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January 1, 2023

The Non-Alcoholic Revolution

No booze no longer means no fun.

Hospitality insiders reflect on their journeys and why no- and low-booze drinks are here to stay.

Words: Max Veenhuyzen
Images: Kristoffer Paulsen

NOMAD Executive Chef Jacqui Challinor

It's been a big couple of years for chef Jacqui Challinor. She helped guide NOMAD, her Mediterranean-leaning restaurant in Surry Hills, Sydney, through fires, reopenings and Covid. She opened NOMAD's Melbourne outpost on Flinders Lane. She bought her first house. She moved from Sydney to Melbourne to live in said first house. She ran her first half-marathon. She was chosen to be one of the chefs feeding guests at the 2023 Australian Open. And she's in the home stretch of opening Beau, and all-day diner and wine bar with former Stanbuli chef and co-owner Ibrahim Kasif overseeing the food. But most crucially, she's given up booze, which goes some way to explaining why she's in such a good space.

"If I come to work and get heated or don't speak to somebody the way that I should, instead of going out for a drink to forget about it, I can reflect on it and figure out how I can do better the next day."

"My food got better, my creativity got better," says Challinor, who's been sober since May 2020. "I started being confident in myself as a chef and stopped comparing myself to others." She also feels that her leadership skills have grown. "I can assess and take ownership for my actions more so than before because there's no hiding. If I come to work and get heated or don't speak to somebody the way that I should, instead of going out for a drink to forget about it, I can reflect on it and figure out how I can do better the next day."

Stephen Lawrence, co-founder of Brunswick Aces

Australians, it barely warrants mentioning, have a reputation for enjoying a drink. Yet as awareness over the social, emotional and financial impacts of alcohol grows – a recent report by KPMG and Rethink Addiction estimates that alcohol addiction cost the country $22.6 billion in 2021 – this stereotype is being challenged. Temperance initiatives such as Febfast, Dry July and Sober October are gaining momentum, ditto services such as Hello Sunday Morning and Untoxicated, which help Australians rethink their relationship with drink. This year, Shanna Whan – founder of Sober In The Country – was named Local Hero of the Year at the Australian of the Year awards for her work combatting alcoholism in rural areas. That we're starting to see attitudes shift in hospitality circles – an industry that traditionally works hard and plays even harder – suggests the sobriety movement is no flash in the plan.

"If someone told you that you could enjoy 30 per cent more creativity and headspace and all you had to do was give up beer and bourbon, you'd take it in a heartbeat."

Chef Scott Pickett has been dry for a decade and credits sobriety for giving him the skills and mental capacity to keep the Scott Pickett Group and its 700 strong workforce moving.

"If someone told you that you could enjoy 30 per cent more creativity and headspace and all you had to do was give up beer and bourbon, you'd take it in a heartbeat," says Pickett. "You think you're working hard and can't get better, but this was a next-level rise, not just professionally but personally. It's like an inner strength."

After 20 months sober, Perth chef Benjamin Ronaldson shed more than 40 kilos and found time to ride 150km each week, all while crushing 60 hours a week cooking at Refuge Small Bar. Morgan McGlone, formerly of Belles Hot Chicken, has also turned the corner. After taking six months off booze and more than 40 kilos (and counting) off his frame, he's slowly reintroducing alcohol into his diet while embracing a healthier, more rounded lifestyle.

"Longevity in this world doesn't come cheap," says McGlone. "We've got to put in the hard yards and these non-alcoholic beverages have been a godsend. They're something that I'll honestly implement for the rest of my days."

Stephen Lawrence, co-founder of Brunswick Aces

Even us food and booze hacks are getting in on the action. Inspired by friends talking and writing about their trysts with sobriety, I went sober twice in 2022: first at the start of the year (it had been an especially merry festive season) and again during Dry July after encouragement from a colleague. Is it hard to go to nice restaurants and not drink? a pal asked me during one of my dry spells. Not really, or at least not once you get out of the daily habit. It also helps that, these days, teetotallers are spoiled for choice when it comes to zero-proof drinks.

