Dry January may only be one month of the year, but for many people, enjoying non-alcoholic beverages is a year-round lifestyle. Luckily for them, the bartending world has evolved beyond solely serving soda or Shirley Temples to non-imbibers.
Without a spirit as a base, crafting a balanced, delicious zero-proof drink takes careful consideration and ingredient selection. Below, creative bartenders from Atlanta to Portland, Ore. (and Maine!) weigh in on making the best boozeless drinks.
“The shift we need to see in non-alcoholic cocktails is to treat them like cocktails. To shake just citrus and sweetener sans spirit doesn’t lend to a sour that is balanced. Remembering to add 2 ounces of water in as a replacement for spirit can help with the overall mouthfeel and texture. Also, salt! It’s essential to balancing citrus and sweetness. It’s such a fun category because there is so much room for creativity, more than replacing spirits.” — Lauren Sponberg, Head Bartender, Craft & Commerce, San Diego
“Texture is very important: Utilize your bubbles, your club sodas, your seltzer waters, your ginger ales. Tea is another fun aspect to put in your mocktails, like a really nice chai or something really floral, or even a nice Earl Grey if you have the right proportions. It’s basically breaking it down to balance. You think about different sweeteners: You can do a regular simple syrup, a honey syrup, you can infuse a syrup with different fruits or herbs. You want to balance that off with some tartness, some acidity, like some fresh lemon or lime juice. You can get really creative and go with pomegranate, which gives you a nice acidic balance with berry flavor.” — Tokiwa Sears, Lead Bartender, Bar Margot, Four Seasons Atlanta
“We put as much thought into our mocktails as we do our cocktails. First and foremost, we want our mocktails to be delicious, not syrupy sweet, with as much complexity and depth of flavor as our cocktails. We have a basic recipe we give out to customers to help them start making good mocktails: 1) 0.5 ounces simple syrup or sweetener of choice, such as honey, agave, maple syrup, homemade fruit syrups, etc. 2) 1 ounce fresh-squeezed citrus, like lime, lemon, grapefruit or orange. 3) 2 to 3 ounces seltzer or water. 4) Dash of bitters. Shake with ice, pour into a glass and garnish. From there, you can branch out and start experimenting with different tonics, shrubs, and bitters. We are all about bitters. To us, [they] are what really give a non-alcoholic beverage complexity and layers. Adding bitters to beverages is the same as cooking with spices.” — Johanna Corman, co-owner of Vena’s Fizz House, Portland, ME
“There are many elements which make up a great spirit-free [drink] — flavor, texture, temperature, aromatics, visual appeal, and longevity, just to name a few. Longevity pertains to all aspects of the drink. Proper technique is required to ensure that the drink tastes great from the moment it is first served to as long as 10 or 20 minutes of slow sipping. The garnish should not wilt or fall, the texture should not falter, and the drink should not suffer from over-dilution due to ice melting. Spirit-frees can be more delicate and susceptible to over-dilution, so it is good to remember this when developing the serve for your drink.” — Julia Momose, Creative Director and Bartender, Kumiko, Chicago
“A great non-alcoholic cocktail really revolves around being thoughtful. It’s about making people feel comfortable and welcome in your space. I want every guest that walks in to feel like they were invited to the party. Non-alcoholic cocktails provide a space for non-drinkers to feel cared for and heard. It’s so much more than just juice and soda. It’s just like making a regular cocktail, as far as balancing ingredients and getting creative. My favorite non-alcoholic cocktail on our menu is the Orange Creamsicle, combining fresh orange juice, house-spiced hazelnut orgeat, lime, and tonic over pebble ice with an orange slice.” — Lydia Mcluen, Bar Manager, Dóttir at the KEX Portland Hotel, Portland, OR
“The term alone gets us to a bad start: ‘non-alcoholic cocktails.’ For many bartenders, it means removing the alcoholic component (often substituting for water) and sticking with traditional syrups and ingredients available. … However, the depth and complexity of distillation means we are also removing the depth of flavor available to the teetotaling public. I like to work with complex syrups that use water and natural sugars in the juice from fruits, combined with herbs and peels to achieve the desired boost of flavors. Ultimately, this syrup will serve as the base of the beverage much like a base spirit will. There’s nothing worse than choosing to abstain from drinking for a round of drinks or an evening and getting stuck with a soda. #MakeTeatotallingGreatAgain” — Alex Negranza, Bar Manager, March, Houston (Opening Spring 2020)
“I think what makes a compelling non-alcoholic cocktail is that it has the ability to slow you down while you’re enjoying it. It has to have an element or two which gives it a certain strength of flavor and texture and differentiates it from something like juice. In practice, I’ve found that some ingredients which help with this are vinegars (like shrubs), very bitter components, spice extracts and oils, and strong herbal ingredients. Some of these do double duty by adding a textural element, which I also find important when creating a non-alcoholic cocktail. The oils add thickness, shrubs contribute a syrupy texture, and using another ingredient like aquafaba gives a more viscous texture and foam.” — Lola Hushin, Head Bartender, Getaway, Brooklyn
“It really comes down to texture and depth. In order to give people a similar texture and layering of flavor akin to a gin or whiskey, we use a few different ingredients. Using shrubs and vinegars or verjus can help achieve both texture and depth of flavor, especially when used with fresh citrus. We also use tea, both as an ingredient itself and an addition of flavor to syrups; this helps recreate some of the flavor you typically find in base spirits. [Another] thing we use frequently is a newer ingredient called Seedlip, which is a distilled non-alcoholic spirit. With three different and varied botanical blends, it allows us to recreate the aromatic and herbaceous ingredients normally found in spirits.” — Tommy Stearns, Bar Director, Deep Dive, Seattle
“In my view, what makes a compelling non-alcoholic cocktail is the level of thoughtfulness put into creating it. Be as creative as you would with a cocktail with booze. Fresh citrus, quality syrups, quality base options like tea, coconut water, no-ABV spirits like Seedlip. Above all, make sure that [the] drink is well balanced.” — Elliott Clark, Founder, Apartment Bartender, Denver
“An enjoyable non-alcoholic beverage must maintain a balance between sugar and acid, depth and complexity. Salt is a surprisingly universal ingredient in drinks as it rounds a lot of flavors and adds a savory note to recipes that are generally bright and acid-forward. Tonic can be used to add bitter notes instead of soda. Egg whites, coconut cream, or a thicker simple syrup can be used to add texture.” — Zach Hornberger, Bar Manager, Nancy’s Hustle, Houston