The great debate

Is there a future for non-alcoholic spirits? This was the question put forward for the great debate at the recent Melbourne Cocktail Festival’s Symposium, and things got juicy…

Hilary McNevin

I love a good debate. How far can the boundary of a statement be stretched – while maintaining logic and strategy – in the name of victory?

This debate, the last talk of the day in what had already been a heady day filled with drinks discussions and ideas, was a highly anticipated way to end the Melbourne Cocktail Festival’s (MCF) Symposium for 2023.

The Great Debate put forward: Is there a future for non-alcoholic spirits?

This was a subject that I – and about 100 other attendees at the Symposium – were wanting to hear about. As the non-alcoholic drinks space grows at a rapid pace, non-alc spirits are more and more commonplace but are often considered little more than expensive cordial.

I have found myself in that camp so was keen to hear the arguments for and against.

Introduced and moderated by drinks guru, Sam Bygrave of Boothby Drinks, the schmick panel included:

For the Affirmative

Rachael Niall: Owner of @tomorrowontap, a non-alc bottle shop and bar in Perth, Rachael is a hospo guru with over two decades of experience in venues across London and Australia.

Rachael Niall

Matt Jones: Co- owner and Brand Director of @fourpillarsgin , Matt is also one of the country's most prominent speakers and thinkers on business, brand, strategy and creativity. 

For the Negative:
Cara Devine: Writer and presenter of YouTube channel "Behind The Bar @withcaradevine ", Cara’s first book "Strong, Sweet & Bitter" has just been published and she is bar manager at Bomba Bar in Melbourne’s CBD.

Charlie Lehmann: Co-owner of Sydney venues @doubledeucelounge and @ramblinrascaltavern

Charlie Lehmann

With these heavyweights, it was going to get juicy.  

Matt Jones kicks off the affirmative.

He comes out strong, “We need to decouple the automatic assumption that having a drink involves alcohol,” he says to a hushed audience, “and ask ourselves, what makes a great cocktail. What I believe makes a great cocktail is, ritual, flavour, and story.”

He goes on to say that these three elements don’t need to include alcohol and talks about the Four Pillars drink, Bandwagon, their version of a non-alcoholic Negroni. 

“Sometimes, I want a Negroni and I don’t want alcohol. The drink still needs to have juniper dominance and palate weight, I may want the heft of the bottle to pour it from, I want to stir the Negroni in the glass, but it doesn’t need to have alcohol.” 

Hence, why Four Pillars developed the drink but also a fine argument for the future of non-alcoholic spirits. 

Next up is Cara Devine with the opposing argument. Taking a realistic approach, she opens with, “No one would criticise any move towards more mindful drinking,” she says, “whether that is reducing intake or cutting out alcohol entirely but are these non-alc drinks on the market substitutes for the real thing? I think that definitely needs scrutiny.” 

There’s an argument that non-alcoholic drinks are more inclusive but Devine states that this doesn’t always ring true, as, “according to Alcohol and Drug Foundation exposure to drinking cues – taste, smell, appearance – and settings can evoke strong relapse triggers. 

Cara adds, “there has to be a middle ground between soft drinks and a substitute for what those who need to avoid alcohol can enjoy.” 

Cara Devine

This is where bartending comes in, as she says, the industry “has grown and evolved so much. There’s so much more than a Shirley Temple out there. We are creating drinks that are sophisticated and well-balanced, using forward-thinking ingredients like teas, shrubs, artisanal sodas and clever techniques and methods to get the best out of them and make smart drinks.” 

Rachael Niall, owner of Tomorrow on Tap, a non-alcoholic drinks retail and refill store in Perth, brings the affirmative home and gets healthy on us. 

“Non-alcoholic drinks enhance your abilities rather than impair them,” she says, “I deal with poppy extract, camomile, finger limes, amazing ingredients. With no-alcohol you can choose your own adventure, you have freedom of choice and freedom to play and I know it’s here to stay.” 

Poetry aside, she has a point when she says, “Navy strength gin is not a performance enhancer but imagine a negroni that gives you superpowers! It can enhance your cognitive abilities rather than deter them, I believe we’re on the cusp of the freedom these drinks can give you.” 

The final speaker for the negative is Charlie Lehmann, co-owner of Sydney bars Double Deuce Lounge and Ramblin Rascal Tavern.  

Suited up and ready to win, Charlie declares, “Mr Speaker! The question has been posed,” he continues, “Is there a future for non-alcoholic spirits? I believe there is a future, but at what cost?”

Climate change, the cost and environmental impact of packaging and travel, the global market that embraces ingredients from Macedonia to Sri Lanka, the distilling, the brewing...this can’t be good for the planet,” he says. 

While he acknowledges the growth of this sector, he argues the burning of fossil fuels will only increase and compound the issue, “with more products adding to an already glutted supply chain.” 

Matt Jones

The debate continues, will the cost of non-alc spirits deter consumers when they can buy the real thing for less? 

Everyone cares about climate change, so is that something that can be put forward as an argument?

The outcome is clearly for the affirmative, non-alcoholic spirits do have a future, but it needs thought, care and a focus on professionalism and sustainability.

The negative agree they had a harder argument to put forward, “I didn’t change my own mind,” Cara laughs, but what they did do was make us think about the drinks industry more broadly and what it should expect from itself; evolving skills, techniques, while embracing innovation and the future. 

Seems it’s not expensive cordial after all. 

Let’s get to work.

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