Although Australia consumes a lot of non-alcoholic beverages – collectively, we put away a lot of water, tea, coffee and juice – a new generation of no- and low-proof non-alc options has signalled a change in direction for hospitality. In late 2015, UK brand Seedlip kickstarted a global non-alcoholic "spirit" trend (although some bartenders take issue at the use of the word "spirit" to describe non-alcoholic distilled water) with the 2019 opening of Seadrift marking the movement's arrival in Australia. Although major Australian breweries produced non-alcoholic beers with various degrees of success and acceptance, the launch of dedicated non-alcoholic beer brand Heaps Normal in July 2020 felt like a game changer. (Interestingly, the end-of-July launch date was chosen not to coincide with Dry July, but to help Dry July-ers maintain momentum.) Around the same time came the arrival of likeminded brands such as Aboriginal Australian-owner beermaker Sobah; wine-adjacent kombucha producer Monceau, and tea-based drinks group T.I.N.A, a movement that once seemed like a punchline suddenly had legs. Finally guests at pubs, restaurants and bars could order something other than lemon lime bitters and post-mix soft drinks. Even better: these new alternatives often delivered the fizz, bitterness and refreshment found in alcoholic drinks.

It’s no coincidence that many of the players behind these notable newcomers were chefs, bartenders and sommeliers: hospo professionals who’ve built careers out of understanding flavour. NON, a non-alcoholic wine doppelganger launched in mid-2019, was co-founded by chef William Wade, a former stagiaire at Noma. Christopher Bothwell, a one-time head sommelier at the three-Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester in London, is one of the founders of Ovant, a non-alcoholic distiller in Margaret River. Then there’s Gruppetto, a collection of non-alcoholic spritzes from veteran Melbourne bartender Matthew Bax of Der Raum and Bar Americano fame. Beyond a finely honed palate that proved invaluable for reverse-engineering Italianate cocktails into “complex, adult and delicious” beverages, Bax also understood how non-alcs would work in a bar setting, both for guests and for operators.

“They [non-alcoholic cocktails] tended to be tea- or juice-based drinks which, for me, didn’t sit at the level of our other cocktails,” says Bax who created Gruppetto so he could offer guests ready-to-drink packaged non-alcoholic alternatives. Convenience aside, these pre-made, single serve drinks also reduce waste for venues since they are shelf-stable and staff don’t need to open a bottle or throw out batches of unsold product. (Alcohol, other than helping the world of Tinder go round, is also an effective preservative.)

McGlone – presently at the business end of opening Surry Hills wine bar Bar Copains with business partners Sali and Nathan Sasi – also appreciates the win-win value of these RTD options.

“Instead of giving [non-drinkers] a shitty mocktail, let’s offer them something that comes in a can or bottle and looks like a drink,” says McGlone. “Let’s show them that some thought has gone into it and that they don’t have to feel like a social misfit.”

At a time when profit margins are spaghettini-thin, can operators afford to limit their upselling opportunities?

Leading restaurants have long been sparing thoughts for non-drinkers. Challinor fondly recalls the non-alc matches at Gimlet and Cutler & Co, while zero-proof beverages were part of Momofuku Seiobo’s drinks schtick from day one. Among the now-closed Sydney restaurant’s most memorable hits were the skin-contact apple juice, jerk spiced cola and macadamia milk punch: concoctions as considered as the cooking, service, soundtrack and every other facet of the Seiobo experience.

“It was always a goal of mine to make sure the non-alcs could give the wine list a run for its money,” says Nance Liong, Momofuku’s assistant restaurant manager. 

Attica Head Sommelier Dom Robinson

At Attica, thoughtful house-made non-alc beverages – including the restaurant’s famous Cold-Smoked Granny Smith Apple juice – ensure the pride of Ripponlea remains a safe place for teetotallers.

