Distilled fig, liquid beetroot and cherry juice. Green apple and lapsang souchong with a touch of dashi.
A few years ago, this would have been a stream-of-consciousness ingredient list to someone sitting down at a fancy restaurant in Hong Kong. Now it represents luxury drink experiences for diners coming out of one of the world’s strictest pandemic shutdowns, who have turned their backs on alcoholic offerings.
When Cultivate launched in early 2021, wine pairings were the invariable accompaniment to the seasonal set menu at the 22-seat restaurant. Now diners increasingly opt for an alternative, and it’s rare for anyone under 35 to order alcohol at all.
Leonard Cheung, the restaurant’s executive chef and co-owner, approves: He believes the best food pairings are drinks that don't dull your senses by making you tipsy. It works “whether it’s an exact pairing, [using] the exact same ingredients as a dish or whether it’s a contrast pairing, where there’s something that’s completely different from a dish,” he says about the elaborate juices and drinks he serves at Cultivate.
Cultivate’s full elixir pairing — a mixture of sparkling teas and fresh juices that rotate every few weeks alongside the dishes — is a sign of changing tastes throughout the city. Carefully considered nonalcoholic drink pairings have found their way onto menus across the financial hub, at places that once catered primarily to Hong Kong’s elite and bankers who bought big-ticket wines as part of the hedonistic nightlife.
Over the past few years, Hong Kong’s population has cut down on drinking: According to the city’s health department, alcohol consumption has dropped nearly 20%, from 2.84 liters of alcohol per capita per year in 2018 to 2.29 liters last year. Gen Z has been key to that drop. According to a survey by the Hong Kong Centre for Health Protection, in 2018-19, 15.3% of respondents aged 15 to 24 said they had indulged in binge drinking in the previous 12 months; in a survey conducted between 2020-22, that number plummeted to 3.6%. (The legal drinking age is 18.)
Sophisticated soft pairings in luxury restaurants aren’t new globally — the famed Copenhagen restaurant Noma has had a juice pairing for more than a dozen years — but it’s a change of pace in Hong Kong. For decades, the city’s fine dining scene has focused on expensive wines (or rare teas) to accommodate a culture where drinking is a hallmark of socializing, and high-priced meals are regularly expensed or used as a gesture of extravagance to treat friends and family.
“Fine dining in Asia is about selling the most luxurious form of over indulgence,” says Cheung, who did stints at NoMad in New York and Husk in South Carolina before opening his own place in Hong Kong. “Fine dining in the West tends to take humble ingredients and elevate it into a way where it’s unrecognizable.”
Those attitudes are shifting — a change that Winston Lau wanted to take advantage of two years ago, when he opened Mindful Sparks in Hong Kong, which makes premium sparkling teas. Fine dining establishments currently make up about a third of the 60 restaurants he supplies: Thirteen of them have Michelin stars. Lau says his revenue has tripled since starting his business.
Better education over health, a generational shift and a low tolerance for alcohol including “Asian flush” — a difficulty in breaking down the toxins in alcohol that results in redness in the face — are all reasons Lau thinks people are moving away from alcohol.
Moreover, there are few high-end options for people in more upmarket or socially pressured environments, according to Lau, whose premium cork-popping Champagne-style bottles allow for a moment of celebration and ceremony. “If we can provide a high-value, high-end-looking non-alcoholic product, then people will feel they can still have that social status without being looked down on,” he says.
At restaurants, Mindful Sparks’ offerings cost HK$80 ( ₹ 851.82 approx.) to HK$130 ( ₹1384.5 approx.) by the glass; his Champagne-style bottle costs about HK$600 ( ₹6390 approx.) .Part of the challenge for Lau is encouraging people to treat his sparkling teas with the same reverence as wine by talking about their vintage, origin and what time of year the leaves are picked. That’s part of the narrative when Mindful Sparks’ sparkling lapsang souchong tea is served by the sommelier at Ando, a Michelin-starred Japanese-Spanish dining spot. The smoky, mellow drink with next to no sweetness is paired alongside a Wakame steamed Carabinero prawn and the tomato-based soup salmorejo with duck egg yolk.
Ando’s zero-alcohol pairing of five glasses, including teas, nonfermented wine grape juice and kombucha, costs HK$468 ( ₹4984 approx.). It accompanies the restaurant’s HK$1,888 ( ₹20107.8 approx.) presentation dinner menu, where one dish changes every four to six weeks.
The desire of Hong Kong diners to trade in too-sweet mocktails for more upmarket alternatives goes beyond fine dining circles. At the new Savory Project bar — from the team behind Coa, three-time winner of Asia’s 50 Best Bars — nearly half of the cocktail offerings are non-alcoholic, including the Teriyaki Freeball, a nutty but tart concoction made with masa and white soy sauce.
Crafting a soft pairing alongside an ever-changing menu can be tough for restaurants that want to create beverages in-house, sometimes requiring specialised machinery, like a rotary evaporator to intensify a juice’s flavor: Acidity, viscosity and scent are all considerations. There’s a particular need to account for tastes in Hong Kong, where some people dislike consuming very cold, sweet or sour drinks alongside food. For restaurants with a rotating menu, such as Cultivate, which produces its own juices, offerings have to be made fresh daily to preserve colour and flavour.
At the restaurant, a magenta drink that accompanies a fig dessert — itself a play on a red velvet cake — combines cherry juice and filtered beetroot with a distillation from fig leaves. The latter rounds off the tartness of this slightly viscous, velvet-smooth beverage with an unexpected earthy, herbaceous hit. Cultivate’s five-glass elixir pairing costs HK$488 ( ₹5197 approx.).
At British chef Simon Rogan’s Hong Kong restaurant, Roganic, the soft pairings highlight sustainability. The Michelin-starred restaurant, which also holds an eco-minded Green star, makes creative use of surplus and unused kitchen ingredients, such as a tomato kombucha that sits brewing behind the bar alongside liquor bottles and is fed with leftover skins and over- or underripe tomatoes.
The kombucha’s green tea base provides floral accents and enough acidity to cut through the creamy oyster emulsion in the dish it's served with, according to Antonio Mereu, Roganic’s restaurant manager. He began to look at upgrading the pairings soon after arriving in 2021, when he noted that the restaurant wasn’t bringing in the expected income, even though it was always full. Mereu soon realized that was because people didn't drink as much as they did in Europe, especially at lunch. Roganic has since seen expanded demand for its soft pairings — six glasses go for HK$380 ( ₹4047 approx.).
Over the course of dinner, drinks are presented with the care given to wine pairings, with detailed explanations about complementary flavours and the ingredients’ origins. One example: The smoky aroma of green apple juice infused with lapsang souchong and dashi complements the coal oil used in a raw Spanish mackerel, served with pickled rhubarb and boltardy beetroot dish.
For Lau, the availability of quality, creative alcohol alternatives caters to a new reality of consumers in Asia. “Before, alcohol was a binary choice, you’d either drink or not drink,” he says. “But now even people that drink alcohol may spend … 80% of their drinking time choosing non-alcoholic over alcohol.”