Non-alcoholic beverages are on the uptick, says Caitlyn Rees. She would know. The Sydney sommelier is wine director at Mary’s Group, and was previously head sommelier at Fred’s.

“It’s been happening for the last five to eight years,” says Rees of the rise. “The market is going that way and the industry has [had] to adapt and get more creative.”

That eye-witness experience makes Rees an ideal judge for the non-alcoholic drink portion of the inaugural Drink Easy Awards, a new beverage award that showcases Australia’s most promising drinks producers.

Founded by chef Duncan Welgemoed (co-owner of Adelaide’s Africola, food journalist and presenter Mike Bennie (also co-founder of P&V Wine + Liquor Merchants and drinks media specialist Tamrah Petruzzelli director of the creative agency Super Assembly, the award is a fresh take on beverage judging (it’s mostly been just beer and wine before this) focused on drinkability rather than technique. It will also provide a comprehensive guide to Australian drinks and their producers.

Rees’s eye-witness account is confirmed by the stats. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australians are consuming alcohol in record low numbers. Rees says as a rule people just “want to consume better” drinks these days, regardless of whether or not they contain alcohol. “People aren’t happy with a lemon, lime and bitters anymore,” she says. “Everyone is getting more savvy. Now you’ve got fine-dining restaurants like Bentley or Momofuku in Sydney doing full non-alcoholic pairings that are fantastic. Some of those matches are even better than the alcoholic option.”

Rees says she acquired a taste for non-alcoholics as assistant head sommelier at Momofuku Seiōbo. She was struck by non-alcoholic drink pairings such as cloudy earl grey tea with caramel, and fresh watermelon juice with kombu and soy.

Distillers and producers are catching on. Popular options include Seedlip, an English distillery that produces fragrant booze-free spirits. “They’re delicious,” says Rees. “It’s something different and unique. It’s a complex drink, and there are a lot of different aromas and flavour characteristics. It’s smashable.”

Locally, PS40 is a Sydney cocktail bar and soda company serving a range of non-alcoholic cocktails that go well beyond run-of-the-mill mocktails. These include the Melondramatic, made with Seedlip Spice, watermelon shrub, banh mi ice cream and PS40’s own wattle cola.

Rees hopes to see a similar calibre of offerings in the non-alcoholic category of the Drink Easy Awards. When assessing the submissions, she’ll be looking for characteristics such as personality, drinkability and complexity, as well as sheer enjoyment. “It’s purposely broad,” she says. “You don’t want to isolate any style of drink. Really, it’s about what’s delicious.”

For more details, including submission details, visit Drink Easy.

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