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The Zero Percent

By Hillary Kang

 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art; “In His Cups,” (1872), by Alexandre- Louis Leloir.
 

It used to be a point of pride to brag about how drunk one got over the weekend. The ability to consume excessive amounts of alcohol was worn as a badge of honour. But sometime in the last generation, all that changed: According to Monitoring the Future, an ongoing research project of young adults in America that began in 1975, alcohol use amongst young adults in the U.S. has dropped steeply since the 1990s — where 69 per cent of young adults in 1997 professed to have used alcohol at some point in their lifetime, only 42 per cent of similarly aged young adults in 2018 said the same.

Teetotalism —the arcane term for the practice of abstinence from alcohol — isn’t new by any means, but it’s certainly been gaining traction. Sober curious influencers have even emerged, such as 28-year-old Millie Gooch, who fronts Sober Girl Society, a popular online community with over 100,000 followers on Instagram that aims to glamorise non-drinking — or in Gooch’s words, be “huns against hangovers.”

It’s all a far cry from how non-drinkers — and non-alcoholic drinks — have historically been perceived.Julia Bainbridge would know. The former editor of Bon Appétit and author of “Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason” says that long-held stereotypes about non-alcoholic drinks have stymied the field over the years.

Theodore Samuels; Alex Lau.Former Bon Appétit editor Julia Bainbridge says that more people are turning to non-alcoholic drinks because there are “finally delicious alternatives.”; the Pimm’s Crown non-alcoholic cocktail, a recipe from Bainbridge’s book.
Former Bon Appétit editor Julia Bainbridge says that more people are turning to non-alcoholic drinks because there are “finally delicious alternatives.”; the Pimm’s Crown non-alcoholic cocktail, a recipe from Bainbridge’s book.

“Drinking is glamorised in the United States and in many countries, and anything that’s not the ‘real’ thing is seen as silly, or perhaps cheap,” says Bainbridge. “I remember rosé being the butt of adults’ jokes growing up. I don’t need to demonstrate the degree to which that has changed — rosé is now everywhere, and it’s taken seriously by great sommeliers — and that’s because we got access to good rosé. Bartenders are now pushing against boundaries that have previously limited ‘mocktails’ to syrup-laden juices or glorified Shirley Temples.”

In Bainbridge’s book, she travels to bars and restaurants across the United States in search of non-alcoholic cocktails that “[stayed] on [her] mind days after tasting them,” assembling a coterie of recipes that utilise anything from fermented chilli paste to fresh fruits, all to create an array of cocktails that might sway any fence-sitting drinker.

“Some of these drinks are so good that my friends who do drink alcohol enjoy them,” says Bainbridge. “Maybe that’s because they’re moderating their alcohol intake, but perhaps they’re also more willing to moderate their alcohol intake because there are finally delicious non- alcoholic alternatives.”

Lyre’sLyre’s range of 13 non-alcoholic spirits enable bartenders to recreate classic cocktails without alcohol.
Lyre’s range of 13 non-alcoholic spirits enable bartenders to recreate classic cocktails without alcohol.

Beyond utilising inventive ingredients, several brands are also creating non-alcoholic versions of cocktail staples like gin, malt whiskey and even absinthe. They are said to taste exactly like their original counterparts: Just sans alcohol. One such brand is Lyre’s, an Australian drinks company named after the lyrebird, a species noted for its uncanny ability to mimic any sound it hears, both natural and artificial. In September 2020, the company secured a total of US$11.5 million as growth capital at the close of its seed round funding, signalling a broader industry trend towards non-alcoholic drinks.

The boon of non-alcoholic spirits like Lyre’s, say bartenders, is that traditional cocktails can effectively be made alcohol-free without needing to lean on modifiers — like citrus juice or sweeteners — that might negatively alter the taste of a drink.

“The big challenge [of non-alcoholic cocktails] was always the mouthfeel,” says Celia Schoonraad, co-founder of cocktail bar Barbary Coast. “Without alcohol to provide structure that lifts other flavours, you have something that can become rather muddled while being aggressive and heavy on the palate. But the use of non-alcoholic spirits allows a proper single serve cocktail to be achieved while reducing the need for other modifiers.”

The pandemic has also been an unlikely driver of the non-alcoholic drink trend. According to Nielsen data, while wine and spirit sales rose about 30 per cent during the pandemic, non-alcoholic beverage sales grew by over 100 per cent in comparison.

Detractors might question the rationale behind ordering a non-alcoholic drink that looks, tastes and feels the same as a regular cocktail — the same line of thinking that pegs vegetarians as hypocritical for eating mock meat.

MelatiMelati was birthed from founder Lorin Winata’s desire for a sophisticated, adult-focused booze alternative.
Melati was birthed from founder Lorin Winata’s desire for a sophisticated, adult-focused booze alternative.

Entrepreneur Lorin Winata has a simple explanation: A non-alcoholic cocktail provides a “sophisticated, adult-focused booze alternative” that isn’t a cola or a glass of juice.

“I’ve always loved going out for dinner,” says Winata, who founded non-alcoholic spirit brand Melati
in 2020. “And while I love the occasional cocktail or glass of wine, I often felt under pressure to drink during these get-togethers, since there weren’t really any sophisticated, adult-focused booze alternatives that could match the high quality of food that I was enjoying.”

As Winata explains, non-alcoholic drinks are a means for people to partake in the social activity of drinking — without actually having to subject themselves to the adverse effects that alcohol sometimes brings.

Lyre’s co-founder and CEO Mark Livings says he’s seen the shift away from alcohol, not just as a marketer, but in his personal life as well.

“I’ve worked across the beverage industry for my entire career and it was a simple observation of the shift away from alcohol across many of the markets we work in,” says Livings. “We also saw that change playing out in our personal lives, and we knew there was something worth exploring — even the hardest of drinkers reach a point where that kind of lifestyle is unsustainable. Plus, with the younger generation, there is a much broader awareness of mindful drinking choices related to health and lifestyle.”

The growth of the non-alcoholic drinks sector, say observers, is reflective not just of a growing sense of wanting to be mindful, but also an acceptance of lifestyles of all types. “We’re heavily socialised — in the US, at least — for drinking to be the primary social activity,” says author Bainbridge. “As long as it is the case that bars are our third spaces, I would tend to admire the operators who choose to make their establishments welcome to all — and that’s also where I’m going to spend my money.”