Virgin drinks are growing up.
The mocktail— a word born from smashing together "mock" plus "cocktail"—has come a long way from sweet grenadine Shirley Temples and frozen piña coladas (hold the booze please). Ordering soda at a restaurant no longer means a choice between Sprite and Coke—bartenders now offer vinegary shrubs, housemade concoctions like cucumber lemonade, and more. While eateries like Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York has offered non-alcoholic beverage pairings for over a decade, now the rest of the country is catching on.
"What we’re finding is the mocktail revolution is just behind the cocktail revolution," says Brian Van Flandern, president and master mixologist for Creative Cocktail Consultants, which builds cocktail lists for high-volume establishments in the United States and abroad. Van Flandern adds that not only is he seeing farm-to-table ingredients in non-alcoholic beverages, but also tinctures and minute drops of bitters. This attention to detail creates balance and cuts down on the saccharine sweetness that has plagued the mocktail for so long.
Yet, much like the rainbow of cocktails, there’s now a range of beverages created for those who want to drink less (or not at all). California’s newly minted Love & Salt restaurant in Manhattan Beach offers three mocktails. The beverages use ingredients like sage, almond syrup, jalapeño, and seedless white grapes to create drinks that are just as good without alcohol as with. "In some ways [mocktails] take more development than an alcoholic drink," says owner Sylvie Gabriele. "Alcohol by nature has body and kick and we had to really develop those flavor profiles to produce a full experience."
... this new attention to mocktails is allowing bartenders to experiment with ingredients that would have been off-limits before.
In another take on mocktails, New York City’s tasting menu-only restaurant Atera recently launched their Temperance Pairing program—a series of virgin libations based on classic cocktails. New executive chef Ronny Emborg came up with the idea, which was inspired by the common Danish tradition of pairing juices with meals. Atera’s bar director Nick Duble says that rather than use juices, they decided to approach non-alcoholic pairings "with the history of American cocktail culture in mind." The result is a rather impressive recreation of boozy beverages like the Negroni, Champagne, and glass of Côte de Beaune. Whether diners ask for an alcoholic or temperance pairing, they get the same dinner menu. And like any good beverage pairing, the Atera team designed each drink—wine, cocktail and mocktail—to draw out key flavors in the dish with which its paired. Take, for example, their celery apple fizz with seaweed. "The courses this goes with are very flavorful dishes that are packed with umami," Duble says, adding that the seaweed in the beverage is key to giving it a backbone that can stand up to the food. If a diner were to select alcohol for the same course, he or she would drink a glass of sherry—its slight oxidation mimics that same umami taste.
Duble’s objective with the mocktail pairing was to go beyond what people expect of an alcohol-free cocktail. The challenge was using non-alcoholic ingredients to recreate some of the most familiar alcoholic beverages around. Their Nogroni was a particular doozy as the Negroni is a combination of three alcoholic ingredients. Duble says, "At first glance it seems impossible to do without alcohol." Over several weeks of research and development, Duble and his team tweaked ideas for ingredients that could, for example, recreate bitter Campari.
Building the same acidity as a full-bodied red wine for their "Côte de Beet" mocktail was another undertaking. It’s a combination of black currents and beets that are aged in toasted oak. During the tasting menu, it’s served with the final main course—lamb en croûte. "It goes very well with red meat," Duble says.
Van Flandern feels that this new attention to mocktails is allowing bartenders to experiment with ingredients that would have been off-limits before. One example is "esoteric ingredients" like spices and fresh herbs. Though aromatics play a large role in cocktails, it’s not something people are thinking of while making an Arnold Palmer.
Clearly there's a market for mocktails and one that goes beyond pregnant women and the underaged. Jason Hein, the assistant general manager for Denver’s Upstairs Kitchen, says that their nonalcoholic offerings "appeal to a broader range of people from children to athletes." He sees paying attention to non-drinkers as an important part of providing good customer service. "You want everybody who comes in here to feel like they’re being catered to."
