As the non-alcoholic drinks movement gains momentum, bartenders and chefs see the potential for a party where everyone's invited.
Our cocktails make a grand entrance. In sleek stemware, garnished dexterously and conveyed with the finesse you'd expect from this venerated bar, every drink on the tray identifies as a classic of the boozier kind. Except one isn't.
Our guessing game begins. Which is non-alcoholic?
You'd bet your next round against the martini in the coupe, declaring with its diamond lustre and glossy olive that it's three parts London dry.
But this drink, Mr Click, packs not a molecule of booze. Instead, there's alt-spirit Seedlip, infused with Peruvian Palo Santo wood. With layers of bark, smoke and florals, this potion tastes as classy as it looks.
Non-alcoholic drinks now command equal billing with their hard counterparts at Sydney cocktail bar Maybe Sammy, currently at number 11 on the World's 50 Best Bars list.
They're worth it, says venue co-owner Andrea Gualdi. "Our clientele don't necessarily all want to drink, but they still expect an elegant, adult cocktail with the same theatre and experience."
You can play spot-the-difference in craft-focused and upscale bars around the country. As the non-alcoholic movement continues unabated, serious operators are joining the party.
Our nation's drinking has dipped to a 50-year low, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and #sobercurious is ubiquitous on social media.
Pre-lockdown, alcohol-free bars were proliferating worldwide. In London, there's Redemption and Brewdog AF; NYC's Getaway and pop-up Listen Bar are zero-ABV magnets for the beautiful and hip (Snoop Dogg asked Listen to name a cocktail after him), and – perhaps most astonishingly – Dublin has an alcohol-free pub called The Virgin Mary.
The days are gone when your sheepish request for zero-ABV prompted a raised eyebrow and a sugary, juvenile drink.
Instead, bartenders at the top of their game relish the technical and creative challenges of achieving balance and palate weight without booze.
Says Gualdi: "To make something good without alcohol, a bartender needs more skill. You really have to understand flavours."
At Melbourne's popular Italian bar and restaurant, Capitano, Darren Leaney's nuanced non-alcs shine amid a menu of elevated booze classics. He's finding that non-alcoholic drinks such as his Grove Collins, a fruity and fresh combo of Seedlip Grove, passionfruit, lemon and soda, sit comfortably among his summer menu's booze stars.
"If you've got good non-alcoholic drinks, people will come," he says. "There is thought and process going into these drinks; layers of complexity."
At Sydney's PS40, co-owner Michael Chiem structures his drinks list around flavour, with no segregation for non-alcoholic drinks. Instead, they're subtly indicated with a small AF.
"When we create all of our drinks, the starting point isn't the base liquor," says Chiem. "The focus is an ingredient, or a culinary technique."
Known for his gifted way with native ingredients, Chiem might create a cocktail around house-made macadamia milk, caramelised leftover bread cream (like essence of bread-and-butter pudding) or, in the case of the hyper-delicious non-alc Burning Man, rosemary-smoked peas.
Where there are chefs' hats, there are almost certainly booze-free drinks, too, with Melbourne's Attica and Lume, Brae in Birregurra, Biota Dining in Bowral, Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, Ten Minutes by Tractor in Main Ridge, and Sydney's Momofuku Seiobo, Arthur and Quay all keen exponents.
Momofuku Seiobo was an early adopter in 2012, and the seven non-alc pairings echo chef Paul Carmichael's Caribbean influences. At the moment they're serving Jerk Cola, inspired by the Jamaican seasoning. Allspice, black pepper, muscovado and brown sugar are cooked together to make a jerk-flavoured sugar syrup, which is strained and mixed with fresh lime juice and water. The carbonated drink is served over ice with lime zest, and paired with Jamaican beef patties, parcels of turmeric-layered pastry filled with beef, bone marrow and abalone..
Attica's tasting menu can be matched with eight house-made fresh juices, teas or infusions, sodas and non-alc cocktails, some made with cooking by-products.
Head sommelier Dom Robinson relishes the creative freedom these drinks allow. "While wine is a fixed beverage to work with, we have complete control over our non-alcoholic beverages in terms of flavour, aroma, acid, texture, sweetness."
At Collingwood's two-hatted Ides, chef-owner Peter Gunn's small team all collaborate on the restaurant's non-alc drinks menu, with its chief architect, maitre d' Louise Naimo, raiding the kitchen regularly for inspiration. Seaweeds, salts, cooking offcuts (think blood plum pips), infusions and oils are all fair game.
Shaped by seasonality, the four- or seven-course non-alc pairing is a romp through flavour backwoods and down exciting culinary rabbit holes.
As a match for the current menu's chargrilled pork with WA crayfish and sweetcorn, Naimo created a fluffy, bright and funky non-alc Calamansi Sour, combining vinegar made with the tropical citrus shaken with aquafaba, the eggwhite-like result of whipping chickpea cooking liquid.
Alongside their kitchen ingredients, shrubs, syrups, infusions and deep geekery, drinks creators draw on an ever-expanding toolbox of alt-spirits, including the UK pioneer Seedlip, and a growing array of local liquids, including wine alternative NON, co-created by ex-Noma chef William Wade, and alt-spirits Lyre's, ALTD and Brunswick Aces.
The latter, created in 2018 by a group of six Melbourne neighbours, personifies the non-alc movement's inclusive philosophy.
"A couple of us suddenly couldn't drink for various reasons," says CEO Stephen Lawrence. "And for us it was this real moment: how can you suddenly not be part of the group because you're not drinking?"
Their answer was Brunswick Aces' two sapiirs (a drink made by distilling non-alcoholic botanicals), Hearts and Spades.
Last year, the company also launched two full-booze gins.
Says Lawrence: "Both drinks contain the same botanicals, just distilled in different ways. So I can make the same cocktails with either. If you're drinking and I'm not, we can experience the same flavour nuances."
Another non-alc product exciting restaurants and home drinkers alike is Sobah, an Aboriginal-owned craft beer made on Queensland's Gold Coast by Gamilaroi man Clinton Schultz and his wife Lozen.
When Schultz stopped drinking, he was frustrated by not being able to get a decent-tasting non-alcoholic adult drink. "I was paying $5 for a glass of soda water with a piece of lemon."
Schultz, who was operating a food truck serving native-inspired foods, began to experiment. "I'm from a chef background and know that beer is one of the most versatile platforms for building flavours and textures," he says.
"We use Australian yeast that doesn't produce ethanol, but still allows for the fermentation process to be undertaken, giving those multiple layers of complexity that people want in a craft product."
Sobah was an instant hit. In the past year, production has expanded from 50 litres at a time to 20,000-litre batches.
It's just one of the success stories populating this brave new booze-or-not-to-booze beverage world.
Says Capitano's Darren Leaney: "There are no rules, no pre-established recipes. You can look to classics for inspiration, but you're always bringing it back to flavour. There's huge scope to play around."
Adds Michael Chiem: "It used to be that when you were missing booze, you were missing excitement. But now the customer has so much to explore, while the bartender has all these extra creative tools."
Zero-ABV cocktails to seek out
Spiced Highball, Capitano, Melbourne
Darren Leaney combines Seedlip Spice, verjus, salt and soda for a bright but warming highball-style drink garnished with pink grapefruit for peppery freshness. capitano.com.au
First Press, 10 Minutes by Tractor, Main Ridge, Vic
Brunwick Aces Spades sapiir, verjus, strawberry and lavender syrup, watermelon juice. tenminutesbytractor.com.au
Burning Man, PS40, Sydney
Michael Chiem uses Seedlip Garden 108 and a touch of chardonnay vinegar as support for his hero ingredient: rosemary-smoked peas. Result: strong, savoury and fresh. ps40bar.com
Virgin Bloody Mary, Ides, Melbourne
Paired with a meaty salmon dish with capsicum and black garlic, this virgin Bloody Mary of tomato juice, kimchi juice and kimchi sauce is "funky, quite fermented, a little bit spicy", says Louise Naimo. She calibrates it with Australian hot sauce, caperberry juice, caperberries, Worcestershire sauce and pepper. idesmelbourne.com.au
Lemon Fizz, Royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld, Vic
Brunswick Aces Hearts sapiir with lemon verbena syrup and lemonade garnished with lemon verbena leaves is the aromatic soulmate to a blue-eye cod and zucchini dish. royalmail.com.au
NO-groni, Arthur, Sydney
Lyre's Vermouth Rosso, Dry London and Italian Orange mixed in equal parts over Bare Bones ice create this restaurant's deeply satisfying alternative. arthurrestaurant.com
Seven booze-free brands to try
Indigenous-made and owned from native ingredients rich in flavour and nutrients, these alc-free beers are a beautiful Australian story told in liquid. The core range, Lemon Aspen Pilsner, Finger Lime Cerveza and Pepperberry IPA, are complemented by seasonal releases. Four-pack $18, sobah.com.au
Sydney-made, all-natural, all-Australian distilled alt-spirits in three expressions: Green Grocer, Golden Emperor and Silver Princess. It's hard to go past Golden Emperor's bittersweet flavour hug of fresh organic oranges, blood orange marmalade, dark-roasted cocoa husks, wattleseed, chilli, river salt and red gum bark. $64, 700ml altdspirits.com
Two sapiirs (gin-style alt spirits): the warm, spicy Hearts blend and savoury-citrus Spades. Both are easy to enjoy with tonic and play nicely in more complicated cocktails. $49.95, 700ml brunswickaces.com
This Australian-made wine alternative, co-created by ex-Noma chef William Wade, is a frequent flier on acclaimed degustation menus. Various culinary techniques extract stunning, surprising nuances from combinations of fruits, herbs and spices. Five variations. $30, 700ml non.world
An Australian-made range of 13 homages to alcoholic spirits, from absinthe to "Highland malt". Plenty of scope to experiment with flavours or emulate your bartender favourites. $44.99, 700ml lyres.com.au
Juniper-led distilled alt-gin from South African botanicals, in two expressions: floral, balanced Classic and spicier, warmer Wild. $49.99, 500ml ceders-alt-gin.com
UK distilled alt-spirit in three variations: Garden 108, Spice 94 and Grove 42. Enjoy their complexities with tonic or soda, or take a deeper dive by adding other ingredients. $49.99, 700ml seedlipdrinks.com/uk