Non-alcoholic programs have come a long way since abstainers were confined to a performative juice tucked below the booze. Over the last decade, chefs and restaurateurs worldwide have developed non-alcoholic drinks specifically for pairing with tasting menus. Yet these juices, distillates, infusions, extractions, and kombuchas are not merely a substitute for wine—they draw on a commitment to hospitality and enhance the meal.
“Spirit-free pairings can heighten the experience in a way typical wine pairings don’t,” says Julia Momosé, a bartender, mixologist, author, and owner of Kumiko dining bar in Chicago, which has an extensive menu of non-alcoholic mixed drinks. “Unlike wines, ‘spiritfrees’ are created specifically for that dish.” Momosé coined the term “spiritfree” in a 2017 manifesto denouncing the word “mocktail,” a designation she believes diminishes the care that goes into non-alcoholic drink development.
Shortly after opening his now two-star Michelin Oriole, also in Chicago, chef Noah Sandoval enlisted Momosé to craft spirit-free pairings for his tasting menu, adding traction to a growing worldwide practice. “A lot of folks want that pairing experience, but are not looking to drink nine glasses of wine,” Momosé explains. “There’s always been a desire for non-wine options, and it was about time.”
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Suffice to say, Oriole isn’t the only fine-dining restaurant to offer non-alcoholic pairings. Rasmus Kofoed and Søren Ledet have offered non-alcoholic pairings at Copenhagen’s Geranium, the three-star Michelin and newly awarded World’s Best Restaurant, since opening in 2007—before comprehensive non-alcoholic programs were in full swing. Like the cuisine, the pairings are ever-evolving and leverage local ingredients to express the territory, tradition, and seasons. For example, the Green Apple Juice cocktail currently contains cucumber and dill, two staples of the Danish kitchen. It accompanies a preparation of mackerel, a fish typically salted or smoked, with vegetable broth and smoked oil.
Looking to Nature
“These drinks can keep a level of purity,” says Jan Brack, the Cusco, Peru-based director of projects for Mater Iniciativa, a culinary research center founded by chefs Virgilio Martínez, Pia León, and Martínez’s sister, Malena Martínez. Brack oversees the pairings for Central, Kjolle, and Mayobar in Lima and Mil in Cusco. He explains that in-house staff members collaborate with the indigenous Kacllaraccay and Mullak’as Misminay communities as part of the extensive beverage development process, which hinges on Peru’s domestic plant species—specifically, the 800 edible, medicinal plants that the indigenous communities have consumed for centuries.
Brack explains that the non-alcoholic drinks elicit notes from the flora that juxtapose the flavors that materialize on the plate. Mil’s Extreme Altitude course and pairing both contain cushuro and kunuca, a plant and algae that sprout from 4,000 meters upward, but the drink embodies an alternative expression of the territory—its concentrated depth of flavor evokes the refreshing, cooling sensation one encounters in the high Andes.
Chef Ana Roš debuted the Juicy pairings at Hiša Franko, her Michelin two-star restaurant in Kobarid, Slovenia, in 2020. After outsourcing the recipes, she brought Anja Skrbinek on board in 2021 to lead the alcoholic and non-alcoholic drink program. Skrbinek, aided by two other team members, begins with a list of ingredients from Jeanne Dumas Chalifour and Matteo Monterumisi, organic farmers in Srednje, Slovenia, with whom Roš has collaborated since 2020. Following the research and development phase, Skrbinek and her colleagues consult the kitchen and beverage teams, then present their ideas to Roš. If Roš approves, they adjust the flavor, adding tannins and acidity if necessary.
Matt Seigel, the executive beverage director at husband-and-wife Kyle and Katina Connaughton’s Michelin three-star SingleThread in Healdsburg, California, manages the restaurant’s pairings along with the non-alcoholic program at Little Saint, the plant-based bistro the Connaughtons opened in April 2022. SingleThread has featured non-alcoholic pairings since its 2016 launch, and Seigel joined the team in 2021. Located in the heart of wine country, SingleThread’s 24-acre farm provides the backbone of the tasting menu and drink program—Seigel emphasizes that the micro-seasons guide the ship. “A plum at the beginning of June is not the same as a plum at the beginning of July,” he comments, and adjustments to any dish consequently alter the pairings.
