The weekend Australians best non-alcoholic drinks
Megan Lehman use to write New York’s hottest column about bars - now she is off alcohol altogether. Megan wrote and article for the weekend Australian where she selected her Top 10 Non-alcoholic drinks.
Here is the article that was published in the Australian.
The most expensive cocktail I ever had was bought for me by Donald J. Trump. It blended Remy XO, Pineau des Charentes and Veuve Clicquot, and was topped with a splash of 23-karat liquid gold.
The World’s Most Expensive Cocktail, for that was its unabashed title, was the signature drink at Trump World Tower’s The World Bar in Manhattan, and it was priced at $US50.
Trump was showing off. This was the early 2000s when he was merely a show-off real estate magnate, before he became a show-off president, then a criminal defendant. My friend Libby and I wrote a newspaper column called Barbelles, a weekly round-up of New York’s hottest drinks and drinking establishments that was essentially a pretext to drink Manhattan dry on someone else's dime.
This evening, that dime was the Donald’s. The transactional tycoon had done his sums and figured he was owed two times $US50 worth of undivided attention and he milked it. The amber-hued room, with its gilded marble and 30-foot ceilings, soon echoed with the voice of Trump, a teetotaller, deploying every superlative at his disposal. His was not only the best cocktail in the world, it was the most expensive. It was also huge. The world’s wealthiest people frequented his bar. The bar was also very expensive and huge. Et cetera. After 15 minutes of this we needed a drink, someplace else.
All this is to say that, yes, I once met Donald Trump, but also that I used to drink a lot. It was, for a while, my job. When Libby recently sent me a picture of a hot new bottle shop in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, stocked floor to ceiling with non-alcoholic beer, wine and spirits, I was surprised at her enthusiasm.
Turns out, she has been sober for years, characteristically ahead of the curve on the “unleaded drinks” trend. Having over-indulged through Covid, I had been toying with the idea of taking a break myself and, funnily enough, it was the name of the Nashville bottle shop that lured me to the other side. It was called Killjoy. Up until then, the idea of becoming abstemious had caused me to baulk. Horrible word, abstemious: uptight and sanctimonious. Yet here was a venue embracing another label I dreaded and making a joke of it.
That's what I love about the new suite of AF (alcohol-free) drinks In a world of performative wellness, they make light of their “clean” and “healthy” bona fides. They’re nonchalant. Sophisticated. If they do draw attention to their booze-free state, it’s with a self-effacing wink. (See BrewDog’s Nanny State beer or Sydney-based outfit Smug AF.) The new artisanal spirits, shrubs, sodas and spritzes – we review some brilliant ones below – are more likely to tempt you with what they do include: complex flavours, interesting textures, punchy aromatics. They’re subtly delicious and not for show-offs. Trump would be appalled.
SMUG AF VIRGIN MOJITO
Hallelujah! A mocktail for grown-ups that puts all the overly sweet fruit-juice-with-garnish pretenders in the shade. Smug AF’s classic cocktails-in-a-can – there’s also a virgin Margarita, Bellini and Cosmopolitan – are legitimately tasty. The Mojito is the one to beat, having collected the top gong in the non-alcoholic category at last year’s Australian Drink Easy Awards. The judges noted “cumin, anise and fresh mint on the nose” and “celery, cumin and stunning acid on the palate.” Tastes like summer.
(250ml, $26 for four-pack)
Nootropics. What are they? Cognitive-enhancing herb extracts, or brain-boosters, that have taken the wellness world by storm. Thanks to Sydney-based Saintly Beverage Co, in collaboration with Californian ethnobotanist Kerry Hughes, they’re now available here in premix cocktail form. Kind of like a drink-with-benefits, Noot’s Classic G&T, Negroni Spritz and Ginger Mule are all zero alcohol and yet, with nootropics including passionflower and green oat extract, are designed to “deliver a pleasurable and experiential experience while promoting overall wellbeing”. In short, they give you a relaxed buzz without the morning-after cobwebs. Tastes good too.
