A bar with no booze: ‘Anybody seeking to practise their sober pash skills should give it a try’

It must take steely nerve to open a new hospitality venture in the current climate. Let alone a bar without alcohol.

Yet I’ve lost count of the number of friends who sent me excited texts about the opening of Brunswick Aces cocktail lounge, such was the buzz around the opening of Australia’s first nonalcoholic bar.

So they earn points for boldness from me, and I was also genuinely thrilled to see the news. I’ve been sober for about two years. While it works really well for me life-wise, fear of missing out is definitely still a thing. I enjoy a night at the pub with mates, but there’s only so much ginger ale a grown woman can drink.

That makes the prospect of a fully stocked bar, with over 100 choices, pretty enticing. They even offer one hard option: a G&T for those who prefer a stiff drink. Too easy. Good times for all.

We’ve come a long way in the nonalcoholic drink stakes. Australian producers make a lot of the favourites I keep stocked up at home. But venues have seemed a little slower on the uptake.

Brunswick Aces is tucked away in an unassuming spot off Lygon Street in Melbourne’s East Brunswick. Like most hip bars in this city, it is just hard enough to find. Entering, we see the room is lavishly decked out – a bit Moulin Rouge meets industrial chic. That attention to detail definitely gives big “adult beverage” energy.

The fact it looks so good really helps. Going out for a drink should be about the occasion you’re marking, or the time you’ve ring-fenced to be together. Brunswick Aces seem to really get that. They’ve paid attention to the details, like glassware and decor, that create an experience. It’s sophisticated and adult in a way that contrasts with other after-hours, alcohol-free options. Mood lighting and crystalware is a world away from brightly lit bubble tea or frozen yogurt parlours.

Even before the bar opened, the proprietors were no strangers to zero alcohol drinks. The bar is housed within their already-established distillery, with a big window that opens into the production facilities behind the bar. There, they make regular gin, as well as their popular non-alcoholic spirit Sapiir.

The distillery began as a quest for a non-alc alternative to their favourite G&T, in a bid to promote “moderation rather than abstinence”. The bar’s offering extends to cocktails, bubbles, wines, beers and all the usual mixed suspects. It’s a relaxed approach, and I appreciate it. There’s many reasons you might choose to leave alcohol out of your celebration, and none of them warrant a distracting fuss.

Staff are knowledgeable and endearingly enthusiastic, which shouldn’t be exceptional, but it really is. I went with a date, he’s a drinker but was curious to check it out. We sat in a discreet corner spot and people-watched while pouring over the menu.

The bar was full and buzzing with a diverse crowd, mostly groups of friends with the odd couple mixed in. The age and ethnic mix was broad, and tables turned frequently as people seemed to be kicking off their night, or having a nightcap on their way home from dinner. We chatted with our server and had a lot of fun. After three drinks each; we agreed the cocktails were clear standouts, while the red wines were perhaps the weakest of their offerings.

Prices are very authentic indeed – no cheaper than any other cocktail bar. I’m torn on this, as I want these experiences to be accessible. So much of our drinking is by default, because how else do you celebrate, right? However, the care and money that’s been invested in this project are very clear and I don’t begrudge them setting a tone that invites you to savour the experience.

I’m curious to see if Brunswick Aces can become somewhere to linger and return to again and again. A year of lockdown has made me very aware of how shared spaces and the micro communities within them support our wellbeing. The food they’re introducing, in collaboration with the brew house next door, will help.

People need to stay in a bar long enough to mingle, to build the type of atmosphere that gives real sparkle. These interactions create the bar’s personality. Brunswick Aces is setting a trend, but can it be a comfy friend as well?

I think they’re off to a flying start, and anybody seeking to practise their sober pash skills should give it a try. It’s wonderful to think that the sober and sober-curious have such a grown-up spot to suggest to mates and dates now.

Making things easy is how you shift culture, and more than any single venue, that shift is really exciting.