In early January, Google released its annual “Year in Search” package, highlighting trends in numerous categories. For alcoholic drinks, there were few surprises, with buzzy cocktails like both the Espresso and Dirty Martini, the Cosmo, and the dreaded Dirty Shirley making the top 10 query spikes.
The top 10 for non-alcoholic drinks told a different story, however, comprising non-alcoholic versions of several standard drinks: the non-alcoholic Margarita, the non-alcoholic Mint Julep, and the non-alcoholic Piña Colada.
There is no debating that over the last few years, non-alcoholic (NA) cocktails have started to boom. There are NA cocktail books like Julia Bainbridge’s “Good Drinks,” Elva Ramirez’s “Zero Proof,” and Maureen Petrosky’s “Zero Proof Drinks & More.” There are countless NA spirits, too, each analogs for all categories of booze from whiskey to gin to tequila. The market is said to now be worth $10 billion.
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And yet, I’m not sure NA cocktails will ever be fully mainstream until there is a famous NA cocktail. I don’t mean a mere NA version of an already famous cocktail like the NOgroni or NAtini or any of those that made Google’s list. I’m talking about a completely original alcohol-free cocktail that becomes notable enough that one can go into most decent bars and order it by name the same way they’d call for a Manhattan or a Daiquiri.
What needs to happen for an NA cocktail to sweep the nation?
The Corporate Path
The view of many is that, for there to ever be a ubiquitous NA cocktail, there first needs to be a ubiquitous NA “spirit.”
“I think we might have to let the NA spirit category mature a little more until it finds its Tito’s,” says Jay Sanders, the owner of Drastic Measures and Wild Child in Kansas City, referring to the best-selling vodka in America. “There will need to be products that become staples of every back bar,” adds Nick Amano-Dolan, general manager of San Francisco’s Trick Dog, who finds himself continually returning to Seedlip and Martini & Rossi Floreale for his NA cocktails.
Joshua Gandee, a longtime bartender in Columbus and host of the “No Proof” podcast, agrees. Early on, he bought literally every single NA product flooding the shelves, but lately he’s focused on curating a collection of products he actually likes to drink.
Another problem he sees with these NA spirits compared to alcoholic counterparts is that so few brands seem to be built with intention. Instead, he says, they seem simply created to steal real estate on a store shelf or back bar. In Gandee’s view, many of these products lack storytelling — we don’t know who the “master distiller” is behind them, where the ingredients are sourced from, or what void the product was designed to fill in the NA space. As a bartender, that makes it hard for Gandee to, in turn, introduce these NA spirits to guests as part of a cocktail.
“When you have storytelling, it’s an easier way for a guest to buy in on a drink,” he says. “You allow the bartender to play with and interact with that story.”
Likewise, who are these NA cocktails being made for? Someone who used to drink but has gone sober or someone who has never drunk at all? That matters. To the former, some of the NA spirits might just taste like bad versions of whiskey, gin, or tequila. To the latter, a NOgroni might suffer a lack of context because they’ve never had an actual Negroni and have nothing to compare it to.
That’s why Gandee thinks a product like The Pathfinder could find itself in the first mainstream NA cocktail. The distilled hemp-based liquid has a unique flavor profile — intense and herbal, a bit like an amaro or fernet — that isn’t trying to simply ape something alcoholic. The company and its brand ambassadors have also done a great job of getting the attractive bottle into the hands of top bartenders at spots like Death & Co, Mace, and Sunken Harbor Club, which includes it in the Scrimshaw, stirred with elderflower syrup, clarified grapefruit, and herbs and spices.
“If they [The Pathfinder] were to create a cocktail that they just started pushing everywhere — like Campari did with the Aperol Spritz — that might work,” says Gandee.
NAs Cocktails from the Past
“The truth is, there have already been classic NA cocktails,” says Derek Brown, former owner of Washington, D.C.’s Columbia Room who is now an advocate of no- and low-alcohol drinking. “And I don’t just mean the Shirley Temple or Arnold Palmer.”
He cites drinks like the Horse’s Neck — ginger ale on ice with a long swath of lemon — which came about in the 1890s. The Brunswick Cooler, also from the era, had lemon juice, ginger syrup, lemon syrup, and soda water. Most famously was the Cherry-Lime Rickey — lime juice, cherry syrup, and seltzer — which became prominent at soda fountains during Prohibition.
“So, if history is our guide, the answer is yes,” says Brown. “A good drink is a good drink, as Julia Bainbridge reminded us in her book of the same name. If you create something delicious or special enough it has a way of making the rounds.”
He believes, aside from being delicious, any NA cocktail will need to meet two criteria to enter the modern canon: accessible ingredients (see: Sanders’ and Amano-Dolan’s points from earlier) and an ability to riff on it. Alcoholic drinks like the Martini, Margarita, and Negroni remain so popular because they can be tweaked endlessly, even turned into NA versions.
Gandee also thinks language is preventing a single NA cocktail from exploding on the scene. There are still arguments even about what to call this category of drinks.
NA? Alcohol-free? Mocktails?!
He believes the NA cocktail section also needs to be moved away from the section of the menu with the sodas and fruit juices.
“It needs to live in a place without an electric neon ‘Look here at these NA drinks!’” says Gandee. He thinks NA cocktails need to start being housed among the full-proof cocktails if any of them are ever going to take off. And they need to have good names as well, not simply names (NOgroni) that let you know they are a non-alcoholic drink.
For his 2022 book, “Mindful Mixology: A Comprehensive Guide to No- and Low-Alcohol Cocktails with 60 Recipes,” Brown created a drink, Pinch Hitter, he thinks fits all these criteria for possibly being canonized one day. The sour — not just lemonade! — offers elevated and complex flavors that are still created using easily accessible ingredients like ginger syrup, apple cider vinegar, and aquafaba.
“It tastes complex and interesting enough to me that you feel like an adult drinking it,” he says. “Whether it will become a classic or not is, unfortunately, beyond me. Even with my thoughtful planning, it still comes back to whether people think it’s delicious or special enough.”
The Celebrity Factor
Forget Google search. If you look at social media you know the most truly viral cocktail of 2022 was the Negroni Sbagliato, a sparkling wine variant bolstered by “House of the Dragon” star Emma D’Arcy declaring it their drink of choice in an interview with co-star Olivia Cooke on TikTok. Likewise, Ian Blessing thinks it will take a celebrity influencer to perhaps inadvertently launch the first viral NA cocktail.
“I don’t know if it’s going to happen honestly,” says Blessing, a former sommelier at The French Laundry who launched All the Bitter, a line of alcohol-free bitters with his wife Carly in 2022. He recalls Oprah naming the Moscow Mule one of her “Favorite Things” back in 2010 and then watching the immediacy with which it became a mainstream cocktail order
“If it does happen, in the near future, it’s going to be by chance,” says Blessing.
He’s sure the drink won’t contain some esoteric NA spirit that only 5 percent of bars have in stock. Naturally, he does think it has a good chance of containing bitters, something every bar has.
Blessing looks toward Australia, where the lemon, lime, and bitters has already become a bit of a “national drink,” with a reported more than 100 million served each year. The simplest way to make it is with lemonade and lime juice, or even Sprite, but higher-end mixology spots might make lemon-lime cordials or house sodas or use more obscure varieties of limes or lemons. Every bar can put its own twist on it — Angostura even sells an NA RTD there, Angostura Lemon, Lime and Bitters.
Blessing predicts that one day a pregnant or sober celebrity in America will mention loving a fairly simple NA cocktail along the lines of the lemon, lime, and bitters.
“And that will catapult some NA cocktail into the canon,” he says.
To be fair, this conversation isn’t unique to the NA space. What’s the last new alcoholic cocktail to become ubiquitous in society?
Looking at Robert Simonson’s recent book, “Modern Classic Cocktails,” which identifies over 60 new drinks that have entered the canon in his opinion, his most recent entrant, Erick Castro’s Piña Verde, is from 2012.
The bulk of these modern classics — drinks like the Benton’s Old-Fashioned, the Paper Plane, and the Naked and Famous — were created between 2007 and 2012, but mostly 2008 and 2009. According to Simonson, that was due to “a dedicated community of passionate mixologists determined to bring their profession back to prominence and claim a seat at the culinary table.”
Gandee thinks a similar thing needs to happen with NA cocktails where “ego and competition” stoke a fire in countless bartenders to create mocktails that matter. In turn, he thinks you would start seeing drinks publications reporting on these drinks, repeating their names, and ultimately tabbing what are the best new NA options out there.
“This is going to be the new cocktail renaissance,” says Blessing. “The next wave of new inventions that capture people’s imagination will be NA cocktails.”
Admittedly, he thinks we might be another three to five years away, once all bars are carrying one or two NA spirits, once NA cocktails have gained more acceptance from both bartenders and patrons, and once bartenders have fully reimagined what NA cocktail design even looks like, a sort of Beta Cocktails for NA.
He thinks by then the NA cocktail industry will enter a creatively fertile space, similar to 2007 through 2012, and a tidal wave of modern NA classics will follow.
Says Sanders: “What a thrill to be the first to get the Tommy’s Margarita or Paper Plane title for non-alcoholic!”
- 2 ounces fresh lemon juice
- 1 ounce ginger syrup
- 1 barspoon of apple cider vinegar
- ½ ounce aquafaba
- 6 drops of salt tincture
- Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake vigorously.
- Strain liquid into a cocktail glass.
- Garnish with a lemon wheel.
- 1 ounce Seedlip Garden
- 1 ounce Martini & Rossi Floreale
- 1 ounce Three Spirits Nightcap
- Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and stir on ice.
- Strain liquid into Nick & Nora glass.
- Garnish with a cocktail onion.