Move over mocktails: How the bar has been raised for non-alcoholic drinks in Melbourne

Anthony Colangelo
Rob Libecans mixes a drink at Melbourne's Fancy Free.
Rob Libecans mixes a drink at Melbourne's Fancy Free.  Photo: Jason South

Australians are drinking less alcohol, so booze-free beverage barons are concocting clever ways to cater for teetotallers. 

Such bars as Melbourne's Fancy Free and local brands like Lyre's non-alcoholic spirits and Brunswick Aces "gin" are taking the alcohol-free tipple past the tired, fruit juice-heavy "mocktails" you might be used to and into a world where, they hope, it will be more fashionable to ditch booze.

Recent Roy Morgan research found the amount of Australians who drank alcohol once over a four-week period dropped from 70.1 per cent to 67.9 per cent between 2013 to 2018. Meanwhile, in 2018 the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that alcohol consumption had fallen to a 50-year low.

Mark Livings, founder of Sydney-based Lyre's non-alcoholic spirits, describes the shift in drinking habits as moving at an "erratic cadence" rather than a "gentle downwards trend", based on the research he sees through his marketing job. 

"I'm 38, and what's really interesting about my generation is we stop consuming alcohol temporarily; we do things like Dry July, or Ocsober or FebFast," he says. 

"What's also changed is how we are exercising. [Health regimens] CrossFit and F45 tell people to do an eight- or 12-week body challenge, and people don't touch alcohol for that time.

Lyre's spirits are made by mixing flavours extracted from natural ingredients.
Lyre's spirits are made by mixing flavours extracted from natural ingredients.  Photo: Supplied

"[Baby] Boomers drink less for health reasons, and then Millennials aren't getting into alcohol to begin with as much.

"The leading theory is health and mindfulness. But the other is that growing up in an age of social media where everything is consistently recorded and posted online – the social anxiety around behaving like an absolute pork chop and having your personal reputation ruined online." 

Unlike most non-alcoholic spirits, which remove the alcohol after production, Lyre's spirits are completely alcohol-free.

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Livings enlisted sommelier David Murphy to perfect Lyre's spirits, which are made by distilling flavours from natural ingredients before mixing them with water. 

"For example, our dry vermouth, which is our most complex drink, has 31 different flavour notes," he says. 

When added to a mixer, Lyre's non-alcoholic spirits mimic the aroma and mouth feel of the boozy variety, says Livings. 

Brunswick Aces, the kid on the local alcohol-free block.
Brunswick Aces, the kid on the local alcohol-free block. Photo: Supplied

The menu at Melbourne bar Fancy Free is evenly split between no alcohol, low alcohol and alcohol-based tipples. Co-owner Rob Libecans says venues that don't take non-alcoholic drinks as seriously as they do are "missing a trick". 

"We sell enough to justify the time and the effort it takes to have on our menu," Libecans says. "I see the value in what we do here that we will continue.

"From a business perspective, the profit margins on a non-alcoholic drink are incredible.

"In terms of what you can offer to people, I think more attention should be put on it." 

Fancy Free's booze-free range includes a non-alcoholic Aperol spritz that could pass as the real thing. 

"We make a homemade tonic water and flavour the rest with a rhubarb stock using the skin and leaves and fibres and juice," Libecans says. "We cook that down and build it back as if it was an Aperol spritz. It's dressed to look and taste exactly like an Aperol spritz."

Libecans says Fancy Free's spirits taste alcoholic, but more than that they give those who can't drink the satisfaction of holding and consuming a drink that has been made with care and constructed to look as theatrical as a cocktail. 

"It tends to be one person out of a group drinking them," Libecans says. "The majority of the time it is women, but it never seems to be people on their own or couples.

"People come in and try a lot of the non-alcoholic drinks as a way of side-stepping booze in between drinks. It almost fills a gap that way. It still looks like they have got a drink in front of them." 

Five non-alcoholic drinks to try in Melbourne

Lyre's Highland Malt – non-alcoholic "scotch".

Seedlip Grove 42 – non-alcoholic citrus spirit.

Brunswick Aces – non-alcoholic botanical spirit, like gin, called sapiir.

Fancy Free's the Fancy Float – coconut-infused coffee, Gelato Messina pandan gelato and tonic.

Bar Liberty's house-made passionfruit husk and cascara soda.