Is this Melbourne's coolest new bar?
The surprising drink trend taking over Melbourne bars
NOgronis and virgin mojitos: welcome to the era of alcohol-free drinking.
Abstainers unite. The tide of Australian drinking culture is turning, and non-drinkers are no longer left high and dry.
Prodded along by the growing popularity of abstemious months such as FebFast, Dry July and Ocsober, alcohol’s starring role in the typical Australian’s social life is on the decline. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported last year that the nation’s drinking was at a 50-year low, and Roy Morgan research released in March, found that between 2013 and 2018 the number of people drinking at least once a month dropped from 70.1 per cent to 67.9 per cent.
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It’s not an outright victory for the temperance union, but certainly more Australians are drinking less – and a growing tribe of bartenders and sommeliers are responding.
Restaurants such as Fitzroy’s upscale Cutler & Co – a finalist for Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine’s new award for the best non-alcoholic drinks list –has devised carefully nuanced booze-free pairing menus harnessing the power of ingredients such as teas and plant extracts, along with the same skill-set required to stand out in the competitive bartending world. The boring go-to of lemon, lime and bitters is out. In its place are complex, thoughtfully considered drinks with all the theatrical sophistication of a ‘real’ cocktail or the complexity of wine but none of the hangover.
Cutler & Co sommelier Liam O’Brien had his interest in the no-booze road super-charged by his wife’s first pregnancy. “It became clear that mineral water ceases to be an interesting beverage after the first month or two,” he says. “I get a real kick out of offering guests the opportunity to have a paired drink with their entree and main. Instead of the usual mineral water, orange juice or soft drink, all of a sudden they are included and involved in the meal in ways that perhaps they hadn’t expected to be.”
Talk to any bartender interested in catering to the sober and the ‘sober curious’ and you’ll discover a host of techniques that can help balance each drink while bringing the weight and interest of its alcoholic counterpart. Flavour carriers such as acid, salt and sugar help create body, while ingredients like tea can be used to give structure.
Liam has sought inspiration from the way chefs add different types of acidity to dishes and sources ingredients from Indian grocers, Asian supermarkets and Middle Eastern spice shops: “We have played with Persian dried limes, tamarind, pomegranate molasses, dried gooseberries and salted plums.”
No-booze is getting its groove on overseas as well. Completely alcohol-free bars have been popping up in London and New York, pleasing abstainers while raising debate about the meaning of the word ‘bar’.
Dinner by Heston, another hero of the neo-temperance movement, uses a rotary evaporator to make a range of hydrosols (distillates made from water that give a fresh and intense aroma) and reductions (which intensify infusions and flavours by distilling away unwanted volatiles and water).
Along with that arsenal, a growing number of alcohol-free spirits – including the popular analog gin Seedlip – also allows them to employ traditional cocktail-making techniques in making non-alcoholic drinks, says George Cook, Dinner by Heston’s assistant restaurant manager of beverage.
It’s all part of the democratisation of interesting drinking: “Since we recently made the transition to a multi-course degustation, ramping up our non-alcoholic selection was an absolute necessity. Inclusivity is so important.”
Dining at Dinner, you might find a bunya nut fizz, made with a concoction of bunya nut sweet syrup, lemon juice and soda water, paired with the hay-smoked kingfish, or a faux-brandy of dried apricots cooked with verjuice and dry essence paired with the pineapple-based tipsy cake dessert.
Seeplid, a non-alcoholic distilled spirit, is being used as the base for many virgin cocktails in Melbourne.
Carbonation plays a big part – “It’s a great way to add texture and life to a non-alcoholic cocktail” – while tea is used extensively. “We have a ripe puerh tea that brings a rich savoury and earthy note to our powdered duck breast dish.”
No-booze is getting its groove on overseas as well. Completely alcohol-free bars have been popping up in London and New York, pleasing abstainers while raising debate about the meaning of the word ‘bar’. Sarah Jones, bartender at Melbourne CBD’s Boilermaker House, doesn’t think Australia is ready to support such a radical proposition – “I’m not sure there is enough demand for something like this yet” – but is professionally more attuned to the growing tribe of non-drinkers.
“I’m a sucker for a pina colada and thankfully it’s a drink that’s just as delicious with or without rum in it,” she says.
The bottom line is, it’s not necessary to pick sides. The maturing attitude towards alcohol means drinking is no longer an all-or-nothing proposition. For Cutler & Co’s Liam O’Brien, it’s about drinking as a choice rather than a habit – and choosing the good stuff when you do have a glass.
“Some guests will also opt to enjoy the non-alcoholic pairing with our chef’s menu but then insert a premium glass of wine when they reach their main course,” he says. “It’s appealing for anyone wanting to experience a tasting menu without consuming multiple glasses of wine.”