Being by the bar at Atlas is rarely a cause for apprehension. Globally recognised as the bastion of the world’s largest gin collection, Atlas has become a landmark bar in Singapore despite its youth, having only opened last year in March. A cocktail here is an experience, a treat we never tire of.
But that day was different. Instead of the gin-and-tonic section on its cocktail menu, we were parsing unfamiliar territory. Titled “European Temperance”, there were three drinks before us that bore names traditionally associated with cocktails, but ingredients that were contrary.
In fact, there was no alcohol in any of them at all. Subtitled “No Alcohol Cocktails”, this was a list that befuddled us, because the drinks were (obviously) not the sickly Shirley Temples or virgin mojitos that formed the obligatory mocktail corner on the usual bar menu. These were classics with its spirit removed, then replaced with a non-alcoholic substitute like a housemade cordial.
Mocktails get a terrible reputation. People who drink Shirley Temples get denigrated for their order, mocked for the mocktail that equates to being a bore. Protests to explain their teetotalism get ignored. All that matters is that the long glass with the cherry-coloured, fun-free fluid is deemed as a waste of time. After all, why go to a bar if you don’t want to drink alcohol?
From low-ABV to no-ABV
Yet, all signs point to the fact that this beverage category is becoming more valid and popular. That crafted non-alcoholic cocktails own a place at Atlas, which placed 15 on the latest World’s 50 Best Bars compendium, is an indicator of evolved tastes and demands – and they’re not the only ones. Across the world, bars and bartenders, spirit-makers and the conglomerates that back them are seeing a shift in the way we drink.
No-alcohol cocktails would seem to be the natural successor to the low-ABV drinks trend that has dominated spots on bar menus over the past four years. This went hand-in-hand with the renaissance of gin and aperitifs, which also marked a change in consumer drinking attitudes.
In June 2017, alcohol news site, The Drinks Business reported that the global market for alcoholic drinks dipped by 1.3 percent, the most it has in the past five years. If that minute fraction holds no significance to you, it should, as the overall reduction in alcohol consumption never dipped below 0.3 percent before 2016. Another dedicated news site, Imbibe, reported that the buzz surrounding the no-alcohol cocktail trend was at the heart of the Global Drinks Forum 2017 in Berlin, which was attended by every industry-related multinational conglomerate there is. No-alcohol cocktails have gained ground because of this exact climate.
The U.S. and U.K. are the primary perpetrators of non-alcoholic cocktails, which has even roused the existence of non-alcoholic liquors. “Isn’t that just water?” you might think. “Or juice?”
Not entirely. As bizarre as no-alcohol spirits sound, they are here, and an immensely profitable class of beverages.
Firewater without the flame
Seedlip, a clear, alcohol-free spirit from London was the very first. Launched in 2015, the brand has two expressions, the Seedlip Spice 94, and the Seedlip Garden 108. The Spice 94 is a blend of Jamaican all-spice berry, cardamom, citrus peel and wood bark, while the Garden 108 is a herbaceous combination of hay and pea distillates, rosemary, thyme, spearmint, and hops.
The elements that go into Spice 94 mirrors gin without the grain and many report its tastes as such, with prominent dashes of citrus and clove. The Garden 108 is a greener spirit with a slightly bitter edge. Both are produced the way a gin would be, where each botanical is distilled in a copper pot still, before being bottled at zero proof and sold.
When asked about the oxymoronic nature of calling it a ‘spirit’, Branson defended it firmly. “Seedlip is a spirit,” he declared. “From how we make Seedlip, using exactly the same processes, equipment and methods as our alcoholic counterparts to make it, to the fact Seedlip sits on the bar, to how it’s served, to the kinds of cocktails we create.”
Since its release in 2015, the brand has grown into a worldwide company. Its expressions sit on some of the most prominent bars in the U.K., like The American Bar at The Savoy Hotel in London, voted World’s Best Bar, and behind over 100 Michelin-starred restaurants internationally, including Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck. Branson revealed that most of these places approached Seedlip to stock their product, instead of the reverse.
The success train just kept growing. From selling out within the first three weeks of its launch to having Distill Ventures, a subsidiary of the largest international alcohol-related corporation, Diageo, to own minority shares in its company, Seedlip has filled a massive gap the market otherwise lacked.
“The world is at the beginning of a paradigm shift in terms of the role alcohol plays in people’s lives,” said Branson. “With global sugary soft drink and alcohol consumption volumes both declining, there is a need for grown-up alternatives.”
His product is arguably the most successful alternative, but there are other options that follow the same vein. Boutique distillers, Surendran & Bownes, have also announced a non-alcoholic spirit that “the aromatic profile and complexity” of London dry gins, known as Edition Zero: Labdanum. No-alcohol beers are also a burgeoning space that has seen entries by mass breweries such as Carlsberg and Erdinger, as well as craft producers like BrewDog. De-alcoholised wines also exist and are a rather substantial bracket unto their own.
Local bartenders weigh in
Those of us in Asia could easily dismiss the non-alcoholic “alcohol” trend as one isolated in the West, but the West has remained the engine for most of the booze bandwagons that have docked in Singapore, and this movement is no exception.
At local bars, it is no longer abnormal to find non-alcoholic cocktails made with the same craft, precision, and care that goes into its potent sibling. Gone are the simple syrup bombs, or the cloying medley of juices that pass for a decent gateway to sobriety. This trend has goaded bartenders in Singapore to adapt and to transmute the notion of drinks at a bar into an affair where alcohol is not a must.
