Samia Qaiyum, on going dry with style
Naomi Ann Clarke
Wednesday 02 March 2022
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“My name is Samia, and I’m a teetotaller,” is how I imagine my greeting would go at whatever the opposite of an AA meeting is. And if I were in Italy? Well, I’d simply introduce myself as a sfigata.
“We have this word in Italian, sfigato, which comes to mind when one goes into a bar and asks for a non-alcoholic drink. It translates to ‘an unlucky person’. But we live in the Middle East, of course,” says Giovanni Depergola, who has been in Dubai for 12 years. The mixologist extraordinaire’s passion for beverages – be they alcoholic or otherwise – is palpable. Not only is he a certified sake sommelier and a Qualified Learning Facilitator from Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, but he’s also the instructor of Dry Mixology and Bartending courses at the International Centre for Culinary Arts. Additionally, Giovanni is the Co-Founder and Head of Education at Alembic, a creative beverage agency specialising in everything from the consumer experience to the education of hospitality staff. Needless to say, he’s a busy man.
“We are bartenders at the end of day, but we like to be called mixologists so we can charge more,” he says with a chuckle. “I’m also an educator, so for me, training is a very serious matter. My passion for dry mixology stems from the passion that I have for cocktails – all that showmanship, all that theatricality deserves a spot in the non-alcoholic category.”
As someone with a front-row seat to the city’s dining scene, Giovanni noticed a gap in the market that had to be addressed. “All I saw was carbonated drinks and canned juices and, with time, I said, ‘Come on, we’re good at making cocktails, so why not use the same flavours, the same glassware, the same shaking techniques to serve something that we are proud of?’ Because I wasn’t proud to serve something in a can with ice and a slice of lemon.”
In no time, people across Dubai – for many of whom total abstinence is a way of life – were engaging with his creations under the ‘Cocktail Zero%’ category, a brand of alcohol-free designer drinks now registered with Alembic. “We’ll utilise everything from syrups from Sunich to the latest non-alcoholic botanical spirits and sparkling wines. No one is excluded from the game.”
The Middle East Influencing the West
It’s no secret that consumption of non-alcoholic drinks is on the rise globally, but arguably, they’re most favoured in the Middle East owing not only to cultural and religious factors, but also a move towards a healthier lifestyle – and the pandemic has only accelerated this trend.
Add to that the region’s well-documented obsession with social media, and the days of sodas and saccharine mocktails appearing on the last page of a drinks menu are gradually on the way out. Now, they’re Instagrammable, well thought out, and boast complex flavours suited to the adult palate. A closer look also reveals the use of downright unexpected ingredients – think: dehydrated grapefruit, pistachio orgeat, aloe vera, and rosemary sprigs sprayed with gold dust. But why now? In a country where non-drinkers never expected a dedicated drinks menu that caters to them, what changed? Two words: Drink Dry.
The UAE’s first and only premium non-alcoholic drinks marketplace, Drink Dry was founded by British entrepreneur Erika Doyle in December 2020, a time when we were well into the pandemic and a lot more mindful of what we were consuming. Her journey towards giving up alcohol, however, started six years ago as a result of wanting to start a family. “I drank throughout my 20s. And my husband is actually in the alcohol business, so there was always a lot of nice wine in the house. I faced a lot of questioning when I decided to give it up – humans are creatures of habit, so if you’re in a social circle that’s used to seeing you with a glass of wine, questioning why you’re not drinking is only natural because people are curious.”
Questioning why you’re not drinking is only natural because people are curious
Understandably, Erika’s reply would vary depending on who was asking. “I would choose whether or not to go into the full story of my husband and I trying to conceive because it’s so personal. Other times, I would turn to my bag of excuses: I’m on antibiotics, I’m not feeling well, I have to pick up my stepson – anything that would ‘justify’ me not drinking.”
With time, she stopped feeling the need to make excuses. “It was a free choice. There’s nothing wrong with drinking, but when I stopped, I felt so much better physically. And one of the main things was that I had discovered really good quality non-alcoholic wine because the entire category was growing so fast in the UK that I felt like I had to tell people about it – not just pretend that I’m drinking,” she recalls.
Cut to 2019, when Erika moved to Dubai with her husband and two young daughters, and experienced culture shock upon discovering the city’s social scene. “I remember being super, super, super shocked at the amount of alcohol that people here drink – particularly Westerners. It’s almost like they are released from a leash over the weekend.”
Referring to Dubai institutions like ladies’ nights and Friday brunches, she says, “It’s such a big part of everybody’s social lives. At the same time, the perception at home is that the UAE is such a strict Muslim country where you’re not allowed to drink, whereas the reality was always very different.”
Another reality? The lack of non-alcoholic drinks on offer, which prompted her to establish a one-stop shop for options that are not only premium, but also high in taste and low in sugar. Her ambition didn’t come without its challenges, though. While Europe classifies anything with an ABV of 0.5% or under as alcohol-free, the UAE’s requirement is a strict 0.0%.
