THE NEW YORKER
ANNALS OF GASTRONOMY
September 19, 2019
Photograph by Rob Lawson
During a time when high-on-life sobriety appears on the rise, non-alcoholic spirits are finding their way onto menus at restaurants and bars.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Ben Branson, the thirty-six-year-old creator of Seedlip, a line of non-alcoholic spirits that is often likened to gin, walked into L’atelier de Joël Robuchon to talk alcohol-free booze. Unlike gin, Seedlip spirits are not made with juniper: Seedlip Garden tastes of peas, rosemary, and thyme; Seedlip Grove has flavors of orange peel and ginger; and Seedlip Spice tastes of cardamom and oak. Like gin, they are distilled and unsweetened—and Seedlip’s marketers suggest pairing them with tonic water. Robuchon, a two-Michelin-star restaurant in the Meatpacking District, had recently started offering a non-alcoholic pairing menu that uses Seedlip as well as the restaurant’s own concoctions of juices and syrups. “At this point, it is absolutely a requisite to have a part of your program that is no proof, or, at the very least, low proof,” Will Peet, the head bartender at Robuchon told me. Branson was there to speak to the servers about his spirits, and he perched at the bar drinking an espresso before the talk. Three pastel-colored bottles of Seedlip sat prominently on the nearest shelf.
After finishing his coffee, Branson, wearing black sweatpants and a hoodie, walked into a room full of uniformed bartenders and sat at a long dining table. “I feel really underdressed, so I apologize,” he said. “But at least we’re all in black.” Branson, who lives near London, and whose family has maintained a farm in the northeast of England for more than three hundred years, appears blithely dismissive of the conventions of the kinds of places that have most warmly welcomed his spirit. (Seedlip has been a particular hit with upscale restaurants such as the Fat Duck, the Ledbury, and the Savoy). “This is pajamas,” he’d said, while on his way to the restaurant. “I don’t own a suit. I go to black ties in pajamas.”
Peet stood by the table across from Branson and noted that some diners worry that they can’t ask for complex non-alcoholic drinks without sounding overly demanding. “People are genuinely surprised when restaurants have great non-alcoholic options, rather than them having to kind of nervously ask if they can have a plain cider or tell you why they’re not drinking,” Branson said. Justine Roux, Seedlip’s New York market manager, suggested that the bartenders might start including Seedlip in their spiels. “I think it’s a great way to, like, upsell as well,” she said. “Like, someone who’s not going to drink maybe would just drink water. It’s a cool way to upsell and make someone happy.” A twenty-three-ounce bottle of Seedlip goes for thirty-six dollars.
Diners sometimes get pushback when ordering non-alcoholic spirits. Before coming to Robuchon, Branson had recorded a podcast with Bianca Bosker, the author of “Cork Dork,” a best-seller about wine and sommeliers at a studio in midtown. After the recording session ended, Elisabeth Robinson, the podcast’s producer, lingered with Branson in the corridor outside the studio while he waited for a cab. The two discussed resentment that Seedlip had faced. “I have heard all the abuse under the sun that you can imagine,” Branson said. “Not necessarily from the alcohol industry, but just, ‘What’s the point? This is never going to sell a bottle.’ Seedlip has made, usually, middle-aged men incredibly angry, incredibly threatened. It’s an inanimate object that you don’t have to have in your life anywhere near you!” Robinson nodded. “I don’t drink caffeine after, like, noon, and, when I order a decaf, people go, ‘I don’t get the point of this,’ ” she said. “It tastes good? Even with alcohol. If I don’t have a drink, people are, like, ‘Why aren’t you drinking?’ ” She shrugged. “Sometimes you want to drink something with alcohol and sometimes you don’t, and it’s not a political statement.”
At Robuchon, Peet said that, in the industry more generally, bartenders are often “half in, half out,” and some only reluctantly agree to serve non-alcoholic drinks. A diner recently complained in an op-ed at Eater NY that a disgruntled bartender rolled his eyes in disbelief after she ordered a hibiscus lemonade and then stormed off and let a colleague handle her drink. “There are still those bartenders, sure, but the majority of us kinda just look and go, ‘Yeah, right, totally, man, of course,’ ” Peet said.
But bartenders may be right to feel threatened. Alcohol sales volumes have been declining in the U.S. since 2016, according to data collected by I.W.S.R., an analytics firm that focusses on trends in the alcoholic-beverage industry. Recent research has challenged the long-held belief that moderate drinking has health benefits—that, say, a glass of red wine a day can be good for the heart. Last summer, a widely circulated study, published in The Lancet, argued that the potential benefits of even small amounts of alcohol are heavily offset by its harms. The paper criticized government health boards that merely recommend moderation and argued, instead, that they should “consider recommendations for abstention.” (In a rebuttal to the interpretations of The Lancet study, published in the Times, Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University and the author of “The Bad Food Bible: How and Why to Eat Sinfully,” likened the argument that “there is no safe amount of alcohol” to saying that “there’s no safe amount of dessert.”)
The new reports about the effects of alcohol have come out at a time when self-destruction has been steadily sliding out of fashion, and high-on-life sobriety movements have been on the rise. Daybreaker, a series of sober early-morning raves complete with strobe lights and d.j. sets, which began in New York, in 2013, has since gone global. More recently, a meditation leader named Biet Simkin co-founded Club soda (Sober or Debating Abstinence), a set of events that includes guided meditation and talks on issues like sober sex and how to avoid alcohol during the summer.
Even as alcohol-intake declines, the social ritual of drinking, and of paying for drinks, appears here to stay. In 2017, Julia Momose, a “beverage creative” at Oriole, a restaurant in Chicago, created a ninety-five-dollar spirit-free pairing menu. This spring, Getaway, a full-fledged alcohol-free bar that serves mixed drinks in dainty cocktail glasses that are indistinguishable from the real thing in appearance and price, opened in Greenpoint. It’s hard to tell if the bar’s green-tinted walls and bar stools give it an accidental or deliberate health-shop feel. Listen Bar, a pop-up alcohol-free bar, is currently crowdfunding for a permanent location in Williamsburg. And alcohol manufacturers seem to be reading the room. MillerCoors recently acquired a kombucha maker based in California. Anheuser-Busch is trying its hand at lightly spiked coconut water. Heineken is advertising its non-alcoholic beer on New York subway platforms. Last month, Diageo (the company that owns Guinness and Smirnoff, among other brands) bought a majority share in Seedlip.
After the talk at Robuchon, Branson, Peet, and a few of Seedlip’s employees walked back to the bar to try another set of Seedlip products—non-alcoholic verjus-based aperitifs mixed with herbs and roots—marketed under the name Aecorn. The drinks had launched in the U.K. the day before, and the Americans had yet to try them. Peet took a sip of Aecorn Dry, a grape blend that is infused with chamomile, black tea, and quassia wood. “Such a crazy back end,” he said. “Wow.” Branson poured him Aecorn Aromatic, a smokier brew. “Lots of burned-marshmallow notes here,” Branson said. “We’ve got smoked cherrywood, kola nuts, chinotto, bay leaf, but you get all those kind of honeycomb, toffee, vanilla, cassia bark.” Peet turned the drink in his wine glass. “The nose is wild,” he said. “I really like that kola note.” Branson agreed. “Yeah, I mean, I love the flavor profile of Coca-Cola,” he said. “This is like a smoked-cherry cola on speed.” Lorena Tapiero, Seedlip’s U.S. head of communications interjected. “They’re going to love this in the States,” she said. “People love cherry cola.” “I had a bartender in Sydney, who shall remain nameless, go, ‘I’d use this instead of Campari in all my cocktails,’ ” Branson said. “And you’re just, like, ‘Fuck, that’s great.’ Because he’s lowering the A.B.V. of his cocktails, so people may have another one, right? Negronis are twenty-four per cent. That’s a boozy drink. And, if it costs the same as something that’s low, I can have three of the lower ones—they’re, like, five, six per cent, you know?” A server who’d been at the talk earlier walked over. “I just wanted to introduce myself—Matt Rosen,” he said to Branson. “I got introduced to Seedlip in Ssäm Bar, like, a few years ago, and it’s been great. Like you said, it’s the answer to, like, the virgin piña colada, which was my old favorite.” Branson invited him to try the aperitifs. “Something that I can smell and then taste!” Ronsen said, holding the glass to his nose. “It’s great.” Branson began working himself up, outlining his dreams for Seedlip to become the world’s sober drink of choice. “Fuck off, Shirley Temple,” he said. “NOgroni”—a Seedlip mix that resembles a negroni—“should be the most famous non-alcoholic cocktail in the world.” Roux, the marketing manager, who sat with her elbows on the bar, sipping an aperitif, was similarly buzzed. “This is really doing something for me right now,” she said. “I don’t know, maybe it’s because the sun is out.”
Yasmine Al-Sayyad is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff.