The Next Round: What happens after you change your drinking?

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Part 5 – International Women’s Day 2020. Celebrating awesome women in drinks: Zanna Mercer

Guest edited by Sarah Wildman-King, co-founder of specialist creative agency Wonderworks Communications.

Here’s part 5/8 of our Wonderworks series for International Women’s Day: Celebrating awesome women in drinks – with a new story being published each day this week. Read more about Wonderworks and their inspiration in part 1 here.


Zanna Mercer, Bars Manager at the National Theatre

Pictured: Zanna Mercer

Zanna Mercer is the Bars Manager at the National Theatre, which means both overseeing the National’s flagship craft beer pub, The Understudy, and its three seasonal pop-ups. Being situated on the South Bank, and with a varied clientele, Zanna has the challenge of keeping things as efficient as possible due to volume, with an offering of premium products alongside a casual and friendly, local pub style of service. She champions having a core no & low part to her menus and bringing quality and variety to her non-drinking customers.

How did you get into your role?

I’ve been in the industry coming up to ten years – probably a fairly classic tale of starting out working in a bar as a student and it gradually becoming my career, something I’ve had a bit of guilt around over the years. I think it can feel like a job you haven’t sought out and sometimes that can sometimes make you feel a bit disenfranchised, but I’ve learnt to realise that it’s something I’m good at and have worked very hard at all the same to get to where I am, where I go from here is up to me.

What’s your favourite part about working in the industry?

Another cliche, but probably being surrounded by people and their stories, on both sides of the bar. No two days or interactions are the same and everything we do is about providing a backdrop to a specific moment or occasion for each person that walks through the door. Whether that’s giving someone a comfortable space to work or chill out during the day, somewhere to celebrate or catch up with friends – I think you see it all working in hospitality and you have to be prepared to be flexible and ready for anything, I find that fascinating and rewarding. In terms of our team, a similar ethos applies and has to apply I think. Not everyone is looking to become a career bartender, but if you can support and develop your team as individuals and celebrate their ideas and involvement in operations, I think that comes across in service and the commitment to the venue.

How did you develop your interest in no & low products?

I came across Club Soda a couple of years ago actually as a result of reflecting on my own drinking and an interest in moderation (conversations around drinking in the industry are possibly one for another day…!) I went to their Mindful Drinking Festival and had a bit of a penny drop moment seeing so many people engaged and excited in incredible low and no products. I followed the forum for a while and the conversation again and again from their members was that options actually readily available to people who either wanted to cut down or cut out alcohol were incredibly limited, in both the on and off-trade. It made me look at our offer in a totally different light and realise that this was a huge area we were failing to be as inclusive as we should be, so we set about trying to change that.

Is there anything that frustrates you about the category?

This is a purely personal thing and I wouldn’t say so much a frustration, but I find some of the language around a sort of higher plain or holiness via cutting out booze difficult. I completely respect that everyone should find their own route, if they want to, to cutting down or out alcohol. And for some people, that’s through very active engagement in mindfulness, meditation and discipline. But I do think that media focus on this angle risks alienating people from wanting to try, or feeling like they’ll ever be able to achieve that kind of lifestyle, especially if public perception of what it looks like to moderate or cut out alcohol is grown with predominantly this in mind.

What has been the hardest lesson you’ve learnt since being involved in no and low?

That many of the options available are either not trying to, or will never be, the same as their alcoholic counterparts. 

Throughout my own journey of moderating and simultaneously trying to develop and train in an extensive low and no menu, I’ve had to adapt how I understand and communicate around a lot of products on the market. Sometimes people want an AF beer that tastes like a beer, and there are products that do that really well. But there are plenty of producers that are either still learning and refining their processes to achieve that, and sometimes those differences can actually be quite interesting. Equally, there is a lot of innovation and individuality borne out of not being able to rely on the backbone of alcohol to support and deliver the flavour and body we associate with most alcoholic drinks. Some of those products are some of the most exciting to me, but I think also the ones that are often the slower to take off because people aren’t sure yet how to categorise, understand, sell or consume them.

What trends do you see coming through at the moment?  

I’m a mate (*pronounced mar-tay) convert! I know it’s a big deal in Germany and it looks set to take off in the UK too. I’m also a big fan of shrubs, though I can see the challenges around mass conversion to vinegar-based anything, it’s a bit divisive possibly – people should give them a go though, they’re worth the hype. I think London is further ahead on the kombucha train ahead of either of those two though, the products in this category already span a huge range of flavour profiles and suit different tastes. Lots of people proceed with caution when you tell them it’s fermented tea, but you can usually find one they’re pleasantly surprised by.

And what has come to market that you see as being not around for very long?

The CBD thing is interesting, I’ve heard very mixed thoughts and opinions of its inclusion in drinks from consumers and industry alike. Some people actively seem to seek out the anxiety assuaging benefits or even buy into the cache of it having an almost taboo ingredient, in place of alcohol. Other people definitely give it a bit of an eye roll or just see it as a gimmick I think. The laws around it are also under review so the jury may still be out on the future of this one.

What’s your personal favourite no & low tipple?

For beer – Lucky Saint, spirits – Pentire, Three Spirit Livener or Everleaf, ‘soft’ – Heyday Mate. That’s loads more than one, sorry!

Does being a female in the drinks business create barriers or opportunities?

I think, like most industries, it massively depends – on your environment, the people you surround yourself with and ultimately how you choose to view your own ‘femininity’ or gender. 

I think I’d be lying to say that there isn’t sexism or misogyny in the industry, but there are also moments I think being a woman can give you incredible opportunity on a range of levels. I try to be proud of the fact that I’m a woman and not shy away from any attributes that may be perceived as being down to my gender, and challenge anyone who appears to be using that against me. I think being vocal and confident in yourself as a woman is hard-won but incredibly important and powerful.

What’s your Wonder Woman mantra? Or best piece of advice you have been given?

My gran always told me not to try and imitate other people and not to want to be the second ‘someone else’ when I could be the first me. I definitely used to struggle with that, but now I think it’s pretty cool.

What inspires you?

My family and friends. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by hard-working, practical and positive people, I think that’s very infectious. Also exploring new places and things and being outside as much as possible.

What are your fears and limiting beliefs?

I think I often get ahead of myself with ideas and put an awful lot of pressure on myself to do things perfectly first time around, and then inevitably end up talking myself out of them before I’ve started. I’m learning as I get older that it’s so much more important to try even if you risk failing because it’s impossible to really know how you’ll feel about trying something new just in theory.

Or secret powers?

I think I’m pretty good at being empathetic and trying to understand things from alternative perspectives. That’s helped a lot with my own personal and professional relationships as well as giving me more to refer to whenever I try and understand things about myself.

For a woman coming into the industry would you have any words of advice?

Don’t sit back, and celebrate the things you can offer, both as an individual and as a woman.

And finally, what are your plans for the next couple of years?

I’m about to launch an online site and socials championing low and no products. I wanted to create a platform for information on categories and styles, cover as many brands and products as possible and more broadly contribute to the conversation around moderation and low and no in a way that was positive, inclusive and (hopefully) cool. There’s still a lot of mystery and sometimes eliteness around mindful drinking, and I’m hoping to dispel some of that and help people navigate that part of the market whether they’re in the industry or a sober curious individual. That should keep me going for a while!

Stay tuned for part 6 tomorrow!

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