The unthinkable happened: I had to stop drinking for health reasons. Well, not forever, but for a while.
This all started a year ago. The good news is it turned out I wasn’t an alcoholic, at least not by Australian standards – there was no physical withdrawal, no waking in sweat-soaked sheets as my body cried for gin. Instead, there was just emptiness … at least for a while.
Yet it wasn’t the mental cloudiness I missed the most but the flavour. Or should I say, the myriad of flavours. The bitterness of an old fashioned. The smokiness of a good scotch. The sour acidic tang of a margarita.
These complex adult flavours that would be the highlight of my day.
Yet it turns out an increasing number of bars – and distillers – are taking more than just a token notice of teetotallers.
To my surprise, it tasted pretty much like a gin and tonic, and for a moment I felt normal again. Well, as normal as any grown man who dreams about cats can be.
It turns out that Brunswick Aces specialises in distilling non-alcoholic spirits (some people call them hydrosols) that are inspired by gin, using botanicals such as juniper, wattleseed and cassia – and they’re not the only Australian company making non-alcoholic spirits.
There’s the Sydney-based Lyre’s, which makes a wide range of non-alcoholic spirits – from American malt (think whiskey), amaretto and white cane spirit (to replace rum) to coffee liqueur, dry vermouth and even absinthe.
Also based in Sydney is Altd, which flavours its spirits with various fruits and herbs, plus you have overseas distillers (the most well-known of which is Seedlip).
To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about this. As someone who was – and still is – obsessed with spirits, I still haven’t brought myself to trying a non-alcoholic scotch yet. It might be fantastic, but it’s like the dilemma a vegetarian faces when pondering a meat-free sausage. Is it worth having a substitute?
Then again, I do like the sound of PS40, a bar in Sydney (Skittle Lane) that makes their own sodas with local ingredients – think smoked lemonade and blackstrap ginger (which sounds like a stripper name to me).
If you can tolerate a small amount of alcohol, then there’s another alternative – and one I’ve been embracing: bitters. Beautiful bitters.
Although most bitters such as Angostura have a high alcohol content (roughly around 40%), you only need to add a few drops to give a drink a more complex flavour and aroma – and the drink’s alcohol content will be negligible.
I’ve never been a fan of lemon, lime and bitters – but adding bitters to lemon squash, or the more fancy cordials you can easily buy these days such as lemon and barley cordial, can lead to a drink that might reduce your crying fits.
You can even have what I call a fauxmito, where you muddle limes and mint in a tumbler glass, add lots of bitters and top with a mix of tonic and soda (or mineral) water, depending on how sweet you want it.
Another option is having an Aperol and soda. Aperol isn’t a world away from Campari (my favourite aperitif) and yet it only has 11% alcohol. If you then mix it with soda or mineral water, you have a drink that can have an overall alcohol content of just 3%.
Italian sodas such as chinotto are also a godsend, being more bitter and less sweet than ordinary soft drinks – though they still have sugar. Then again, so do most cocktails.
But look – I’m not going to lie. I truly, desperately, miss the almost narcotic hit of a martini hitting my brain like a bullet. Yet I’ve also learned to appreciate and even enjoy being clear headed at night – so much so that when I start drinking again (and lord knows I’ll need it to get through Christmas) I’m going to have several alcohol-free days a week.
But enough about me: if you have any no- or low-alcohol drinks you recommend, then list them in the comments below: