It’s a Tuesday night at Manhattan bar in Regent Hotel and the drinks, like the conversation, are flowing. In the private room adjoining the main bar area, the wood-panelled walls are dark, the couches plush and the lighting moody, illuminating the artfully prepared drinks before us which are made with American malt whiskey and coffee liqueur. Or are they?
As it turns out, that pleasant haze I’m experiencing is all in my head. Every drink we’ve imbibed this evening — six in total, across three bars — are non-alcoholic and made using an assortment of Australian brand Lyre’s zero-ABV non-alcoholic spirits. Lyre’s is the latest contender to tackle the burgeoning demand for low- or no-alcohol serves, a drinks category with major growth potential given the shifting social norms about alcohol consumption (and overconsumption). Last December, The Economist declared “drinking is going out of fashion” among the young, and with wellness going mainstream, many have embraced “intentional drinking” and even alcoholic abstinence (via Drynuary and the sober curious movement) as readily as they have athleisure and ashwagandha.
The trend for zero-ABV spirits was arguably kickstarted by British brand Seedlip. It made waves in the drinks industry when it launched in late 2015 with what it described as the world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirit. In its wake followed an array of intriguingly named brands, including Stryyk, Ginsin, Rumish and Kvist, with even big players such as Diageo (which bought a majority stake in Seedlip) and Pernod Ricard throwing their hats into the burgeoning zero-proof ring. Closer to home, Melati recently unveiled Asia’s first non-alcoholic aperitif, crafting its raspberry-hued elixir with 26 healing Asian botanicals and just 12 calories per serve.
As with any new concept, a lack of understanding (and often regulations) abound. For example, what exactly constitutes a non-alcoholic spirit? A “spirit drink” as defined by the European Union means an alcoholic beverage with a minimum alcoholic strength of 15 percent by volume, while in the U.S., a “distilled spirit” is understood to contain about 40 percent alcohol. Conversely, all of Lyre’s 13 offerings are free of the inebriating stuff, crafted instead with all-natural essences, extracts and distillates meant to closely mimic iconic spirits, including absinthe, American malt whiskey, London dry gin and Amaretto liqueur.
The challenge in creating any non-alcoholic tipple is that alcohol does much more than just give you a pleasant buzz. It carries more flavour and aroma than water, adds body and a viscous mouthfeel, and gives a distinct flavour-enhancing “burn” with every sip. To capture these features, some brands distill their product with alcohol, then remove it. Lyre’s, meanwhile, says it uses a process called compounding, mixing together ingredients such as extracts, sugar, acid and water to create superior flavour and texture.
There’s plenty of clever reverse-engineering and blending wizardry going on too, like the use of pepper to imitate the natural “burn” of whiskey and distillates and extracts that add the kind of structural complexity you’d expect from a fancy drink in a spiffy bar. Lyre’s Amaretti, for instance, manages to capture the rich almondiness of Amaretto, with hints of marzipan, caramel, vanilla and even the light bitter note that characterises traditional versions of the Italian liqueur. The American Malt, meanwhile, is all smoke and mirrors, with notes of honey, sweet spice and charred, cedary oak. Each “spirit” comes in an elegant, weighty glass bottle with whimsically illustrated labels, each depicting a different animal.
Lyre’s is the brainchild of entrepreneur Mark Livings, who was searching for an alternative drink that wouldn’t leave him discombobulated the morning after. Livings isn’t alone — who hasn’t at some point found themselves unable to partake? Medication, allergies, religious practices, pregnancy or personal choice can all conspire to make us settle for an overpriced juice or a saccharine mocktail that’s more afterthought than art.
“We’re seeing that more and more of our guests are interested in our non-alcoholic offerings, as they’re not just your standard juice and syrup combo,” says Russell Ong, head bartender at Ah Sam Cold Drink Stall. (Ong, by the way, may just be the best man to make you a zero-proof sip — the Atlas Bar alum is a “dry bartender” who doesn’t actually drink.) Manhattan’s Head Bartender Sophia Kang, meanwhile, says she “enjoys experimenting with Lyre’s different spirits and pairing them with unusual ingredients from Manhattan’s collection.”
Each of Lyre’s varietals is designed to be quickly understood by consumers and the industry, with flavour profiles that can easily be used in place of their alcoholic counterparts. Appealingly, they can be easily dressed up or down — whether in a simple Spritz or in Manhattan’s sophisticated creations. “The process of working with Lyre’s products is entirely the same as working with their alcoholic counterparts,” says Kai-Ho Ng, bar manager of Don Ho in Keong Saik. “I just focus on the ingredient and build the flavours around it.”
Where to try Lyre’s newest cocktails