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The legality of the sale of non- or low alcohol drinks in the UK seems to be poorly understood. The references I have read are forum/discussion posts which are so often contradictory, and blog-type posts from industry types, that sound convincing but have no referencing.

I want to know when a drink becomes ‘alcohol’, and so becomes restricted by licensing and age restrictions.

It’s easy to see when alcohol is restricted, from government pages like https://www.gov.uk/alcohol-young-people-law but such guidance doesn’t define ‘alcohol’ up front. Meanwhile I have read the low alcohol descriptors guidance (though these have changed slightly since the majority of the blog-style pages were written.)

It is almost implied in that guidance that alcohol free (0.05%) and de-alcoholised (0.5%) drinks would be not considered alcohol and so would not be restricted in law, but I haven’t seen this written explicitly. Possibly this is why there is mixed understanding of the issue.

So my question becomes, at what level of alcohol does a drink become “alcohol” for the purpose of licensing/restricting its sale?

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When is a drink classed as alcohol in the UK?

In alcohol, which requires a license to sell etc, is defined by s.191 of the Licensing Act 2003:

191 Meaning of “alcohol"

(1) In this Act, “alcohol” means spirits, wine, beer, cider or any other fermented, distilled or spirituous liquor (in any state), but does not include—

(a) alcohol which is of a strength not exceeding 0.5% at the time of the sale or supply in question,

(b) perfume,

(c) flavouring essences recognised by the Commissioners of Customs and Excise as not being intended for consumption as or with dutiable alcoholic liquor,

(d) the aromatic flavouring essence commonly known as Angostura bitters,

(e) alcohol which is, or is included in, a medicinal product or a veterinary medicinal product,

(f) denatured alcohol,

(g) methyl alcohol, (h) naphtha, or

(i) alcohol contained in liqueur confectionery.

...

In , s.2 of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 mirrors the 2003 Act:

(1) In this Act, “alcohol”—

(a) means spirits, wine, beer, cider or any other fermented, distilled or spirituous liquor, but

(b) does not include—

(i) alcohol which is of a strength of 0.5% or less at the time of its sale

...

In , Art.2 of the Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order 1996* states:

“intoxicating liquor” means spirits, wine, beer, cider and any other fermented, distilled or spirituous liquor, but does not include—

(e) any liquor which is of a strength not exceeding 0.5 per cent at the time of the sale or other conduct in question

...

Therefore, alcohol free (0.05%) and de-alcoholised (0.5%) drinks are not considered alcohol for licencing, sale etc and so are not restricted in law across the United Kingdom.

(*The Order is secondary legislation made under the Licensing Act (Northern Ireland) 2016)

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  • Interesting, buried in the act a bit but quite clear thanks. What about Scotland and NI?
    – Swifty
    Jun 4 at 16:55
  • no worries, and for practical purposes the same limit - good to have completeness though. Thanks it's quite clear now
    – Swifty
    Jun 4 at 20:56
  • Interesting. So the English bartender I met in Australia was wrong. He found the fact that lemon, lime & bitters is often served in pubs to children odd because it was alcoholic but by UK law definition, it isn’t because the alcohol content “at the time of sale” would be less than 0.5%.
    – Dale M
    Jun 4 at 22:30
  • @Dale M, are you (or the bartender) aware there are different age limits on the sale of (some) alcohol when served with a meal?
    – Darren
    Jun 5 at 1:51
  • 2
    @DaleM he was doubly wrong because Angostura Bitters itself (which is what is commonly used to flavour lemon, lime and bitters) is explicitly excluded too.
    – abligh
    Jun 5 at 5:21

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