It’s entirely possible the first ever “mocktail” in Australia was the pub classic: Lemon, Lime and Bitters. And for many years, it was probably the only mocktail. But increasingly, restaurants and bars are taking non-alcoholic drinks seriously, devoting entire sections to them on their menus. For non- drinkers, this means not having to ask bar staff to make them something off the menu, or settle for juice or the above-mentioned trusty standby. It’s hardly a trend – all bars depend on their alcohol-drinking patrons – but there has been a subtle shift. And it’s resulted in some considered, creative drinks for teetotallers, or those who for whatever reason, just need a break from the booze.
Magic Mountain Saloon in the CBD has a non-alcoholic drinks list as interesting as any cocktail list (although admittedly, it’s shorter). There are non-alcoholic beers and Fentimans soft drinks, but it’s the mocktails that stand out. As a venue with a 24-hour licence it’s necessary (The Trendy Slacks – chrysanthemum syrup, lemon juice, coconut water – is great with breakfast). But bar manager Andre de Villiers says it’s not just the daytime patrons ordering mocktails; his staff is making these at all times of day and night and into the wee hours. Some people like to have a pause between drinks so they can stay out longer. Others want to party but might be doing Dry July, Feb Fast, are the designated driver or abstain from alcohol because they are straight-edge, taking medication or are pregnant. “The reason it’s there is to include everyone. It tastes a lot better than post-mix,” he says.
A mocktail needs to take into account the same elements of balance as a cocktail; blending sweet, sour, bitter and salty tastes. Alcohol is an excellent solvent, driving flavour and providing body. As well as giving drinkers a buzz and a certain flavour, it’s a blending tool.
Water, the base for juices and soda, is a weaker solvent than alcohol is, so doesn’t hold a syrup or shrub’s flavour as effectively. That’s the challenge facing bar staff when trying to make a killer-tasting mocktail.
Tokyo Tina and Saigon Sally also have non- alcoholic drinks on the menu. That’s where Michael Forbes, the beverage manager at both restaurants, says drinking vinegars – also called shrubs – play an important role. “Drinking vinegars started in the 1700s. It’s vinegar, sugar and water. The vinegar holds the flavour and promotes the acidity. You can get really interesting flavours, which we then dilute with soda,” he says, pointing to a rhubarb and strawberry shrub mixed with soda and coriander as an example.
The Union Electric Bar in the CBD doesn’t have a non-alcoholic drinks section on its menu, but bar manager Huw Griffiths acknowledges that part of his role is to accommodate those who are on the wagon. “We’re just trying to be a bit nicer about it,” he says. At Union Electric, fresh fruit is turned into shrubs, which according to Griffiths are awesome with soda or with apple juice. “We often mix a berry or a stone fruit shrub with fresh apple juice and cucumber. We garnish it with some edible flowers and often cucumber leaf or a pineapple leaf. We like the big pops of flavour, rather than the spices and the aromatics.”
The Virgin Botanica at Union Electric is apple juice, pineapple syrup and cucumber with a flower garnish. It’s the virgin version of its Kum Den Botanica, which uses West Winds Gin. It’s not on the menu, but definitely available.
Andre de Villiers says the Tom Thumb at Magic Mountain (pistachio syrup, plum puree, lemon juice and soda) is close to a gin fizz – just minus the gin.
There is also the Cuban Cream, “Which is like a non-alcoholic mojito,” de Villiers says. It uses fresh mint, fresh lime and vanilla syrup by Six Barrel Soda Co.
At Saigon Sally and Tokyo Tina, Michael Forbes uses Taiwanese drinking vinegars in flavours such as mulberry, plum, longum and red date. They can be mixed with soda and herbs. He also has shrubs in flavours such as tamarind, which gets mixed with ginger, lime, agave and soda.
But what do you order when the bar isn’t stocked with fancy ingredients? Andre de Villiers recommends thinking about these elements: “Something sweet, like a cordial or a juice, and then there’s the carbonation factor. That lengthens the base. Soda is dry and bubbly. So if you use something sweet and dry – that’s a nice combination. The same with bitter. Bitters is everywhere. So you could have a soda and lime with bitters.”
“A lot of bars tend to pull out the muddling stick and crush strawberries, which is lovely with mint,” says Huw Griffiths. “But that’s almost at the Lemon, Lime and Bitters stage now.”
All agree that the average sticky-carpet pub isn’t really the place to expect a fancy mocktail. That’s where the old favourite comes in. “Lemon, Lime and Bitters is still my favourite thing. You can order it anywhere and you’re getting a depth of flavour – you’ve got the spice, a sour element, sweetness, fizz and it’s refreshing,” says Forbes.
This article first appeared in Broadsheet's 2015 winter print issue, available for free now at shops, cafes, bars, restaurants and galleries across Melbourne.