Drinking Dry in Dubai: At the Heart of the Middle East’s New Cocktail Culture

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Drinking Dry in Dubai: At the Heart of the Middle East’s New Cocktail Culture

“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.”

So begins my conversation with Giovanni Depergola, a mixologist who has called Dubai home for over a decade. As for his passion for beverages, be they alcoholic or otherwise? Palpable. Not only is he a certified sake sommelier and 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, Depergola co-founded Alembic, a creative beverage agency specializing 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 a food and beverage industry insider, Depergola says he couldn’t help but address the gap in the market. “All I saw was carbonated drinks and canned juices, which got me thinking, ‘We’re good at making cocktails, so why not use the same flavors, the same glassware, the same shaking techniques to serve something that we are proud of?’ I wasn’t proud to serve something in a can with ice and a slice of lemon.”

In no time, people across Dubai (many for 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. It’s no secret that consumption of non-alcoholic drinks is on the rise globally, but arguably, they’re most favored in the Middle East, owing not only to cultural and religious aspects but also a move toward a healthier lifestyle—and the pandemic has only accelerated this trend.

Factor in the region’s well-documented obsession with social media, and the days of sodas and saccharine mocktails appearing on the last page of a menu are gradually on the way out. Now, they’re Insta-worthy and well thought-out and boast complex flavors suited to the adult palate. A closer look also reveals the use of downright unexpected ingredients—dehydrated grapefruit, pistachio orgeat and rosemary sprigs sprayed with gold dust included. 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 toward giving up alcohol, however, started six years ago due to her desire to start a family. “There’s nothing wrong with drinking, but I felt so much better when I stopped. I also discovered really good quality non-alcoholic wine in the UK and felt like I had to tell people about it—not just pretend that I’m drinking,” she recalls. Cut to 2019 when Doyle moved to Dubai and encountered a complete 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 the U.S. classifies anything with an ABV of 0.5% or under as alcohol-free, the UAE firmly maintains its stance at 0.0%. “Overcoming the various compliance challenges was definitely the most unexpected aspect of this journey,” admits Doyle. “Our products look like alcoholic beverages, which serves our customers who are looking for a beautifully packaged alternative, but the authorities have an extensive rule book to ensure that anything that looks like alcohol and is going on retail shelves is acceptable.” Still, she persisted, launching Drink Dry with only five products: a beer, a sparkling wine and three distilled spirits.

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—and she’s fascinated by the evolving landscape. “It was fun to see drinkers take on the Sober October challenge and get experimental. That’s what prompted us to partner 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 [Depergola], and he can come up with 20 different mocktails.”

But how does someone in Depergola’s position set out to understand the 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,” explains Depergola. Engaging with people’s favorite flavor profiles, he says, is key. “People in the Arab world tend to have a ‘sweet tongue,’ for example, and knowing that helps with our ability to adapt.” Spices also go hand in hand with regional palates. “I mean, Arabic coffee is flavored with cardamom, which we interpret as an espresso martini with cardamom and a hint of caramel.”

The idea, he says, is to present people with something that makes them comfortable but with unexpected elements to nudge them toward trying something new—and that’s where the Middle East’s staple ingredients step in. “Tea is consumed on a daily basis, so we use a beautiful lapsang tea as one of our ingredients,” he says. Incidentally, the flavor profile of lapsang tea contains hints of wood smoke, smoked paprika, pine resin and peated whiskey, making it the ideal substitute for whiskey. Dates are another firm favorite. “It’s one of those ingredients that you can transform—you can use date syrup, stuff dates with candied lemon peel for an elevated garnish and pair date marmalade with pineapple juice.” Honey from Oman and Yemen, meanwhile, serves as a healthier alternative to sugar.

Armed with passion and knowledge, Doyle and Depergola 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. “At the end of the day, there’s great exchange happening between so many different cultures because food brings people together. Those audiences are ready for experiential dining, but we still have a lot of gaps to fill. But we’re getting there. Piano piano as we say in Italian. Slowly, slowy.”