(250ml, $25 for mixed six-pack)
T.I.N.A. (THIS IS NOT ALCOHOL) 3.0
An exotic blend of high-mountain oolong tea and natural botanicals with fruit accents, T.I.N.A.’s trio of cocktails are hand-made in Melbourne by cousins Chrissie Trabucco and Imogen Hayes. The brand has been popping up on the drinks lists of many fine diners and recently its cool credentials were given a bump with the release of T.I.N.A. 3.0, a collaboration with swanky Sydney restaurant Icebergs. All-natural ingredients in the 3.0 include ginkgo, saltbush, pink guava and sacred lotus, while T.I.N.A. 1.0 blends tart-sweet calamansi lime and pear. T.I.N.A. 2.0 is fruitier, with rosella flowers, raspberry leaf, monk fruit and mandarin juice.
(330ml, $24 for four-pack)
The lyrebird is one of nature’s great tricksters, mimicking other bird calls and even car alarms with uncanny accuracy. Named for the Australian native, this Sydney-based firm’s non-alcoholic spirits do a fair job of mimicry themselves: their Highland Malt is a smooth replica of traditional whisky, the Dry London Spirit is a reasonable gin alternative and the White Cane Spirit works as a booze-free switch for clear rum. Their Aperitif Rosso and Dark Cane Spirit even won gold medals at the 2020 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, judged against their alcoholic counterparts. Best of the extensive range is the Lyre’s Amaretti. It’s rich, nutty and sweet, almost syrupy, and makes an excellent end-of-night sipper. (700ml, $44.99)
BANKS BOTANICALS CITRON
This Yarra Valley organic distillery had a win recently at America’s SIP Awards for their Yuzu, Basil & Lemon premix drink, but their bespoke non-alcoholic spirits have also been making waves. The original formulation combines the cinnamon notes of cassia with fresh lemon myrtle and lime, nutty wattleseed and Tasmanian pepperberry, distilled naturally in water fresh from the mountains, while the new Banks Citron delivers a citrus blast of desert lime, lemon myrtle, white kunzea, sunflower seeds and spicy wild pepperberry.
Taking its name from Crodo, the small town in northwest Italy where it’s been produced and bottled since 1965, this non-alcoholic aperitivo has long been a staple of Italian sunset drinks. The Campari Group acquired the chic orange drink in 1995 and it finally made its way to Australian shores last year. Crodino’s unchanged secret recipe blends 15 herbs, spices, woods and roots and allows them to mature for six months. An intense flavour profile – bittersweet botanicals and confected orange with a hint of vanilla – makes this an absolute gift to Aperol fans on the wagon.
(175ml, $25.99 for four-pack)
FOUR PILLARS BLOODY BANDWAGON NON-ALCOHOLIC GIN
The acclaimed Yarra Valley distillery jumps on the proverbial with an alcohol-free version of its popular Bloody Shiraz Gin. Two years of R&D led to a novel process that extracts the oils and flavours from the same ten botanicals as Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin, but without the booze. The addition of shiraz juice (from non-fermented grapes) adds heft, sweetness and a pretty purplish tinge. Add a good-quality mixer and it’s gin reimagined.
POLKA SPARKLING CUVEE
Wine has been the laggard in the alcohol-free realm, with AF wines often lacking nuance and balance. As one producer puts it, the de-alcoholisation process causes wine to “lose a lot of everything”: aroma, flavour, body. So when husband and wife Ben and Emma Mellows launched Polka out of South Australia’s wine region in 2021, they bumped up the flavour profile of their sparkling white by using 11 different varietals and adding wild-harvested lilly pilly. For more fizz without the fuzziness, they’ve just added a sparkling rosé, featuring a pucker of tart Davidson Plum.
Former Mornington Peninsula winemaker Jason Quin and his wife Andy have crafted a range of adult-oriented drinks celebrating plants endemic to specific regions of Australia. Local Indigenous leader Lionel Lauch opened their eyes to myriad native edibles and they’ve incorporated ingredients such as bush apple, Kakadu plum, finger lime and quandong into drinks with vowel-averse names like ZST, PLM and APL. A satisfying mouthfeel appeals to grown-up palates.
(330ml, $4 a can)
SEEDLIP GARDEN 108
Seedlip is the OG of distilled non-alcoholic spirits; when it hit the UK market in 2015 it had the AF space to itself. Competitors have since crowded in, but it’s still the go-to non-alcoholic spirits brand, listed in thousands of top bars around the world. If you’re out and want a non-alcoholic cocktail, chances are you’ll be offered one with Seedlip. Garden 108 is the pick of the bunch; it has a light, herbal flavour, with notes of cucumber, green pea, rosemary and spearmint. It’s not really a gin replica, but it pairs well with tonic or fresh lime juice.