No- and low-alcohol spirits are sobering up bars across Australia. Here are our picks.
Cards on the table: I love alcohol. I love its kick and burn, its lush viscosity and its starring role in a Negroni or Zombie. Alcohol brings mouth-feel and flavour intensity to all the best drinks.
If you're similarly inclined, you're probably eyeing the burgeoning non-alcohol movement warily, unable to shake the thought that a booze-less version of a boozy drink must surely be something poignantly incomplete, like Queen without Freddie.
Undoubtedly, NOLO (no- and low-alcohol) is happening in all the right places: non-alcoholic food pairings by Brae, Bentley and Momofuku; sober dance parties; Melbourne's Non, a "wine alternative" from a former Noma chef; Aboriginal-owned bush tucker non-alc beer Sobah; zero-ABV Sapiir from Melbourne's Brunswick Aces; and a panoply of alt-spirits, led by Seedlip, which kickstarted the category in 2015 and can now be found in 25 countries and in respected Australian establishments such as Black Pearl, Totti's and Maybe Sammy.
Made in Sweden, Ceder's recently launched two expressions of its juniper-led, distilled botanical drink in Australia, while Melbourne-based non-alc spirits brand Lyre's has produced a quarter of a million bottles in its first six months on sale.
But how do they taste? Mixed with tonic or soda over ice, they're subtle, complex and sometimes unexpected – Seedlip's Spice 94 delivers pleasingly pungent warmth; Ceder's Classic has prominent, lip-smacking citrus.
Intended as "homages", the Lyre's range of 13 faux-spirits aim to respectfully replicate favourites, from absinthe to American malt. Available in sets to build various cocktails, they're sort of a liquid Lego.
Lyre's founder Mark Livings describes painstaking years of isolating flavours at a molecular level, then rebuilding an alcohol-free version. "Once we got past the immediately apparent flavours, we realised it was the subtleties that make the original what they are," he says.
In mixed drinks, the flavours are often astonishingly close. Rather than Queen minus Freddie, Lyre's is a respectable tribute band. Taken neat, none of the alt-spirits approach the real thing, but that's the point. They're not booze. They're something else.
Livings calls them a "wedge drink". Nobody, even with the constitution of a keg, can back-to-back real Negronis for hours on end, but previously, options for an intermission were dismaying. One moment you'd be sipping a well-crafted cocktail, and the next chugging a carbonated soft drink sugar-bomb, wrenching your palate from Mozart to Taylor Swift.
The new-gen non-alcs, paired with artisan mixers, mean icky sticky mocktails have been replaced by entire menus of grown-up drinks.
Andy Gaunt from soda brand Fever-Tree says these "spirits" have rebranded: "Even non-alc names are somehow demeaning: soft, filler, mock. But there's now a choice of non-alcoholic drinks as full of flavour, ingredients and stories as any alcoholic drink."
Fever-Tree's sodas, tonics and ginger ales pair well with the non-alcs, and the drinks look the part, too, in glassware and with the requisite aesthetics – great news if you're stealth-sober (early pregnancy: sorted).
Approach them as an addition to your drinking repertoire, and multiple possibilities emerge: adding a little alcohol for lower ABV cocktails, or taking a marathon taste trip with none of the psychoactive effects. Maybe not Queen, but definitely harmonious.