While Europe classifies anything with an ABV of 0.5% or under as alcohol-free, the UAE’s requirement is a strict 0.0%
“There’s no deviation. The biggest challenge has been finding that sweet spot between the product being compliant and not compromising on the quality of the liquid inside. It has been the most unexpected aspect of this whole journey,” says Erika. Still, she persisted, launching Drink Dry’s e-commerce platform with only five products. Today, the range spans the likes of Bière des Amis 0.0%, Vintense Cepages Syrah Rose, STRYYK Grain, Glen Dochus West Coast Blend, and more.
But she’s just getting started. As Drink Dry gears up to welcome the Coastal Juniper blend by Sea Arch, the first zero-proof beer under the Stella Artois brand, and non-alcoholic macerated spirits by CROSSIP into its portfolio, Erika is fascinated by what she’s seeing.
“It was fun to see drinkers take on the Sober October challenge and be a lot more experimental with their choices. And that’s why we partnered up with Giovanni. If I pick up a bottle of non-alcoholic gin, the only way I know how to drink it is a gin and tonic. You give that same bottle to Giovanni, and he can come up with 20 different cocktails.” In fact, the culinarily challenged will be pleased to land on Drink Dry’s website and see Giovanni’s smiling face alongside some of his best Cocktail Zero% recipes.
“Cocktails have gone through a bit of a renaissance lately, which is great,” explains Giovanni. “The other side of the coin – the sfigato side – then said, ‘Well, why can’t we have as much fun?’ People are also much more health-conscious now, so creativity has only grown. Now’s the time to be daring.”
Creativity in a Conservative Country
Incidentally, creativity of this sort has been around far longer in the conservative neighbouring emirate of Sharjah, which is dry by law. Unlike its peers in Dubai, The Chedi Al Bait has had to take imaginative measures since opening its doors in 2018. And the proof is in the pudding – rather, the Inspired Drinks menu. The aptly named ‘Lavender’, for example, is a refreshing purple-hued mocktail that owes its sparkle to the infusion of pearl powder, paying homage to the UAE’s pearl diving history.
“One of the misconceptions that people in the West have about the Middle East is that it’s such a huge market for non-alcoholic drinks because there are so many non-drinkers who want to drink, but can’t,” says Erika. “If you’ve always been told that drinking is bad for you, then our products aren’t the answer to all your prayers. Unlike ex-drinkers and the sober curious, I’m not giving non-drinkers a solution because they don’t have a problem to begin with.” Instead, Drink Dry is exploring how to introduce new ways of drinking to non-drinkers. “It’s likely that they’ve only been drinking very sugary drinks, so what we’re doing is introducing healthier ways of drinking without necessarily referencing their alcoholic counterparts.”
But how does someone in Giovanni’s position set out to understand the flavour profile preferences of a country with over 200 nationalities? “The diversity is part of its beauty, but it comes down to one’s ability to communicate with a guest, to understand not only their background, but also their aperitif culture and what they enjoy eating. People in the Arab world tend to have a ‘sweet tongue’, so that’s where our ability to adapt comes in. Simultaneously, as educationalists, we have to encourage them to try something new without any kind of commitment.”
Engaging with people’s favourite flavour profiles, he says, is key. “Our Indian and Sri Lankan friends like spices – not necessarily hot, but some flavour is a must. And we have access to all kinds of spices in Dubai. I mean, Arabic coffee is flavoured with cardamom, so we interpret that as an espresso martini with cardamom and a hint of caramel.”
The idea, he says, is to showcase something familiar accented with unexpected elements to nudge them towards trying something new. “With a lot of study, a mixologist can find what we call ‘the hook’. It’s a process.” But while the UAE’s diversity is a blessing in disguise, the fact that the country – region even – ranks alarmingly high for food wastage is not.
“Like in food, we always discuss sustainability in cocktail-making. And while there is no such thing as a sustainable cocktail, there are best practices in mixology,” says Giovanni. “We can’t grow oranges here, so the way we use their peel and zest is part of the training. Your cocktails should be built in a way that you don’t have to wash your jigger constantly. And why design cocktails that require a straw? It’s all about developing a waste-free culture.”
And then there’s using ingredients that dominate this part of the world – tea and dates included. “Tea is consumed on a daily basis, so we use a beautiful lapsang tea as one of our ingredients,” he explains. I later learn that the flavour profile of lapsang tea contains hints of wood smoke, pine resin, smoked paprika, and peat smoke, making it the ideal substitute for whisky. Dates are another firm favourite.
“We love dates because it’s one of those ingredients that you can transform – you can use date honey, you can stuff dates with almonds or candied lemon peel for an elevated garnish, you can pair date marmalade with pineapple juice. And because of the sheer variety, you can have a texture that’s soft, jammy, or crunchy. We love anything with texture because it adds another element during the tasting.”
Armed with both passion and knowledge, Erika and Giovanni are now playing their respective roles in taking the zero-alcohol movement to the rest of the Middle East – both are currently in conversations with entities in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the latter of which is dubbed the world’s biggest market for dry mixology. “Between Instagram and travelling to Dubai, those audiences are ready for experiential dining. And with events like Formula 1 heading to Qatar and Saudi Arabia for the first time, they’ll likely be more adventurous. There’s great exchange happening between so many different cultures because food brings people together. So, yes, the market is ready, but we still have a lot of gaps to fill of course. We’re getting there. Piano piano, as we say in Italian. Slowly, slowly.”
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