Allen Hemberger tells the story of being at the Chicago restaurant Alinea one night with his sisters. On that occasion, one of them, who was pregnant, had braced herself for the disappointment of spending the night drinking soda water while everyone else drank wine.
“Instead,” he explains “she got this incredible non-alcoholic flight of the most interesting things, to the point that the rest of us were constantly asking if we could taste her drinks as they seemed to be so thoughtful and interesting. She just felt so cared for and so well considered. And watching her feel that way was something that really stuck with me.”
And that same sense of hospitality and care is perhaps the main thing that Hemberger and his wife Sarah want everyone to take away from their new book Zero. “During this time of COVID, we’ve seen so many people taking care of each other and showing thoughtfulness.
“I would hope that someone would buy this and make really delicious drinks for their partner if they were pregnant, or someone who has stopped drinking. My hope for this book is that it’s an example of another way we can help take care of each other.”
Both Allen and Sarah have had a long association with Alinea and it’s sister restaurants. The year before last, the couple were the artists behind The Aviary Cocktail Book and this year, they have expanded the group’s publishing repertoire with a collection of nearly 100 drink recipes that are all achieved without the use of alcohol.
Assembled from all the restaurants in the group, the recipes in the Zero cocktail book, aim to demonstrate the time and attention that the chefs pay to the range of non-alcoholic drinks they create, while also providing a guide for those who want to do it at home.
One of the features of the book is their non-alcoholic back-bar, where a range of about 20 spirit-free spirits, for lack of a better term, have been assembled to build up a non-alcoholic pantry. “There’s no distilling. It’s mostly infusion techniques or extraction techniques. I specifically wanted to make a book that even my mom could use.
“Then we have a different section where we take classic cocktail recipes and rebuild those using this pantry of alcohol-free back-bar spirits,” Hemberger continued. “After that, we push past into what I’ll call modern cocktails or more creative stuff. These are recipes that are drawn a little bit more from the culinary world.
Hemberger explains that this section pulls more from the avant-garde, modernist flavour combination for which The Aviary is known. Going beyond the expected realm of cocktails, the book shows that no-alcohol drinks can be more than just a combination of fruits and soda water or bitters and syrup.
“The chefs all use very unique flavours, but take them through the steps of balance and seasoning that leads to some really interesting combinations that I think people will probably find unusual and surprising.”
The true nature of balance is something that Hemberger feels he never really understood before creating the book. “It suddenly snapped into place. There’s the flavour and then there’s the seasoning aspect as well,” he explained.
“We all understand the concept of seasoning but it’s only when you understand that you might season the drink slightly differently if you’re pairing it with food than if you’re having it by itself, that it really clicks,” he continued. “I just thought that particular concept was such an eyeopening one. It’s really shaped not only how I like to cook and make my own drinks, but now I’ve learned to make sense of tasting other people’s stuff. It’s been a cool lesson.”
Both Hemberger and his wife come from a background of visual effects but he believes that being an outsider to both the world of bars and of restaurants is what really makes the book work. “A lot of the book is drawn from being a fly on the wall and watching the way the chefs think about how they’re developing these recipes and what their ideas are. A lot of thought goes into the context of how you’re having a drink.
“I found it turned out to be an asset that I didn’t know anything about cocktails. It meant I asked a lot of questions and I got to learn a lot. And I thought, “Well, if I’m asking these questions, there are probably other people that don’t know this either, and so maybe we can sort of build all this into the book to make something a little bit more explanatory and help broaden people’s knowledge and perspective.”
Understanding how balance, flavour and hospitality all work together is important to Hemberger. “The more I learn, the more I just sort of try to funnel directly into the book to help people take something away beyond just a prescriptive recipe. I’d like for them to be able to learn how to build their own recipes. That’s something that I’ve gotten to learn from working with the chefs here.”
We wanted to help people take something away beyond just a prescriptive recipe.
And balance is something that Hemberger needed to achieve within the book itself as well. He admits that incorporating the different styles and personalities of each of the restaurants in the Alinea Group was a bit of a challenge.
At Alinea, he explained, the range of non-alcoholic drinks are pretty out there in terms of the boundaries they push. Alternatively, the drinks that come from The Aviary, which is a cocktail bar, as assembled in a much more familiar fashion.
“Over at Next, the non-alcoholic drinks are usually served with a meal and are usually sharing table space with wine pairings. They tend to make their drinks resemble and share the characteristics of wine. So it was an interesting challenge to bring all those approaches together in one book, to show just the breadth of what’s possible with this.”
While it may all sound all a little technical, Hemberger is quick to point out that flavour is the crux of the book, not difficulty. “I’ve noticed that people often equate easy with fast. So while I would say the recipes are easy, they are not as fast as just throwing a few ingredients together.
“With a proper alcoholic cocktail, you might mix some stuff together and you’ve got your drink in a matter of five or 10 minutes, but if you’re building all your ingredients up from scratch, it takes more time. And so I think it’s maybe a little bit better to think of these as like Sunday afternoon projects.”
While Hemberger’s original pitch for the book was a smaller, almost magazine-like piece, it was Alinea’s co-owner, Nick Kokonas who suggested that they flesh it out. He suggested that they do what they had done with The Aviary Cocktail book and create something really big and luxurious.
“I’m madly in love with these really big, luxurious coffee table style cookbooks. And when we did The Aviary book, we thought, ‘can we do this with cocktails?’ We pursued it because we just didn’t know another way for the book to exist. And I would say the same is probably true with this non-alcoholic book.
“It’s interesting to see how the chefs that we work with think about it. And when I hunt around on Amazon for similar books, I couldn’t find anything quite like this.”