Committed alcohol enthusiast Samuel Flynn Scott investigates whether it’s possible to have fun – and find drinks that hit the spot – when booze is not an option.
Choosing not to drink on a night out has traditionally led to a lot of fizzy water or sugary kids’ drinks. I might enjoy the big red sugar monster whilst scoffing a burger, but it doesn’t feel very special and it certainly doesn’t provide the razamatazz of a cocktail or the palate-exciting acidity of a good wine. I don’t want to drink the same thing again and again, and so on a big ol’ sober dry July date night I drank the bar dry… of non-alcoholic beverages. It turned into a week-long bender of Seedlip, Six Barrel Soda and eventually a mind-boggling bowl of premium kava.
This sober friend-date is essentially a way to shape a story around dry July, but it’s a date nonetheless; with Nick Brown, the partner in life and business of Becs Caughey, who I know through the music world (she managed the PM’s fave band Shapeshifter), which she has ditched for a life of importing the world’s best pickles with their business Cook & Nelson.
Cook & Nelson also imports Seedlip, the zero-alcohol spirit of distilled botanicals that’s making a similar splash in the cocktail world as Impossible Foods’ vegan burgers are in the realm of meat. Among New Zealand adults, 80% drink booze, and 31% do so three or four times a week. A not insignificant 27% of adult men’s drinking is classed as ‘hazardous’. Hazard seems quite a strong word, but I’m sure it doesn’t feel that removed from many of our realities.
Try spending 20-plus years in the music industry where every night there’s a ‘rider’, a table of beer, wine and spirits that it’s assumed you will consume in large quantities at any given opportunity. When you step back from it, it’s a crazy routine. Office drinks, the post-kids-in-bed wind-down G&T, beer festivals, birthdays, the Friday night rager, the Saturday brunch mimosa, the crazy new asparagus beer you HAVE to try.
I am not an expert on real drinking problems and I’m not going to comment or pass judgement on any of it, but I will say this: we have shaped our lives around alcohol in a way that means we can absentmindedly drink all the time.
My bar-crawl companion Brown hasn’t had a drink in a couple of years. He doesn’t feel he was out of control with the booze, but was fed up with it and getting nothing out of it. It’s a feeling shared by more and more people and dry July has become a focus point for that. I don’t know about you, but rituals and group behaviour tend to make me more likely to stick to something.
We start our sober date at the New Leaf Kombucha tap room. You can giggle all you want at how 2019 a ‘kombucha tap room’ in Grey Lynn sounds, but this stuff is fantastic. The booch of the week is a jasmine tea-based brew and it is delicious. Not at all vinegary, with a very balanced acidity, it would pair nicely with food – something we can’t do on this night, but Miso Ra can be found serving their excellent ramen at New Leaf on the occasional Friday evening.
Before we leave, brewmaster Derek Hillen offers us a shot – not of booze, but his own vinegar. Kinda sounds like it’s gonna be gross, but in fact it’s tastier than a lot of shots I’ve had in my life and even puts a little zip in my step. New Leaf passes the ‘night out undrunking’ test with flying colours.
Days later in my ‘bender’ I’m ready for another booze-alternative outing at Four Shells Kava bar. As a dry July option, kava is pretty different as it does get you buzzed. The owner, skateboarder/photographer Todd Henry, feels kava turned his hard-living lifestyle around. “I was heading in the wrong direction with drinking and luckily for me kava came along through my Tongan in-laws, and it has really enhanced my life.”
Watching Henry brew the kava is slightly mesmerising. It’s a physical process somewhere between making an old-fashioned and playing with mud pies in a sandpit. “People have misconceptions about it messing you up,” Todd tells me. “But it’s much more subtle than that. It helps with anxiety – even the next day you can feel more at peace.”
Eventually I get my bowl of the brown stuff, along with some coconut water and dried fruit. I try to sip away at it and savour the flavour, but aside from a distinct peppery note, it is overwhelmingly bitter. “Hmm, most people just knock it back, it’s not really a sipping drink,” Henry explains. “You can get used to the taste of kava, but it will always have its bitter notes. That’s why we offer it with chasers.”
Four Shells Kava is in the Victoria Park Markets and is the only kava bar in Auckland’s CBD (there are, of course, a few in South Auckland’s Pasifika communities). It’s a nice chill environment and it feels positive to have a bit of Polynesian culture encroaching into the city as opposed to the other way around. I feel buzzed off one bowl, but it’s just an edge of dreaminess. I wouldn’t operate any heavy machinery but an afternoon stroll through Silo Park feels appropriate.
But I digress. Our man-date is heading to Culprit, where Brown wants to check out the Seedlip cocktails (and the restaurant’s entry into the McClure’s Pickles toastie fest). I pull out a Garage Project tote but then, ta-dah, reveal a couple of Bitburger 0,0 Drives to neck on the way. It’s a very cheap zero-alcohol beer from one of the biggest brewers in Germany, and at $2ish a can from Countdown I fully vouch for Bitburger Drive if you don’t want to drink but crave that beery feeling. It’s not at all gross – it tastes like beer. But after delicious kombucha it feels a bit lifeless.
