You’re Missing Out If You Don’t Get the Non-Alcoholic Pairing

The reputation of nonalcoholic drinks is not unwarranted. O’Douls – the booze-free beer substitute – never made any sense to me. And then there’s that recent barrage with nonalcoholic cans tied to a specific month when we’re supposed to all be sober before reverting to our debaucherous ways.

All this said, I don’t mind nonalcoholic drinks, but I do not like the bad ones. When I was given the choice between wine and nonalcoholic beverages at a fine-dining restaurant, I didn’t feel like I had much to choose from.

I hesitated when the waiter asked what I would like to drink at Ark, a fine-dining restaurant in Copenhagen that is plant-based. Prices for wine and nonalcoholic pairings were the same. The fact that I still felt extremely gluttonous from a 50-course dinner I had the night before, and Ark’s charismatic waiter seemed to really prefer these nonalcoholic drinks, made me decide I would try something different. The worst-case scenario was that I would wash it down with a Brown Bar.

My plans for a nightcap after dinner were thrown out the window when I saw the first dish, a foraged salad of sorts. The plate came with a jar of dressing, which was to be drizzled on top. The beverage that accompanied the salad arrived in a glass of wine, but it looked almost identical to the dressing. The taste, which I would compare to a vinaigrette without any breaks and kombucha, helped cement this link. The waiter said that the foraged rhubarb, gooseberry, and Greek mountain tea were fermented at home before being steeped together to make this beverage. He left before I had a chance to ask if the dressing could be consumed, even though it was delicious.

Many of the drinks that were served in the pairing were out of the ordinary, even by traditional pairing standards. Some drinks were served in coupes or wine glasses, while others came as shots. One sip was served in a rock glass. The tomato tonic was topped with whey from the ricotta that was made in-house (and was used for the dish with which it was served). Even the nonalcoholic spirits are impressive. The team infuses Seedlip, a nonalcoholic spirit, with foraged chamomile and spearmint leaves, lemon verbena, and black currant leaves before blending it with apple juice and tomato water.

This is because this sounds over the top and confusing. I would argue, however, that despite all the bells and whistles involved, the process of making nonalcoholic drinks is less difficult to understand than, say, winemaking terminology like malolactic ferment or carbonic maceration. One could at least say that there was no secret going on. The sommelier told me that when the loud man in front of me was given a glass of Gamay, the wine’s producer had died, along with his secret. The loud man, as you might expect, was not happy with the explanation.

This distinction, the decision to be unflinchingly honest and relentlessly inventive, is what makes nonalcoholic pairings interesting, luxurious, and, if I may say so, more delicious than their alcohol counterparts.

Julia Momose is a seasoned expert in the art of creating a nonalcoholic menu. She also helps to create the cocktail menu for Oriole Chicago. She tells me that the comms knowledge of wine is what makes pairings great. They can find the perfect match for the chef’s dish. The beauty of spirit-free combinations is that you make every ingredient from scratch. Momose calls this pairing a “true pairing” because the drink was designed to match with the food.

Momose goes further with her pairings, which could validate my decision to use the salad beverage at Ark as a dress. Momose says, “There was a drink that you could drizzle over a dish to make it cohesive. “Or you can just drink it.” The guest was free to drink it.

Renwick has said that he uses the nonalcoholic combinations as a sort of barometer because of his creativity and newly acquired craft. He says that he always gets a nonalcoholic beverage when he goes out. “It’s like a little test.” If someone can pair nonalcoholic drinks well, then the food will always be good. It shows that they have put the effort into the entire experience.

You’re likely to see one soon if you haven’t yet. Momose believes its popularity is due to one thing: the availability of nonalcoholic spirits.

Nixta Taqueria, in Austin, TX, has one. I was surprised, just because they have so little kitchen space. The restaurant was flooded with guests and acclaim after Chef Edgar Rico received the James Beard Award in 2022 for Best New Chef. And rightfully so. If you’ve been to the restaurant, you probably know that it is the size of an average New York City bathroom. If a restaurant only has eight burners and the line is around the block long, it’s hard to imagine how they cook all this delicious food.

Rico Mardanbigi and his partner, Sara Mardanbigi, are doing this well. They insist on having a nonalcoholic pairing to their new tasting concept, Flor Xakali, as a priority.

Mardanbigi explains, “We wanted the nonalcoholic menu to be similar to our food menu.” Mardanbigi says, “You can find a lot of sad vegetarian substitutes, so we wanted to create a menu that went beyond nonalcoholic wine and included things that we fermented or made in-house.”

The menu changes weekly. Rico and his team currently serve a nonalcoholic riesling as well as an agua de agua riff, a pineapple fermented Tepache, and a “Ghiajillo” — horchata and Ghia, their take on the nonalcoholic Carajillo.

Maybe it’s me, but I think all of these drinks sound more interesting and creative than any wine pairing that I’ve been involved with. It’s not even close.

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