"I am always aware of the flavour," says Kathrine Larsen. "Every time I take a sip of something I sort of—" she sips and slurps "—do what I'd do with wine. It's like I'm so used to it that I automatically look for the flavours in anything I drink."
Larsen is a bona fide connoisseur, winner of the UK's Sommelier of the Year competition in 2014. As you'd expect, her first love is wine but recently she's begun to apply her expertise to soft drinks because, as she says, "I want to show that there's no reason to drink alcohol when you go out. There are decent alternatives."
It seems counter-intuitive that an award-winning sommelier would be encouraging us to seek alternatives to wine but perhaps she's on to something. More and more people are drinking less and less. The UK's Office of National Statistics found that one in five adults claimed to be completely teetotal, including 40 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds. Some would argue this is part of a healthier living trend, similar to the way in which people are interested in what's in their food and how it's made.
"Look at noma in Copenhagen," says Larsen. "It's all about what's natural, biodynamic, foraged, organic, and that's what's trendy. Part of that means the market wants healthy, non-alcoholic drinks too."
Larsen's day job is working with wine but she got into tasting and pairing soft drinks when she was asked by South African soft drink company, Appletiser to come up with a series of non-alcoholic alternatives for racing season at Ascot. Would she say she's the first soft drink sommelier in the UK?
"There's been a move this way for a while," Larsen explains. "Maybe two years ago there was a focus on water, and you saw water sommeliers and restaurants that will only serve water appear all around the world. If you go to an artisan coffee place, they really focus on enhancing the different type of beans and you can distinguish between them the aroma, mouth-feel, and texture. This is the next thing. I thought pairing soft drinks could be interesting."
Larsen's love of wine is how she got into tasting and pairing, but like the majority of us, she wouldn't describe herself as a supertaster. Instead she fuelled her passion with many years training her palate to detect different flavours.
"Some people might be born skilled, but for me it was all hard work and endless tasting, until I had an aha! moment when all of a sudden, one day, it made sense," Larsen explains. "Now that knowledge has opened up other opportunities." Like soft drink pairing.
Just as with wines, Larsen explains, some soft drinks are of a higher grade than others.
"I can taste whether something has been made with 100 percent squeezed orange or not," she lists. "I can tell the difference between 'from concentrate' and 'not from concentrate'. And I can taste the difference between a light and a conventional version of most fizzy drinks. The normal version I've always thought is a lot sweeter, whereas in the light version the fizz is more aggressive, because you don't have the sweetness to soften the finish."
Describing a can of pop as having a finish is novel but Larsen's not really a fan of synthetic fizzy drinks.
"Just because you swear off alcohol doesn't mean you want to fill yourself with some sugary drink," she says. "If there's lots of sugar and chemicals inside, it might be as bad as an alcoholic drink at the end of the day, just in a different way."
Instead, Larsen finds that the better the quality of the soft drink, the easier it is to pair it with food, as is traditionally done with wine. For that reason, she likes fruit juice drinks.
When you taste a drink, you need to be able to detect the full aromatic profile, so you can pair it properly. Good quality fruit juices have a purity of flavour that you can either match so that once it's in on the palate and you can't distinguish between the drink and the food, or contrast to balance acidity.
"When you taste a drink, you need to be able to detect the full aromatic profile, so you can pair it properly," she says. "Good quality fruit juices have a purity of flavour that you can either match so that once it's in the mouth on the palate you can't distinguish between the drink and the food, or contrast, to balance acidity or to cut through something creamy with something sharp and refreshing."
Apple juice, she says, should have fruity floral notes, nut flavours, maybe a bit of spice and even dairy, like an apple does. Pomegranate juice should be sour and astringent but also forest-y and earthy, the same as the fruit.
Helpfully, for those who might find that apple juice tastes of apples, rather than nuts, the general rule of thumb that pairs white wine with fish and red wine with red meat applies to soft drinks too. Light drinks go with light-coloured foods and dark drinks with dark foods. "So you might have blackcurrant juice with game," says Larsen.
Still, is there anything better than a cool glass of lovely, crisp white wine? Would Larsen really choose a soft drink over an alcoholic one if it came down to it? She hesitates.
"It's a hard question because it depends on who I'm with, the time of day, and what mood I'm in. I think six out of seven days a week, I would choose something without alcohol because I feel better the day after," Larsen says. "And that's so important, you have higher energy levels, you feel clear, and can get more work done. All these things are important. I LOVE wine, but…"
If a sommelier with a passion for wine can be persuaded, maybe soft drinks really can be better than alcohol, after all.