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-aged diners and other teetotallers can experience a vibrant jackpot of drinks – from strawberry water with smoked verjuice and yuzu (from Sydney's Rockpool) to lemongrass chrysanthemum and rosewater soda (at Sydney's Spice Temple) and a wattleseed, West Indian spice and buttermilk concoction (Bentley Restaurant + Bar in Sydney).
In Australia, juice pairings began with Sydney's Momofuku Seiobo, which opened in late 2011. Now, acclaimed restaurants far and wide offer non-alcoholic matchings: Brae in Birregurra, Attica in Melbourne, Biota 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."
"Sometimes, I feel like I'm going to work at Boost Juice," Gandevia jokes and mimics blitzing fruit through a juicer. No generic franchise would feature the hugely inspired drinks he offers at Bentley Restaurant + Bar. He's made "wine" from beetroot, rhubarb and blowtorched bay leaf; smoked apple and verjuice with charred rosemary ("a shot at the whisky and apple juice trend"), and a desert lime and wood sorrel spritz. He goes beyond the "tendency to play snap – there's carrot on the plate, so there'll be carrot juice" and his booze-free pairings are one of the most fun drinking experiences in Sydney.
At Spice Temple, bar manager Dane Reid has a stand-alone menu of house-made sodas. "It's a great alternative to having a boring Coke." The spicy ginger beer and lemongrass chrysanthemum soda are well matched to the Asian food. Flavour considerations also influence Max Gurtler, his counterpart at Rockpool, where Gurtler matches a rich wagyu dish with a subtle earl grey tea finished with dehydrated grapefruit peel and longan and red date vinegar. He plays with salt and non-juice bases (like coconut water and kombucha) so diners don't end up with an acidic juice belly once the night's over.
The non-alcoholic drinks at Momofuku Seiobo are next level, thanks to Chiang's intense efforts. Once, he created onion water from caramelising five types of onions and clarifying the broth. The result was like an aged sake. He makes a blueberry and raspberry vinegar by hand-crushing three-kilogram batches of fruit and fermenting the mix with Normandy apple cider vinegar and honey. It's inspired by the "hectic vinegars" his teetotalling mother drinks .
The sommelier also freezes T Totaler French earl grey tea and spikes the melted brew with an earl grey caramel. It tastes like a delicious cloudy peach tea.
Off-duty, Chiang's been impressed by Silvereye's juice pairing, especially the fermented rose petal juice: "That was really good."
Biota Dining's regional location is what inspired the restaurant's non-alcoholic matchings. "It came about through looking at the disappointment on many guests' faces when discussing who was driving and why they could only have one glass of wine," sommelier Ben Shephard says. Designated drivers won't feel ignored as the non-alcoholic matches are hugely prioritised.
Shephard has created a pear juice with walnut and sheep's whey and is fermenting plums to blend with preserved cumquats for February. "Quite often, the juice will be the most popular drink on the table."