Culprit make us a couple of really great Seedlip drinks. They are less overtly citrus-lip-curling than what you might get at a cocktail bar and seem engineered to go well with food, which they do. The food is all darn good, of course. The raw kingfish with fresh Canterbury truffle is like a perfect piece of chamber music, while the cheese toastie with its mac ’n’ cheese topper, braised beef, cold pickles and jet black bread is more akin to Idles performing a Tiny Desk concert: all the more charming for being so unashamedly over the top and out of place.
The cocktails are delicious, but as I gaze longingly at the natural wines on offer, I decide there’s a gap in the market. One of the truly exceptional liquid experiences in Auckland is the non-alcoholic drinks pairing at Pasture, which provides a close approximation to the palate of complex, acidic, high-quality wine. I’d usually say the best drinks pairing is to drink what you enjoy, but at Pasture these pairings really do enhance the food and vice versa.
Recently chef Ed Verner acquired a fandangled “rotavap” (rotary evaporator), a piece of laboratory kit that uses temperature and motion to change the compound of liquids and capture or concentrate phenols (flavour molecules). “It’s totally enhanced our pairings,” says Verner. “We currently have a savagnin on the wine pairing and we use the rotavap to take alcohol out of the same wine, adding distilled almond and fermented artichoke to give it some body. We pour them side by side with the same dish.” In classic Pasture style, it’s about using ancient crafts and cutting-edge technology to make something brand new but with integrity.
In Melbourne, chef William Wade is similarly seeking an alcohol-free option for natural wine drinkers, bottling and retailing his “wine alternatives” under the name Non. He cut his teeth in the field making the non-alcoholic pairings for Noma and his flavour combinations, like salted raspberry and chamomile, are clearly aimed at the pét-nat drinking, comté scoffing, Bill Cunningham coat-wearing millenerati. Which is to say, people who like things.
We evacuate Culprit before the never-ending temptation of their trolley service destroys us and head to Britomart to see what the shiny poshos drink when they’re not drinking. Brown wants to try Fukuko and when I arrive I can see why. If in Xanadu did Kubla Kahn a Seedlip pleasure dome decree, then it would be Fukuko in dry July. The walls are embossed with the logo, there is a big display glowing on the bar and several specially designed cocktails on offer.
After reassuring the bartender several times that yes, we know the cocktails are booze free, I order a Kappa 108: Seedlip 108, cucumber juice, lemon, mint and sugar. It’s very sharp and very good. Nick goes for a Dark & Stormy, which pairs Seedlip Spice with shichimi pepper and ginger beer. It is very spicy, too spicy for me, and certainly not what I’d look for in a cocktail, but hey, it’s exciting. It’s not a Coke with a slice of lemon. It’s not a Cobb & Co traffic light. Remember those, children of the 80s? I guess they always made you throw up, so they have that in common with booze.
Next we travel two streets over and about 20 flights up to the Hi-So rooftop bar. This place is like David Lynch trying to design a bar for Tokyo Disney. It’s creepy, it’s colourful. It’s my new favourite bar. The bartender isn’t weird about us asking for non-alcoholic options, and of course he suggests, you guessed it, Seedlip. He proposes I might need a low-groni, which I succumb to – it’s not alcohol-free, but the combo of Seedlip Grove, Campari and my favourite vermouth Giulio Cocchi is very satisfying. Brown’s Seedlip garden, lemon and honey thing is the most delicious drink of the night. Just perfect. And they are $10 each, with is $5 cheaper than any other mocktail of the evening. Plus the parade of boomers with mohawks and zennials with expense accounts is glorious. I highly recommend Hi-So for the social theatre of it all.
Having had enough of looking at people with jeans worth more than my car, we head to K Road, where I’m sure the staff at GGxFlamingo will be really rude when we ask for our booze-free options. Alas, they are actually cool about it, even apologising that they don’t have Seedlip. It seems even Auckland’s hippest bars are down with dry July and the fact that I resist the urge to buy a Kirin pineapple beer is testament to the tastiness of the tamarillo drinkies they whip up.
I have this great idea to go down the road to the conspicuously untrendy Charlie’s, drink Coke and spend heaps of money on pokies. Am I drunk on not being drunk? I love Charlie’s, but it’s a dumb idea – we are sober tourists in a genuine dive bar, and losing $20 on pokies in five minutes is enough to end the evening.
One note for Auckland bars: please stock La Croix – I can drink them endlessly even if they do contain rat poison (they don’t) – and a bigger range of NZ-made sodas please. The Karma range is taking over the world and I’m down with that for sure, but I am especially fond of Six Barrel Soda’s offerings. There is much more to them than just sugar and lemon: they are genuinely bar-worthy mixers with booze or on their own. Get the East Imperial grapefruit soda (along with their impeccable tonics) while you’re at it. I want ALL the sodas.
Brown and I exchange yuzu kosho recipes and part ways. I warn him that in no way will my article be an advertisement for Seedlip, which of course it is – they are owning dry July and we just have to accept it. It feels like we are at the dawn of a new era and as long as the options keep evolving and being delicious, then we might just absentmindedly drink less.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.