They’re troublesome, but from time to time I suffer fits of moral fortitude, in which I attempt to edify myself. You’ll recognise the form — killing the booze, giving the gym another go, sleeping, that sort of thing. You might call these drying-out runs a case of the Januarys, though they come for me more often than that, even if few last an entire month. Some don’t survive a lunchtime. But I try, which isn’t really the important thing, but sometimes feels like it is.
On one such run I was invited to a lock-in and accepted on the grounds of it being a challenge, which I suspect speaks to a masochistic streak. This pub doesn’t demean itself by pulling pints that don’t get people pissed, so I bought along a pack of Brewdog’s Punk AF hurriedly hoicked from the shelf. AF here stands for alcohol-free, even if the wily sorts at the brewery nod and wink otherwise. Those rascals.
It is likeable enough stuff, and a convincing mimicry of the real thing. “Are you not bored yet?” said the landlord, nodding to the fourth can I had crushed on the bartop. “Not even slightly,” I giggled. “And somehow I’m feeling like I’ve had a drink. A real one.”
And thumbing a fresh can in admiration, rolling it in my hands, I saw I had had a proper drink. Four of them; not 0.5 percent, but 5.4 per cent. To anyone in a rush, Punk AF and Punk IPA are indistinguishable, tubes of blue and silver and priced much the same. And so I did the only sensible thing in such a situation, other than head home immediately or ask for a glass of water. “F*** it,” I said to the landlord, who was laughing maniacally by now. “I’ll have a Guinness.”
And despite the consequent curses reigned down on the Brewdog lot, eventually I conceded that the fault was not theirs but mine. And — damaging to the ego this — likewise I had to admit that I hadn’t realised the beer was boozy because of the taste, but because of the serene feeling it was giving me. This is probably why usually I order perilously dry martinis or stick to Scotch. You’re on firmer ground with that sort of thing, even as your footing becomes increasingly unsteady.
All of which is to say that when Soho’s Soma bar dropped a line to say they didn’t think anyone could tell whether their new cocktails were alcoholic or not, I swallowed an instinct to scoff. Look, non-alcoholic spirts remain the nadir of any civilised experience; I’d bet my shoes and shirt that I could smell a fun-free Old Fashioned on first sniff. But where my favourite drinks are exclusively one alcohol stirred with another (take, for instance, the Vieux Carré), for a great many the point of a decent mix is to mask the kick of alcohol with something softer or sweeter. And here, I wondered, might come the rub.
While drinking alone is not the misery it’s perceived to be, being wrong by yourself is, so I gathered three other of the Standard’s food and drinks’ writers —Josh Barrie, Clare Finney, Millie Milliken — to see how we’d all fair on a taste test. Each of us tried seven of Soma’s cocktails; we drank individually, with the other three out of earshot and behind a curtain. What followed is in the video above: it is a run of second-guessing, misplaced bravado, and slowly-eroded confidence. You’ll see how well we did. And somehow, I necked a heavily-spiced martini on the grounds the spices convinced me it was sans the sauce. Thus ended this month’s edifying phase. It was probably for the best.
The drinks we had are as follows, as described by Soma and its PR team.
A non-alcoholic spritz using Everleaf forest; a non alcoholic aperitif that brings forward the flavours of the forest. That paired with clarified chai and peach and jasmine soda.
Our spin on the classic Ramos gin fizz. Citrus, sweet with a slightly creamy finish.
Sour non-alcoholic with margarita vibes in mind. Again using Everleaf, this time the Marine varient which brings flavours of the sea.
Taking its name from cherry tree this low alcohol cocktail combines Everleaf mountain, homemade grenadine, our vegan foamer and a touch of Sloe gin to create a sweet and sour like cocktail.
Soma’s riff on the classic gimlet with the flavours of Makrut lime leaf and curry leaf in tandem with Ophir spiced gin created a perfectly balanced drink showcasing some big flavours of India.
A whiskey highball with sweetness from Calvados and a beautiful bitter flavour from the amchoor bitters (unripened mango). Notes of marzipan are prominent.
Our take on the mule. Ginger has been swapped with galangal; a piney and citrus family member of the ginger. Sweetness coming from the honey and roundness from the butter. A touch of saffron on the finish.
Soma Soho, 14 Denman Street, W1D 7HJ, somasoho.com