Not long ago, avoiding alcohol meant soberly befriending the water jug while friends enjoyed flights of wine or elaborate cocktails. Today, you don't need booze to drink well at a great restaurant.
The rise of juice pairings and non-alcoholic matches means that designated drivers, pregnant women, under-age diners and other teetotallers can experience a vibrant jackpot of drinks – from strawberry water with smoked verjuice and yuzu (at Sydney's Rockpool) to lemongrass chrysanthemum and rosewater soda (at Neil Perry's Spice Temples) and over at Union Electric in Melbourne's Chinatown, they're shaking up Virgin Botanicas – a fresh combo of cucumber, ginger and blackberry shrub. Despite the party vibe of the place, owner Huw Griffiths says, "I like alcohol a lot. But sometimes I just want something delicious and a little bit silly. There are always people who can't or don't drink, and we want to make sure we look after them."
In Australia, juice pairings have been found at Sydney's Momofuku Seiobo, which opened in late 2011, and acclaimed restaurants far and wide offer non-alcoholic matchings, including Brae in Birregurra, Attica in Melbourne andBiota Dining in Bowral, NSW. Adelaide's Orana once used crushed green ants to create a juice with a spiky citrus flavour.
Melbourne's Vue De Monde employs Sarah Harleaux as tea sommelier – a rare title in Australia, but a prominent role in the Middle East, where alcohol is banned in certain countries. For her, dealing with tea is like working with wine. "Every year, the tea differs from the other years," Harleaux says. "It's a permanent challenge." And like wine, some varieties are hard to source. Da Hong Pao comes from the cliffs of China's Wuyi Mountain. "The trees are fairly rare and the landscape hardly accessible to humans, which makes it so precious."
Overseas influences have shaped our drinks lists in other ways. Phil Gandevia, bar manager at Bentley Restaurant + Bar recalls "spectacular" booze-free matches at New York's Eleven Madison Park, while Momofuku Seiobo sommelier Ambrose Chiang notes that juice pairings are big in Japan, given its non-drinking population and access to incredible fruit. At 17, he experienced a standout pickled ginger juice at a Michelin-starred restaurant there.
And it was the program of non-alcoholic pairings at Copenhagen's Noma that inspired Momofuku Seiobo to pioneer Australia's first juice pairings. Chefs Ben Greeno and Clayton Wells had been at Noma and saw how it worked. Momofuku Seiobo's version "was really popular from the start", says Richard Hargreave, who was sommelier at the time.
His successor Chiang says demand for non-alcoholic options echoes the expanding nature of drinks lists. "Sommeliers now are not just wine sommeliers," he says. Today, a good restaurant also offers sake, cider, beer, spirits and, yes, tea, kombucha and juice. "Restaurants are embracing the diversity of drinks."
El Verde by Phil Gandevia of Sydney's Bentley
This recipe makes use of a juicer to extract the flavours of savoury vegetables like cucumber and celery. It pairs well with fish, Mexican and Japanese flavours.
30ml cucumber juice
30ml celery juice
30ml strong green tea
15ml fresh lime juice
15ml agave nectar (available at health food stores, or the organic section of your supermarket)
pinch of salt
1. Combine all ingredients in a container and chill. Serve in a sake or small wine glass, garnish with a celery leaf and a few drops of toasted sesame oil, or hot sauce for a Mexican vibe.
Courtside Cooler by Fred Siggins
This summery spritz is made for the gin fans with a good whiff of juniper (the berry that gives gin its distinctive taste), and a bittersweet kick from tonic water reminiscent of real booze. Designed as a standalone tipple rather than a food match, it'll pair nicely with a cucumber sandwich nonetheless.
40ml verjuice (available from specialty food stores)
30ml juniper syrup
40 juniper berries (available from specialty grocery and spice stores), crushed in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder
½ cup white sugar
½ cup water
1. For the juniper syrup, place all ingredients in a small saucepan and simmer for 10 minutes on low. If you're feeling creative, try adding other ingredients commonly used in making gin like licuorice root, fennel seed, coriander seed and citrus peel. Strain out the crushed juniper berries and chill the syrup. It can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a month.
2. Place 15-20 raspberries in the bottom of a cocktail shaker and muddle.
3. Add the verjuice and juniper syrup.
4. Fill the shaker with ice and shake hard for 10 to 15 seconds.
5. Strain into a tall glass filled with ice.
6. Top with tonic water, stir and garnish with a twist of lime peel and a few raspberries.
Embla's Green Tea Infusion
This green tea infusion is bright and complex, matching perfectly with food you might usually pair to a light and crisp white wine, like pinot gris. It's also easy to play around with different teas, fruits and flowers to create your own unique version.
50g loose leaf Japanese green tea
1 tbsp crushed, dried lemon peel
1 tbsp crushed, dried bitter orange peel
1 tbsp dried rose petal
1 tbsp dried marigold
1 tbsp dried safflower
1 tbsp dried cornflower
1. Combine ingredients and place in large teapot. Add 700 millilitres of boiling water and let stand for two minutes. Strain and allow to cool, then place in a clean wine bottle and chill. Serve in wine glasses with a twist of grapefruit peel.
Makes a 700ml bottle