“When it comes to wine pairings, others are doing the making, and the sommelier is doing the choosing,” says Julia Bainbridge, the author of Good Drinks and a leading non-alcoholic beverage authority. Indeed, this circumstance impacts the approach to pricing.
All agree that pricing must account for the labor which exceeds the cost of the raw materials. Ledet says that while they’ll never compromise on ingredient quality, the prices also strongly reflect the work: 30 to 45 hours a week go into the drinks, headed by the floor manager, who’s assisted by another staff member. Of the 70 percent of guests who opt for one of Geranium’s five pairing menus, 10 percent choose the non-alcoholic, which costs 1,300 Kr ($176).
At Hiša Franko, 70 percent of the guests order pairings, and over 20 percent take the €100 Juicy route. Skrbinek explains that the raw material for five kilos of buckwheat Amazake, which is paired with corn beignet filled with refermented cottage cheese, trout roe, and wild chives, costs €6. Yet producing the fermented rice drink entails three stages, starting with a 24-hour fermentation, and the time factors into the pricing. In addition to cost and labor, Seigel notes that it’s essential to assess the products that don’t go into development and never get sold at Little Saint and SingleThread, where the pairings cost $90.
For the Mater Iniciativa group, Brack considers the sourcing and the hours required to process the plants properly. They can oxidize and change color and flavor in minutes, requiring constant attention. Brack says that in June 2022, 70 percent of guests ordered pairings, with 30 percent choosing non-alcoholic for 210 S/ ($54).
It Comes Down to Hospitality
Regarding non-alcoholic programs, Bainbridge believes that “bars and restaurants, especially, should be serving thoughtful alcohol-free drinks if they want to stay relevant and are truly committed to hospitality.”
It’s not only full-time abstainers who go non-alcoholic. “It’s important that you as a restaurant can please everybody,” says Ledet, “and it’s not just about pleasing palates.” While the guests who choose the pairings aren’t necessarily financially motivated, Ledet acknowledges that not everyone dining at Geranium has the same budget, and this option can placate those minding their wallets. Similarly, abstainers, whether temporary or permanent, don’t feel second rate. For those who don’t want to risk a hangover, Ledet’s team will gladly mix and match the two—in fact, they encourage it.
Surroundings also play a part. Mil is located at 3,500 meters in the Andes, and the altitude often deters visitors from wine. At Hiša Franko, dinner begins with an outdoor aperitivo. The recent summer heat steers patrons toward kombucha, prompting several to follow the non-alcoholic course for dinner, either in its entirety or interspersed with wine. In Healdsburg’s vineyard-rich landscape, some visitors to SingleThread and Little Saint just want a break from wine—plus, navigating the rural backdrop after dinner warrants a designated driver.
Non-alcoholic pairings exemplify the kitchen’s values just as much as they represent a hospitable gesture—Noma in Copenhagen, Mirazur in Menton, France, minibar in Washington, D.C., Lûmé in Melbourne, and logy in Taipei are just a handful of restaurants that offer them.
Tasting menu or not, there’s no question that these drinks merit a prominent place at the table. Six of Little Saint’s 18 cocktails are non-alcoholic, and they sell more of these at $11 each than the alternatives that cost $14 and $15—just a few dollars more. Barrel-aged kombucha goes for $7, and Saturday nights often see an even split between the two categories. Though Little Saint doesn’t offer a tasting, Seigel explains that “a majority of the drinks use either the same ingredients or a by-product of the cooking process from specific ingredients,” so dishes and drinks that share ingredients and flavor profiles pair well together.
Bainbridge indicates that the labor involved could pose a challenge for chefs and restaurateurs contemplating non-alcoholic pairings, especially coming out of a pandemic. Yet, as the category expands and evolves, she believes there are no limits. “You can step back and look at them as just that: beverages, drinks, liquids—and so some chefs might work in a savory broth as a pairing, for example. It’s just so wide open for interpretation and creativity.”
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Jaclyn DeGiorgio is a Milan-based food, wine, and travel writer and a food tour guide. She has contributed to La Cucina Italiana, USA Today 10 Best, National Geographic Traveller, Conde Nast Traveler, Olive, and the Houston Chronicle, among other publications. She holds a Level Three certificate from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. Follow her @jaclyndegiorgio on Instagram or on her blog.