In the past, alcohol-free drinks have tended to be the poor relative to their booze-fuelled counterparts. ‘Order yourself a proper drink’ might be the standard rejoinder to someone ordering a mocktail. Even the terminology – ‘soft drinks’, ‘no alcohol’, ‘mocktails’ – sounds derogatory and strangely lacking. But the category has finally come of age with the introduction of Hakkasan’s first alcohol-free drinks list, which has been two years (and mind-boggling amounts of R&D) in the making.
‘If you’re in a restaurant like ours, even the inexpensive wines, sakés and cocktails will be complex and work well with food, but we couldn’t find any non-alcoholic drinks that did that,’ Christine Parkinson, Hakkasan Group’s head of wine, tells Imbibe. ‘They were all too sweet, too simple or too fizzy, and mocktails rarely delivered or had the precision of a proper cocktail.’
Parkinson persuaded the top suits at Hakkasan to stump up a considerable budget to develop a non-abv drinks menu; a project that burgeoned from six months to two years. The Herculean task of creating the list involved long periods slaving away in test kitchens, extensive lab trials, and sampling a vast array of products from camels milk to a birch water from a ‘mom-and-pop outfit’ in Alaska.
The resulting Orchard List is an intriguing collection of 29 drinks, which includes cultured and cold-brew teas, craft sodas and tonics, drinking vinegars, fruit blends, tree waters and, most excitingly, a new type of drink, christened Mai Shin.
For the sake of no abv
A rice and Japanese tea infusion, Mai Shin was inspired by saké brewing and crafted in the UK with natural ingredients imported from Japan and Asia. It was born out of the frustration that both Parkinson and Hakkasan’s head of bar, Eder Neto, felt at not being able to find standalone, non-alcoholic drinks they could pair with the restaurant group’s food.
‘Mai Shin is not a non-alcoholic saké at all, but we were inspired by the flavours that saké has and the attention to detail and craftsmanship that goes into producing it,’ says Parkinson. ‘It really encapsulates how we feel about Japan and we’re really proud of it.’
There are currently two versions: the Sukkiri, a delicate, more floral style and Mattari, which is creamier in texture and has slightly more umami. They take inspiration from non-junmai and junmai sakés respectively. In line with the Japanese regard for seasons, the former is lighter and more Spring like, while the latter has nutty, savoury notes and is more Autumnal.
To avoid the kind of lost-in-translation idiocy that ended up with Mitsubishi calling one of its cars Lettuce, Hakkasan worked with a Japanese consultant to name its new drink. Mai Shin loosely translates as ‘new dance’, while the characters used can also be taken to mean ‘rice’ and ‘vitality’. Shikkiri means ‘fresh’ and ‘clean’, while the word Mattari reflects a more earthy, and relaxed state of being.
Given the care and dedication that went into putting the list together, the team was determined the service and overall experience measured up. A tumbler of ice and naff garnish just wouldn’t cut it.
‘You basically get much better service in a restaurant if you buy alcohol than if you don’t,’ says Parkinson. ‘We felt that as well as making the drinks more complex, we should put the service on a par.’
The drinks on the Orchard List that come in bottles will be presented by sommeliers in the same way that wine is served, and considerable time was spent choosing the glassware for each drink. The Mai Shin, being inspired by Japan, is served in sakéware.
Brewing up a storm
The team had a head start with its cold brews, as the group owns the Michelin-starred dim-sum tea house Yautcha in Soho, where it was able to source fine teas from. However, the team still spent every Thursday and Friday over a 15-month period tasting cold-brewed teas and tweaking the numerous variables, such as brew time and temperature – even the length of time they spend in the bottle.
Hakkasan has gone live with two varieties – one Japanese and a Wuyi tea from China, which is a half-fermented blue tea that sits somewhere between green and dark tea, offering a smokiness and fruitiness that pairs well with the Asian flavours.
