These Cocktails Have Loads of Spirit, but No Booze

Joy Manning

Here’s a sobering fact for restaurateurs and bar managers: One-third of U.S. adults have consumed no alcohol at all in the past year. That’s a hefty percentage of diners left wanting something more sophisticated than club soda to sip at the bar or to complement their meal. 

The rising demand for better alcohol-free drinks reflects the overall health and wellness trend of recent years. Where that trend intersects with savvy diners, seltzer with lime and overly sweet mocktails don’t cut it anymore. Forward-thinking restaurants and bars have responded with booze-free drink pairings and sophisticated zero-proof options that garner as much acclaim as their chef tasting menus.

New York City’s Atera has been offering a carefully designed “temperance pairing” in addition to the usual wine pairing for the past couple years. “People are really excited there’s an option for nondrinkers, but often people who do drink will order the temperance pairing—and maybe a cocktail on the side,” says sommelier Evan Manka. 

The temperance pairing at Atera kicks off with “Champine,” a sparkling pine-scented drink made with the same acids (malic and lactic) that give wine its characteristic tartness. “We literally get in white pine—half a tree. Once a month, we stand around plucking off all the needles,” says Manka. Those pine needles are then steeped with water and a touch of honey. The aromatic elixir is mixed with the acids, carbonated and stored in single-serve bottles. It’s labor-intensive but worth it, Manka says. “This is definitely one of our favorites.” 

People are really excited there’s an option for nondrinkers, but often people who do drink will order the temperance pairing—and maybe a cocktail on the side.
Evan Manka, Atera, New York City

Another highlight of the non-alcoholic cocktail list is the Atera G+T, made with Seedlip, an alcohol-free distilled spirit made in England and newly available in the U.S. “Seedlip actually is the only part of our temperance pairing that we don’t make in-house, but we feel it is such a great non-alcoholic option that we wanted to feature it,” says Manka, who combines it with a housemade tonic syrup and fizzy water for an exceptionally fresh and flavorful take on the classic cocktail (recipe). 

At Chicago’s Oriole, Julia Momose specializes in creating elegant, food-friendly non-alcoholic pairings like the Stop and Go ($10, recipe), a cocktail of Demerara syrup, verjus rouge and tonic, to go with the tasting menu there. Just don’t call her drinks mocktails. “I call them spirit-frees,” she says. She’s also been experimenting with Seedlip to see how it might add to her existing toolbox of infusions and syrups, which often include unlikely ingredients such as peppercorns and sage. 

“I think it’s OK to take these beverages in a savory direction,” she notes, adding that she steeps shiitake mushrooms to make a stock-like liquid that gives a woodsy character to drinks like the Redolent, which combines dried shiitakes, hibiscus, Thai oolong tea and pomegranate molasses and is served in a Burgundy wine glass smoked with star anise (recipe). She lets the menu be her guide when creating beverages, and with 15 to 18 courses on the tasting menu, needs to make drinks that take guests through several courses. “It’s really an opportunity to create a true pairing using some of those same ingredients. It’s like making tea—a special, customized blend,” says Momose. 

At McCrady’s in Charleston, bar manager Kevin King prefers to keep the non-alcoholic drink pairings simple and seasonal. “Three or four ingredients, at most—you want a root flavor, a bright acidic flavor and a savory quality,” he says of his philosophy for drinks like the Summer Breeze, with muddled peaches, paw paw vinegar, honey syrup and soda water ($7, recipe). At McCrady’s, the non-alcoholic drink pairing program is just over a year old, but diners have responded enthusiastically. “Often people will order both the wine pairing and the non-alcoholic pairing,” King says.

Thoughtful, flavorful non-alcoholic cocktails aren’t restricted to high-end venues with pricey drink pairings; more casual spots like L.A.’s Love & Salt have several alcohol-free options. “The mocktails started because we wanted to offer an alternative to soda. Processed, manufactured products like soda are just not part of our mission,” says owner Sylvie Gabriele, who embraces the challenge of creating food-friendly non-alcoholic drinks ideal for pairing with the menu.

Love & Salt’s popular SoCal Mule—a variation on the Moscow Mule—starts with fizzy, tart, ginger-infused kombucha. Lime juice, mango juice and maple syrup add complex notes that make this alcohol-free cocktail taste special ($8, recipe). Gabriele also builds mocktails around interesting vinegars, floral syrups or shrubs made from seasonal produce. “You want to feel like something is happening in your mouth—like it has more oomph than juice or soda,” she advises. 

Unlike at many restaurants, where mocktails are available but off-menu, Gabriele made a conscious choice to create an alcohol-free section of her cocktail list, which typically features three options. “When they aren’t printed on the menu, it says they aren’t important. People feel like they have to make a special request,” she points out. “When it’s on the menu, you know it’s been developed and refined. It’s not a side note.” 

Joy Manning considers hummus a lunch and dinner staple.

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