News / Food & Drink

Cocktail bar takes the stigma out of being sober

Australia’s first non-alcoholic bar in Brunswick East is here to help during FebFast

Barman Astro serves up a cucumber flavoured non-alcoholic cocktail called King Louis at Brunswick Aces.

Mark Phillips
Monday, February 7, 2022

MORE Australians than ever before are choosing not to drink alcohol, and a Brunswick based bar is leading the way.

Brunswick Aces, believed to be the first fully non-alcoholic cocktail bar in Australia, opened to the public in April last year, but because of COVID-19 lockdowns it is still a relatively new and unknown venue to many local residents.

With its shelves lined with bottles, soft cushioned stools and cozy tables, Brunswick Aces looks and feels like a any other bar but with one crucial difference: not a drop of alcohol is available to be drunk on the premises.

“We feel there’s an opportunity for Brunswick to be the sober capital of Australia,” said Stuart Henshall, a co-owner of Brunswick Aces, only half-jokingly.

It’s a brave venture in a nation with a long history and culture of boozing, but Brunswick Aces appears to have changing habits on its side.

According to the government-funded Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the proportion of adult Australians who have never drunk a glass of alcohol grew from 9.3% to 14.4% between 2001 and 2019. At the same time the proportion of ex-drinkers has increased from 7.1% to 8.9%, while the proportion of people who drink on a daily basis has dropped from 8.5% to 5.4%.

Religion and cultural backgrounds play their part, but so do events like FebFast, an annual event in which people eschew alcohol for a month.

Mr Henshall said there were many reasons why people don’t drink alcohol at different stages in life. A key factor is pregnancy and other health issues as people get older, but he says social media is also playing its part.

“You have people coming in from the younger generation that are a lot more aware of the effects of alcohol, they don’t want the negative side effects, they’re a lot more cognizant of their health, some of them live their lives on social media so having a sloppy, drunken photo of themselves go up online isn’t really in line with their personal brand,” he said.

“So there’s a lot more moderation from that perspective.”

Brunswick Aces was formed in 2017 by a group of friends and neighbours living in Brunswick who all decided to give a non-drinking lifestyle a go at the same time.

The friends would meet regularly to share food and drinks they had made, but when one member became pregnant and another was in training for a marathon, two enterprising members of the social circle experimented with producing a non-alcoholic gin.

The result was Spades Sapiir, the first product to be marketed by the Brunswick Aces brand. The business grew organically, with its products beginning to be stocked in small bottle shops and some Dan Murphy’s outlets.

Brunswick Aces preaches moderation rather than abstinence, and consistent with that ethos, it does produce two alcoholic gins.

“Back then, the non-alcoholic scene was incredibly small and you almost got laughed out of restaurants and bars that you went to try and say, ‘Oh, hi, do you want to stock this product for your sober customers?’,” Mr Henshall said.

“The change that has happened over the past five years has been absolutely incredible to see in Australia alone, just with the willingness to stock non-alcoholic products, but also the variety that’s available.”

“We wanted to offer people somewhere that they could come, feel welcome, well catered for in the selection of drinks … but without the temptation of alcohol.”

But the lack of quality non-alcoholic drinks at pubs and bars and the stigma often attached to being the only non-drinker among friends led to the next logical step for Brunswick Aces to open a cocktail bar within its Weston Street premises. The timing of COVID-19 was both a help and hindrance, Mr Henshall said.

“There was all the data and anecdotes that were coming out that everyone was drinking incredibly heavily during lockdown but we always knew that there will be inevitable rebalancing of what people were doing swinging towards moderation or towards sobriety,” he said.

“So we wanted to offer people somewhere that they could come, feel welcome, well catered for in the selection of drinks, also have that bar feel to it, but without the temptation of alcohol there and still be able to have a great time with multiple options just without the alcohol.”

The bar has about 60 non-alcoholic drinks on the menu, including beers, wines, mixed drinks and Brunswick Aces’ own line of gins.

Mr Henshall said non-alcoholic drinks was still a fledgling industry and quality varied depending on the process used to make them. Australian-made non-alcoholic beers are among the best in the world, and some white and sparkling wines taste and feel almost identical to their alcohol counterparts, as do the top of the range distilled spirits. The innate qualities of red wines are harder to replicate and some drinks can be overloaded with sugar, he said.

“What we’ve achieved so far in the industry is absolutely incredible. But watch out for the next five to 10 years because it’s just going to keep getting better and better.”

From a home-made distillery in Victoria Street, Brunswick Aces is now exporting its products to New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, the UK and other parts of Europe, the US and Canada, with more countries planned for this year.