"More guests are opting for the non-alcoholic pairing,” says Attica head sommelier, Dom Robinson. “They’re asking if we have a non-alcoholic pairing: they don’t ask if we have a juice match. Everybody seems more informed.”

Well, almost everybody. My Dry July this year overlapped with bookings I had at some of WA’s better restaurants. Two of those meals stay with me because of how limited the non-alc options were: think soft drinks, juice and other drive-through window highlights. While I was surprised at this lack of creativity – not least from two restaurants where house-made XO sauce, dry-ageing meats and ferments galore were par for course – these limited options meant there was minimal beverage spend from sober diners like me. (Or at least sober diners like me that didn’t want to match duck with Coke Zero.) At a time when profit margins are spaghettini-thin, can operators afford to limit their upselling opportunities?

My prediction: good venues with bad non-alc options will soon be the exception rather than the norm.

My prediction: good venues with bad non-alc options will soon be the exception rather than the norm. While the rapid growth of non-alc producers makes it tricky to tell whether supply is driving demand or vice -versa, the industry is unquestionably responding. I’m noticing a lot of new-gen, sharply designed non-alc drinks taking up shelf space at high-end supermarkets and providores. It’s also interesting to note that Australia’s major alcohol retailers are getting behind the sector in a big way. (Dan Murphy’s, for instance, opened a dedicated zero-alcohol bar.) But perhaps the most telling statistic is the amount of water-cooler chatter among hospitality workers.

“I’ve talked with a bunch of hospo crew that love the idea of being able to have a tasty beverage before, during or after their shift,” says Michael Payne, the ex-bartender (now more than two years sober) behind non-alcoholic beer brand, Lightning Minds. “I used to wonder if you could be in hospitality and not drink. Now with the non-alcoholic movement, I think we’ll see more people living alcohol-free lifestyles while still working in hospo.”

At the very least, teetotallers – whether their abstinence is total or temporary – will have plenty of options to choose from. For now. Stuart Henshall, co-founder of non-alcoholic brewer and distiller Brunswick Aces, says that as encouraging as the boom in the non-alc space has been, its future hinges on quality rather than quantity.

“People are now understanding what non-alcoholic drinks are, but they’re not understanding what’s in them,” says Henshall. “People are going to start asking why they’re paying a premium price for something that costs the producer a dollar to make because it’s just fake chemicals and fake smells. After this first wave with so many products on the market, only a few are going to survive in the next few years.”

Drink less but drink better: sounds like good advice, don’t you think?

NOMAD Executive Chef Jacqui Challinor

The standard of no-proof

So how do venues get into the non-alc game?

Offering guests a non-alc beer option is an excellent starting point, perhaps even two if you have the fridge space. Teetotalers, in addition to feeling seen, will appreciate being able to choose between a crisp lager and more hop-driven pale ales. (Plus, operators make that all-important second sale.) As Bax suggested, pre-packaged spritz-style drinks have much to offer, although interesting house beverages could be as simple as a non-alcoholic spirit lengthened with a craft soda or kombucha, kefir or other house-fermented drink. (The winning way Parcs in Melbourne upcycles kitchen scraps into beverages should offer bar-kitchen set-ups with some ideas).

While we’ll have to wait to see if they’ll attain similar status as The Savoy Cocktail Book or Gary Regan’s Joy of Mixology, dedicated non-alc recipe books such as Julia Bainbridge's Good Drinks collate plenty of bright ideas and techniques. As it is with cooking and bartending generally, freshness and acidity are often the keys to lifting a flagging drink or dish. When fine-tuning non-alc beverages, remember to dial down the sugar, turn up the citrus and – in situations where drinkers are happy to imbibe miniscule amounts of alcohol – keep that bottle of bitters nearby: spice and bold bitterness can also snap drinks to attention.

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