The beverage director for Andrew McConnell’s restaurants celebrates her favourite alcohol-free drinks. By Leanne Altmann.

Sober so good

Image for article: Sober so good
Credit: Photography by Earl Carter

For anyone even vaguely interested in drinks – let alone someone like me, fascinated by all things beverage – the rise and rise of the no- and low- alcohol category is remarkable. For those who don’t or can’t drink alcohol, choices are no longer restricted to soft drinks, fizzy beer-flavoured water or dusty bottles of carbonated grape juice masquerading as wine on the bottom shelf of the local supermarket. On the rise through 2019, the sober-curious movement has coasted the wave of lockdown day-drinking and emerged in 2021 even stronger.

For some producers, the aim is to craft alcohol-free alternatives to traditional boozy drinks such as de-alcoholised wine, zero alcohol by volume (ABV) distillates and ultra-low alcohol beer. Others aim to replace traditionally alcoholic drinks, particularly at the table, such as flavoured drinking vinegars and shrubs, or the diverse flavours and textures of NON, developed by two Australian alumni of Noma.

Taking inspiration from the techniques used for the production of gin, botanicals are macerated, distilled and blended to create unique zero proof spirits. Alcohol aside, these distillates are not gin, whose defining flavour must be juniper, but they are fragrant with everything from rose petals to rosemary, with Australian examples highly influenced by local botanicals. Without alcohol and sugar to carry flavours, some can be remarkably dilute when compared with the intensity and body found in the alcoholic original – but not all. Monday Distillery is based out of Geelong, and its Classic G&T has sidestepped this challenge with aplomb. They’ve absolutely nailed it aromatically, with vibrant notes of juniper, spice and citrus. The palate is refreshing, with balanced sweetness derived from stevia rather than sugar, and proper quinine bitterness. Like a proper gin and tonic, just one that happens not to have alcohol. I’m on board.

Cocktails are often a more successful way to utilise alcohol-free spirits, adding complexity and savouriness to drinks. For those who worked on perfecting an at-home cocktail repertoire during lockdown, Lyre’s have rather convincing liqueurs to replace the amaretto in your sour or the espresso in your martini. The selection of bitter aperitifs and vermouth are particularly true to type, and this is on show in the Amalfi Spritz. Drinking directly from a neat, slimline can that is perfect for beach trips and park drinks means you might miss the vibrant orange hue reminiscent of those now-distant summers in an Italian piazza. Over ice, garnished with citrus and green olive, there are lifted aromas of blood orange, ripe yellow peach and herb, and a palate that sings with a grapy sweetness reminiscent of Prosecco.

Tonic syrups are a versatile tool for simple, savoury drinks and there are a number of delicious local examples such as Tasmanian Tonic Company or Sin-Kō-Nah to experiment with. Formerly of The Gin Joint in Charleston, South Carolina, MariElena and Joe Reya craft small batches of its complex Bittermilk tonics such as No. 5, based on hand-peeled and charred grapefruit. Bright and citrusy notes of lemon, lime and grapefruit are balanced by sea salt and a kick of proper bitterness. Intended to be mixed with vodka and soda, it’s flavoursome and savoury enough to be enjoyed sans alcohol.

Until recently, soft drinks were often the only choice for the abstainer, and for those who choose not to drink alcohol for health reasons, perhaps they’re still off the table. However, there are a number of small producers making excellent low-sugar sodas with natural flavours, such as StrangeLove and Sydney’s PS Soda. And to trump them all, enter Ben Frazer’s Yumbo Soda Co. Hand peeled and juiced single orchard Yarra Valley lemons, makrut, lemon myrtle, filtered water and a little sugar. That’s it. It’s the best alcohol-free Tom Collins around.

Perhaps it’s the beer world that has taken up the alcohol-free challenge most enthusiastically. German brewers have a longer history with alcohol-free beer than most and some are excellent – look for Clausthaler Unfiltered – although others are variable due to a lack of freshness. The Australian craft scene is enthusiastically embracing a new generation of non-drinkers, with refreshing Nort, aromatic Heaps Normal Quiet XPA, and innovative, community-focused Sobah at the front of the pack. Holgate Brewhouse’s Love All Pale Ale is brewed in the Macedon Ranges and has a richness that’s perfect for the cooler months. Fragrant with fruity hops and biscuity malt, there’s body and balanced bitterness that’s well suited to pairing with autumnal dishes of pine mushrooms and braised rare-breed pork.

For those choosing not to drink alcohol, wine can be one of the most challenging drinks to replace. One of the charms of wine is the way that it can express place. In the finest wines, the impact of rainy spring and golden summer, the afternoon wind from the sea, of cold stone beneath sparse topsoil, can all be tasted in the glass. While it’s likely that demand for alcohol-free wine will bring better examples in the future, in the meantime, those I’ve tasted are no more than acceptable at best: cloyingly sweet as grape juice replaces the body of alcohol, and lacking nuance due to high yields and the industrial de-alcoholisation process.

All Day Cocktails: Low (And No) Alcohol Magic by Shaun Byrne and Nick Tesar is a remarkable way to embrace the season in your drinks. Byrne and Tesar have worked behind some of Melbourne’s finest bars, and break down techniques used by the world’s best bartenders. Advocating for the use of locally sourced fruits, vegetables and herbs at the height of the season, they teach the reader to craft cordials, tisanes, shrubs and syrups for savoury drinks that can pair with food.

So, what next for alcohol-free drinkers? Coffee has been thoroughly embraced by Melburnians for years, but the intricacies of ancient tea gardens, diverse terroir and brewing techniques are ripe for exploration. Whatever the motivation, be it mindful drinking, cutting back or a sober lifestyle, there are more options for the non-drinker than ever before. No regrets.

Monday Distillery ‘Classic G&T’ non-alcoholic cocktail, Geelong, Victoria ($5.99 – 300ml)

Available from Dan Murphy’s, craftzero.com.au, sansdrinks.com.au

Lyre’s ‘Amalfi Spritz’ non-alcoholic cocktail, London and Australia ($5 – 250ml)

Available from Blackhearts & Sparrows, craftzero.com.au, sansdrinks.com.au, killjoy drinks.com, drinkzero.com.au

Bittermilk ‘No . 5’ Charred grapefruit tonic syrup, South Carolina ($24.95)

Available from The Bitters Lab, onlybitters.com

Yumbo Soda Co. Lemonade craft soda, Yarra Valley, Victoria ($3 – 330ml)

Available from Blackhearts & Sparrows, yumbosoda.com

Holgate Brewhouse ‘Love All’ alcohol-free pale ale, Macedon Ranges, Victoria ($2.85 – 330ml)

Available from Blackhearts & Sparrows, craftzero.com.au, afbeersquad.com

All Day Cocktails: Low (And No) Alcohol Magic by Shaun Byrne and Nick Tesar, Melbourne, Victoria ($34.99, Hardie Grant)

Available from Books for Cooks, Hill of Content, Happy Valley, Bitters Lab

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 3, 2021 as "Sober so good".

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