During Prohibition, many hostesses and restaurants embraced a similar attitude toward hospitality. While outlawing the hard stuff led to a brief downfall for the burgeoning American cocktail culture, it was a renaissance for temperance beverages. Much like the mocktails concocted in bars and restaurants today, these dry drinks could be both time-consuming and surprisingly complex. A 1920 book by Bertha Stockbridge, What to Drink, called for hostesses to craft beverages from vinegars, shrubs, and syrups among other ingredients. Another current trend in drinks both with and without alcohol. Within the book one will find variations on lemon and other fruit "-ades," shaved ice frappes, punches, fizzes, and other drinks. This being nearly a century ago, some are more appealing to the modern palate than others. The section on beverages for "invalids and small children" includes such unappetizing suggestions as "cream and carbonated water" and "carrot gruel." Others like "sour à la creole"—a combination of powdered sugar, carbonated water, white grape juice, Jamaica ginger, and ice cream—would not be out of place on a modern mocktail menu.
The attention restaurants are putting toward non-alcoholic tipples has elevated mocktails to the level of their boozier cousins. At Atera, Duble says that servers regularly suggest non-alcoholic pairing for imbibers who don’t feel up to the full wine pairing. "The pairing experience is part of the Atera experience," he says. In essence, the mocktail menu just gives all guests more beverage options—not just one group of the dining population. In fact, many patrons will actually order mocktails but ask for a shot of alcohol to be added to their beverages. On the other side are those who order one or two alcoholic beverages before switching over to mocktails for the remainder of their meal.
"What we’re finding is there are a lot of people out there who don’t drink alcohol," says Van Flandern. He likens the mocktail revolution to the acceptance of vegetarianism by fine dining restaurants. "They suffered for years when looking for a meat-free option." But not any more. As Van Flandern says, "People who don’t drink alcohol are looking for a great nonalcoholic option and are willing to pay a premium." Or, sometimes low alcohol or "session" beverages will do—another current trend in the drinks world.
And adding mocktails is a great way for restaurants to cash in. Though restaurateurs turn to alcohol sales for high-margin profits, mocktails may not be such an inexpensive alternative. Duble explains that Atera is "not really worried about that profit margin as we are creating a unique creative experience for guests." Though mocktails will always be priced lower than cocktails, Van Flandern says that restaurants are still justified in charging more for them than, say, juice or soda. A non-alcoholic beverage is never going to rake in the profits of a $500 bottle of wine, but if diners are choosing between a mocktail and water the benefits for a restaurant are clear.
... making mocktails profitable is just a matter of managing ingredient and time cost.
Gabriele believes that making mocktails profitable is just a matter of managing ingredient and time cost. Using fresh ingredients, making syrups, and the time it takes to experiment in the mostly new arena of the mocktail all add up. If all those pieces are in place, she sees no reason that a nonalcoholic beverage can’t have similar margins to a cocktail.
Though Hein thinks that crafted non-alcoholic beverages are "without question" a great addition to any restaurant, he does see some limits. "At a dive bar or cocktail bar? Maybe not." The fact that the restaurant already orders many of the same herbs, fruits, and vegetables that wind up in the cocktails is also helpful for keeping margins down. They don’t have to invest in separate storage facilities or carve out prep areas that may not exist in a small liquor-only bar.
Many bartenders got into the business because they like working with liquor and aren’t nearly so enamored by the mocktail. Hein says that he’s "definitely a spirits guy" and gets more enjoyment from combining the more familiar boozy ingredients together. Yet for others, the mocktail is a place for experimentation.
Duble has found the difficult business of recreating common cocktails to be a refreshing challenge. "It’s very rewarding," he says, adding that the process has become much more natural over the several months he’s been playing with this new menu. At Love & Salt, Gabriele feels that their work on mocktails has actually been a boon for their cocktail menu as well. "If you can put something like your own syrup in a mocktail, wow, what can you do for cocktails?"