve termed the Aspall ‘n’ Adnam’s or Suffolk Punch. Serve in a tumbler with a slice of lemon, sprig of mint and lots of ice and thank your stars that you’re not tonight’s designated driver.

Six of the best soft drinks