‘We chose the Wuyi because we wanted something that’s quite rounded and could cope with heavy spices as well as light dishes,’ says Neto. ‘It gives you the flavours of a dark tea, the flora of a green tea, and toasted notes because the leaves have been roasted.’
Don’t mock the mocktail
‘Mocktail’ is considered a bit of a dirty word at Hakkasan, where it has been done away with in favour or ‘fruit blends’ and ‘infusions’. These PC-named beverages are made in house by Neto, who says, ‘we never call them mocktails – when you mock something, it’s an imitation’.
‘We have one of the largest selections of spirits in the UK and have always been very focused on regular cocktail making, so we say let’s put the same effort into our non-alcoholic drinks,’ he adds.
Neto’s concoctions include salted and bittered juices on the infusion side, and centre on Asian ingredients, such as lemongrass, bay leaves, kaffir lime leaves, as well as kumquat, pomelo and mandarins, which are seen to bring good fortune and health in Chinese culture. These core ingredients are blended with other flavours, typically tropical ones in Summer and spices in Winter.
‘We wanted to take the same approach that we have with our classic cocktails,’ says Neto. ‘You have the initial flavour, which evolves into something else, and finishes off with something else again.’
A global search
In all, the Orchard List encompasses nine categories of non-alcoholic drinks, many of which have been custom-developed or sourced from Asia and beyond. The drinking vinegars or ‘shrubs’ and kombucha, favoured in Asian countries for their health properties, are very much of the zeitgeist.
Its honey jun kombucha is the result of extensive research and a prolonged search for a culture that is impervious to the antimicrobial properties of honey, which is used in place of sugar. The investment in developing the kombuchas was ‘quite frankly enormous,’ Parkinson says. The Ichibori drinking vinegar, which is exclusively imported from Japan, offers an initial sharpness, but has a rich umami and is particularly food friendly.
At the fizzy end of the drinks list, the team discovered a category of soft drinks in Japan called ciders – the name derived from a mistranslation of ‘sodas’ – which Parkinson describes as having ‘cute and pretty flavours’ compared to Western soda profiles. They also worked with Square Root Soda Works in Hackney, London, to custom-make a botanical spritz, inspired by vermouth and tonic, that contains grapefruit and berries, and the botanicals cinchona and wormwood.
Sparkling grape juice is an obvious inclusion for any non-abv drinks list as the sober sibling of wine, and features widely in countries in the Middle East where alcohol is banned. However, Parkinson says that, despite the plethora of grape juices, ‘most of them are terrible’.
‘These drinks require a lot of technical expertise and you need a committed viticulturalist to grow good grapes,’ says Parkinson. ‘The harvest date for a juice is just as important as it is for wine, because otherwise you end up with too much sugar and no refreshment, so it’s a much earlier harvest.’
With so many exotic and unfamiliar drinks to choose from, it could be hard to know where to start. Neto insists that any drink that makes it into Hakkasan – be it a famous wine or spirit – must work with all the different flavours of its cuisine. Their motto is ‘the food chooses the drink’. However, he allows that particular drinks on the list work better with particular food types.
The sparkling juices and fruit blends, because they’re slightly sweeter, perform much better with spicy dishes as they cool down the heat, while the vinegars work well with fried dishes as the acidity cuts through the oil.
‘The Mai Shin is lovely and light, so it pairs extremely well with Japanese food and mild flavours like dim sum and sashimi,’ he says.
Finally, to cleanse the palate after that dizzying array of drinks, the list includes a birch water made of sap, which is tapped directly from trees in Belarus, and Ogam Bottled Wood, a wooded water made with a blend of oak, chestnut and acacia.
‘It’s a really unusual concept because we’re used to wood playing a really important part in spirit and wine making, but this is just about wood,’ says Parkinson.
So is that it? Non-alcoholic offering bar raised and job done? Absolutely not. Parkinson told Imbibe Hakkasan will update its non-abv offering seasonally, as it does its wine and cocktail lists.