Let's drink to innovative spirit: searching for an alcohol alternative

Li Anlan
Following the trend for meat alternatives, there is an increased interest in alcohol-free drinks. But promoting China's traditional spirit of choice has not been forgotten.
Li Anlan
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Take a sip of red wine before bed while reading a book, grab a casual cocktail after work for some relaxation, or go all-in for a sensational experience of alcoholic (and non-alcoholic) delights, the beverage industry is a fast-changing world boasting infinite possibilities.

This week, leading experts in the beverage industry share with us the latest trends and developments.

Lets drink to innovative spirit: searching for an alcohol alternative
Li Anlan / SHINE

Alcohol-free gin

A social and health remedy: non-alcoholic booze

Non-alcoholic booze has ranked a top food and beverage trend over the past year as the public grows more aware of alcohol’s effect on health, but drinking alcohol is not just a beverage option, it’s also part of the social culture, like toasting at celebrations. For people who aren’t able to consume alcohol or can’t do so for health reasons, alcohol-free wines and spirits are an option.

The alternative option is not about mocktails — the soda, juice and syrup creations that don’t look or taste like real alcoholic drinks, but colorful juices that aren’t creative or exciting.

Ruslan Kaptsan, beverage manager at the Jing An Shangri-La, West Shanghai, borrowed the concept of plant-based protein/vegan meat to interpret a non-alcoholic “alcohol.”

“For example, I’m vegetarian, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t like some of the flavors from the steak. Fortunately now we have some products like the “meatless meats” that deliver the flavor, texture and experience to people who are not eating meat for some reason, whether it’s cultural, religious, personal or physical,” said Kaptsan. “For some reasons, people don’t consume alcohol as well, whether they’re driving, underage or not in the mood, so we’re looking at how to give people the same experience without alcohol.”

Whether one doesn’t want to upset a business partner or friend at social gatherings by refusing to drink alcohol, the non-alcoholic options offer people a way to deal with the situation with respect for others.

With respect for the guests, bartenders want to make something special for them with the element of surprise. The goal of alcohol-free booze is to present an experience of drinking wine, cocktail or spirit that’s as close to the real thing as possible, meaning the presentation, the texture and the taste need to be similar.

“Non-alcoholic drinks are amazing things for me, I myself also experience situations where I needed to drink but didn’t want to, especially as a father of a 1-year-old,” said Kaptsan.

Lets drink to innovative spirit: searching for an alcohol alternative
Li Anlan / SHINE

Ruslan Kaptsan uses a rotary evaporator to create alcohol-free wine.

He managed to create an alcohol-free sparkling wine with sauvignon blanc wine and two kinds of vermouth, using a rotary evaporator to separate the alcohol from the wine and then make it sparkling with a carbonizer.

“You don’t want to cook the wine, but you want to extract the alcohol. What we do is to change the pressure inside the equipment that’ll help us to lower the boiling temperature, so at way lower temperatures, the sugar won’t caramelize. We’re still in the process of making it sharper, it’s complicated and technical work to find the right temperature and pressure,” he said.

There are alcohol-free wines available on the market that have been produced in the similar way as real wine instead of being just grape juice. The price of these alternatives, though, are quite high. For example, the Alain Milliat fruit juices produced with wine grapes such as the merlot red grape or sauvignon white grape are about 40 yuan for a 330ml bottle. They no longer taste like grape juice, but the extra sweetness still separates them from real wine.

Strong distilled spirits can be alcohol-free. Take gin as an example. The ABV (alcohol by volume) of regular gin should be above 37.5 percent, but non-alcoholic versions are available from several brands which are mostly sugar and additive-free, and contain zero calories.

The alcohol-free gins aren’t exactly real gin, but beverages designed to mimic gin. Botanicals including different spices, herbs, fruits and natural flavorings that distillers use to produce special spirits are added to create gins that taste similar to the real thing, particularly juniper.

“Sometimes I drink non-alcoholic beers, there are a few brands around that are quite nice and enjoyable, but I think there’s still a difference between real beer and the product I tried, and I want my products to be close to the originals as I actually can accomplish it,” said Kaptsan. He’s still in the process of making his ideas come alive on the menu.

Lets drink to innovative spirit: searching for an alcohol alternative
Li Anlan / SHINE

An alcohol-free sparkling wine made of white wine and vermouth.

Young and trendy: baijiu’s new adventure and experience-centric concepts

Chinese baijiu is now the official English name for this traditional distilled liquor. There’s the common perception of baijiu being a drink for the older generation, but brands and bars are now en route to make it a trendy concept for younger people.

The grain-based liquor is clear, dry and strong, and not considered easily palatable for the new generation of drinkers. But when asked about the latest trends in the beverage industry, Andrew Ho and Bastien Ciocca, co-owners of Hope & Sesame in Guangzhou which ranked 36th in Asia’s 50 Best Bars in 2020, coined baijiu as the latest trend in the cocktail world.

Ho and Ciocca now run four bars and a F&B consulting company, the award-winning Hope & Sesame bar is now in its fifth year. In 2020, they opened SanYou to focus on modern baijiu cocktails in a local vintage funk vibe. With over 10,000 brands of baijiu on the market, they have curated a menu of about 200 baijiu and other Chinese spirits to offer a special tasting experience.

“Almost all of the base liquors have been well made use of, you can easily find a whisky cocktail bar in a Chinese city because it’s already very developed, and it’s also very difficult to do a concept to focus on gin or rum. For us, baijiu is the biggest trend. It’s also in line with the guochao trend of incorporating Chinese tradition and culture,” said Ho.

Lets drink to innovative spirit: searching for an alcohol alternative
Ti Gong

Andrew Ho (left) and Bastien Ciocca (right) cite baijiu as the latest trend.

Chinese bajiu has more than 2,000 years of history as one of the world’s top six distilled spirits. The price of the more notable brands such Moutai can be sky high, and baijiu is often served on official occasions and banquets. This very traditional spirit is favored by parents, grandparents and even great grandparents, and it’s now being reintroduced to the younger generation as a new and sensational experience.

“Why not search for all kinds of baijiu across China? It has 12 categories of aroma, and it’s one hard liquor that’s been neglected by the younger generation, so we want to present baijiu in a ceremonial fashion that combines baijiu beverages and baijiu-inspired food, involving a lot of actions to make it fresh again,” said Ho.

Cross-over concepts are also growing in popularity in the beverage world, and alcohol gets to play a role in other fields like coffee — such as coffee cocktails, or roasting raw coffee beans that have been steeped in spirits like baijiu or brandy and then dried, which would infuse the flavor of the alcohol but not the alcoholic content.

Another cocktail trend that’s growing more popular is serving cocktails in a tasting menu style, a unique experience of enjoying different styles and flavors of cocktails alongside a small serving of food.

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