Non-alcoholic spirits put to the taste test

From left: Fluere Spiced Cane Dark Roast, Seedlip Spice 94 and Lyre's Italian Orange.
From left: Fluere Spiced Cane Dark Roast, Seedlip Spice 94 and Lyre's Italian Orange. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Booze-free drinks are "definitely on a steep trajectory at the moment," says Stuart Henshall, brand director for Melbourne distillery Brunswick Aces, which makes both standard and non-alcoholic gin. "There are so many new brands with more taste profiles to appeal to more customers."

An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare survey shows 14 per cent of people increased their alcohol intake during the pandemic. Henshall suggests this may have caused more consumers to choose alcohol-free alternatives coming out of lockdown.

Briefly, alcohol can be removed from beer, wine and spirits in a variety of ways, such as cold filtration, reverse osmosis or vacuum distillation.

"It makes my ears bleed when people suggest that anyone could do the same thing we're doing by steeping juniper and myrtle in water overnight," says Henshall. "[Non-alcoholic gin] requires the same process, care and botanicals as normal gin." 

While the quality of non-alcoholic beer and wine has increased over the past few years, Henshall admits that most spirit alternatives have a way to go before you can drink them straight or in a "stiff" cocktail. "Spirit replacements don't have the weight in the mouth alcohol provides," he says, "so having it neat is not the same experience as the traditional equivalent."

Henshall suggests that money saved on buying actual spirits could be put towards high-quality mixers and tonics from Australian brands such as Capi and StrangeLove to heighten the non-alcoholic cocktail experience at home.

"Experiment with flavours and ratios to achieve the right balance for your tastes and measure everything. Free-pouring doesn't lend itself to nicely curated drinks, and you want to be able to remember the quantity of each component when you do nail that drink."

Three to try

Fluere Spiced Cane Dark Roast, 700ml, $50

Score: 2/5

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This smells like the kind of butterscotch schnapps on sale in small-town fudge stores. The coffee and licorice flavours work best mixed with dry ginger ale. At best guess, it tries to replicate rum, but gosh knows who would drink it straight. Made in Holland.

Seedlip Spice 94, 700ml, $50

Score: 2.5/5

Smells like a pub lemon, lime and bitters, but with a lot of bitters. Very light-bodied but when used as a gin substitute, this UK-import can make a bad tonic better, especially with a big wedge of lemon or grapefruit, which plays well with its spice.

Lyre's Italian Orange, 700ml, $45

Score: 3.5/5

It looks like Campari, it smells like Campari, but this Australian-made liqueur substitute tastes more like blood oranges steeped in red cordial than the Italian aperitif. Despite this it works well with Seedlip, ice and soda to make a non-boozy riff on the Americano.

Drinks were scored for taste, aroma and body in their own right, rather than in comparison to the hard stuff.