Order an Aviation at Atlas, and you get one sans gin. A housemade botanical cordial takes its place, along with butterfly pea flower water and lemon juice, instead of the crème de violette and maraschino liqueur that the original comprises. For all intents, its cloudy violet liquid looks identical to an alcoholic Aviation. Oddly, it tastes rather similar too, which is the whole point.
The botanical cordial is responsible for this parity. Head bartender, Roman Foltán, explained that the cordial is an infusion of juniper berries, cardamom, rosemary, and citrus. This synonymity with the components of gin gives the Aviation its aromatic and zesty qualities, bereft of the burn that comes with alcohol.
The concise list of ingredients belies the challenge of constructing cocktails without alcohol, which could be the main reason why this breed of beverage, in its most refined form, has rarely surfaced on proper menus.
“Bartenders hate to do it because you don’t have the spirit base which gives body and flavour to the drink. That’s why, for so long, they’ve just been lazy and mixed juices together to create mocktails,” he comments.
Other industry professionals echo this sentiment. Michael Callahan, the principal bartender at Employees Only, said that a good non-alcoholic cocktail is a far more demanding task than its spirit-fuelled equivalent.
“It takes a particular set of skills to make such a drink complex, refreshing, and not full of a ton of sugar. Most of us have been trained for years to know that the majority of the cocktail — the alcohol — is the substrate. To remove that is to remove a massive component,” he said. “It’s like asking an artist to paint, but taking their canvas away.”
Yet, neither are resistant to the either of non-alcoholic cocktails becoming mainstream. Foltán and Callahan each understand the reasons why someone would choose to veto alcohol on a night out. It is a respect for the consumer, and a desire to amplify their craft that makes them embrace this challenge.
No drink for you?
Some of the aforementioned reasons are universal. It could be pregnancy, a big meeting the next day, or being the designated driver. It could be the pressures of entertaining at a bar, where one has to hold their own in front of clients or associates, and not lose face, literally and metaphorically.
According to Foltán, the beauty of having crafted alcohol-free beverages at a bar is subterfuge.
“The whole point of non-alcoholic cocktails, especially over the last two years, is that it should recreate the look and taste of a regular cocktail. That way, drinkers at the table can’t distinguish if you’re having alcohol or not. This is very important for some situations,” he said.
Aside from sobriety rooted in a need to impress, contemporary drinkers are also holding off the alcohol more as they acquire health-consciousness. Prominent movements like #eatclean and #fitspo generate an awareness about the harm alcohol does to the body. It is a carriage for the C-words that spark dread: calories and cancer.
As such, non-alcoholic cocktails, when made with care, allows the teetotaler to feel included in a social setting that often alienates them. A drinker could easily dismiss this growing demand as an inconvenience. Why visit a bar when one doesn’t drink? To say so is to limit its dual-natured enterprise — bars are not merely an institution for alcohol, but a dynamic cultural space, with its own unique ambience that non-drinkers ought to be able to participate in as well.
The first non-alcoholic cocktail bar in Singapore
If you need more reasons to consider why non-alcoholic cocktails have gained traction in Singapore, look at the very DNA of our national identity. Among other things, we stand as a multi-religious society, where a number of faiths staunchly regard alcohol as a taboo. This need to address this exclusion led one business owner, Max, to open Singapore’s first-ever non-alcoholic cocktail bar, called Atap.
As a non-drinker, Max wanted to create a fresh concept where non-drinkers could indulge in the atmosphere of a bar without any compromise to their personal principles.
“I searched for places around where I could get non-alcoholic drinks, but all that came up were cafés, restaurants, or fast food places. That’s why I started Atap. You have the vibes you would enjoy at a bar, without the alcohol, so non-drinkers will never feel like they are out of place,” he explained.
Located in Kampong Glam, Atap is marketed with an army of buzzwords one would associate with any alcoholic establishment — it is a rooftop bar with a “speakeasy” concept that serves bespoke mocktails made with regional ingredients. There are 15 non-alcoholic cocktails inspired by Singapore’s indigenous Malay heritage, a slew of organic kombuchas, coffees, and teas to choose from, as well as the option for custom drink orders.
To individuals who abstain from alcohol and have never set foot in a bar, there is a definite appeal to the amalgamation of those concepts in one space. Max has appropriated those terms to create Atap and what he calls its “pull factor”. By all intents, he has been rather successful. Since its opening in December 2017, Atap has drawn new visitors each night and built a regular customer base — an example that cements how the non-alcoholic cocktail movement is meeting a demand previously unrealised.
Redefining how we drink
Singapore prides itself on being an Asian Arcadia for cocktails. We stand at the frontier of innovation within the global mixological sphere, with bartenders and establishments constantly ready to push the brackets of how, what, and why we drink. The rise of non-alcoholic cocktails contests all three prongs. Even the dictionary definition of what a cocktail is — an alcoholic drink consisting of spirits — is flipped on its head.
Purists can and will argue this statement, but alcohol’s place in a cocktail is customary, but no longer compulsory. The industry itself is ready to embrace this expansion and to cast out the stereotypes against non-alcoholic mocktails as it grows.
“Stereotypes tend to perpetuate themselves,” said Callahan. “A lot of bartenders are looking to change that, and to change the way people look at non-alcoholic cocktails so it does not have to be a negative thing anymore.”
There’s no reason to deem a person’s choice to abstain from booze as weakness or a lack of taste — its bad rep is arbitrary. As the non-alcoholic category burgeons and improves, so too will drinkers realise that a night out at a bar can be enjoyed even without back-to-back glasses muddled with the hard stuff. One feels better the next morning too. Not to mention, polished non-alcoholic cocktails taste darn good. And we’re not ashamed to say that.