At The Dearborn, a large-format bar and restaurant in Chicago’s Loop, beverage director Sarah Clark loves to serve customers high-quality mixed drinks that don’t contain booze. She just doesn’t like calling them mocktails.
“My preference would be ‘non-alcoholic craft beverage,’” she says. “I understand why a lot of people use the term mocktail, because it’s a simple, quick word and it gets the point across. I just think it carries a lot of negative connotations, because to mock something is never a positive take on it.”
That might be true, but her preferred term also has some downsides. With either eight or nine syllables, depending on how fast you spit out the last word, “non-alcoholic craft beverage” is too long for many situations (think noisy bars where orders are being shouted and printed menus with limited space for text). Moreover, it’s not exactly universal, which means at least some customers will have to have it explained to them, possibly more than once. But at least the included mention of “craft” points to the skill and knowledge that are required to make a great mixed drink without alcohol, a connotation that is entirely absent in “mocktail.”
“It’s actually a lot more complex to create a non-alcoholic beverage that provides the same qualities as something with a spirit in it,” she says. “If you’re making a crafted beverage, it’s not just sugar and some juice. You want to actually have all the properties of a balanced cocktail, without the alcohol. You have to work in your own viscosity at some point. It takes a lot of thought and time and effort to create something that checks all the boxes without delivering any alcohol.”
A Branding Boom
Those kind of well-balanced, rewarding non-alcoholic drinks are clearly experiencing a boom: 52 percent of drinkers say they are replacing alcohol with non-alcoholic beverages, a recent consumer survey found, while some 49 percent of bartenders are curious about non-alcoholic cocktails, according to the Bacardi 2023 Cocktail Trends Report.
They certainly have plenty of fun new ingredients to work with. Unlike just a decade ago, drinkers and drink makers now have access to an array of interesting bottles that don’t contain alcohol, from brands like Seedlip, founded in 2014, to newer arrivals like De Soi, launched by Katy Perry last spring. And yet the drinks industry is still figuring out what to call these beverages. Seedlip calls itself a “non-alcoholic spirit,” which is an oxymoron, at least if you’re going by dictionary definitions; meanwhile Monday, another brand, IDs itself as “zero-alcohol gin,” which is less self-contradictory. Other brands use various terms, with very little common ground.
In bars, there’s a similar lack of cohesion in what made-to-order drinks without alcohol are called. To many contemporary drinkers, a “virgin” cocktail sounds outdated and cringe, though it is certainly still in use. As Clark points out, “mocktail” can sound like it’s mocking something. “Zero proof” has adherents in some regions, while “free spirits” (which is actually a brand name) and “spirit-free” are used for N/A mixed drinks elsewhere.
With the expanding interest in non-alcoholic and low-octane drinks, even insiders can find themselves out of the loop. When I recently referred to a low-ABV mixed drink as a “shim,” one bartender told me they’d never heard the term, despite more than three decades behind the stick.
The helter-skelter nature of what these drinks are called is not exactly a plus. Consumers are less likely to buy drinks when they can’t figure out how they’re supposed to ask for them. And if every bottle of non-alcoholic spirit goes by a different term and every bar lists its non-alcoholic cocktails under its own unique turn of phrase, no one should be surprised if guests just order Diet Cokes instead.
Not every naming convention is being tried out for the first time. Just in time for Dry January, rye whiskey brand WhistlePig released two takes on an RTD beverage it’s calling Orange Fashioned Cocktail. The version with alcohol contains 35 percent by volume — in line with the average made-to-order Old Fashioned — and is labeled “Wet,” while the alcohol-free version is stamped “Dry,” a throwback to the most common terms for those for and against booze that dates to the 19th century. (To further differentiate the products, the Wet Orange Fashioned has a black label, while the N/A version has a white label, which you can interpret as you like.) With “wet” and “dry” still being used to describe counties and towns across the country, those terms should be easy for consumers to understand.
That’s a different approach than the brand took last year, however, when WhistlePig released the non-alcoholic PiggyBack Devil’s Slide, which it called a rye “non-whiskey.”
Liz Rhoades, WhistlePig’s head of whiskey development, says that that term paired with the distillery’s brand.
“We’re a super-young, hip, zero-generation team, and we like to just have fun,” she says. “We have fun with the whiskey-making process, or the non-whiskey-making process as well, and kind of throw the rule book out the window. Calling it a non-whisky, I think, is just super to our ethos.”
That might be true, though a cynic would point out that everything in the world other than whiskey is a non-whiskey, including my Volkswagen Golf. Defining something as what it is not can offer a hint of what a beverage tastes like, but it also can mean the very opposite, as with 7-Up, which branded itself as “The Uncola” in one of the most successful advertising campaigns of the 20th century. That slogan didn’t mean that 7-Up was a cola without caffeine or a cola made without cola nuts, but that it was an entirely different type of drink.
Other drink categories seem to have an easier route. In Italy, vermouth maker Martini & Rossi leaned into a traditional description for its booze-free Floreale and Vibrante, which will see national distribution launch in the U.S. in 2023. Both are described on the label as “non-alcoholic” and “l’aperitivo,” easy-to-understand terms that fans of Italian bitter drinks might remember from the legendary Crodino. But more practically, both new products are made in accordance with the E.U. legal regulations for vermouth, according to Martini & Rossi brand ambassador Fabio Raffaelli, which means they can also be called “non-alcoholic vermouth.”
“To be named ‘vermouth’ in Europe, it has to contain one of the 200 varieties of artemisia, or wormwood,” Raffaelli says. “We wanted to create a non-alcoholic vermouth that maintained exactly the same parameters. Artemesia is very floral, very herbaceous, and very bitter. It is the plant that stimulates your appetite. So that’s why this is an aperitivo — it’s a pre-dinner drink.”
An additional legal requirement? In Europe, vermouth has to be made from wine. For its new non-alcoholic drinks, Martini & Rossi makes wine from two white grapes, Catarratto and Trebbiano, which later has its alcohol removed. That means it is still a vermouth, at least legally.
Similarly, when Campari Group launched The Notes Collection in 2021, the initial announcements might have clumsily referred to the bartender-friendly bottles as “non-alcoholic mixable infusions.” But the Italian phrase on The Bitter Note, for example, is much more clear, describing the drink simply as “amaro analcolico,” or “non-alcoholic amaro.”
Many packaged non-alcoholic drinks today are brand-new, offering an example of how the drinks industry keeps looking forward. But for Martini & Rossi, a non-alcoholic vermouth also symbolizes a poetic return to past glory. The brand became a leader in the U.S., Raffaelli says, by adapting to market conditions during Prohibition.
“We created two versions of non-alcoholic vermouth, only for the United States,” he says. “We were shipping thousands of cases during Prohibition to the United States. I’m not saying that we revisited the same recipe, but we are not new to making non-alcoholic vermouth.”
If the terms and names for these new non-alcoholic drinks are all up in the air, how can brands and bars communicate their value to consumers? For Clark, the messaging starts with where the drinks are listed.
“First and foremost, the placement on a menu can really give the perception that this is something very special,” she says. “Ours is called ‘All Fun, No Booze,’ and it’s placed right next to the seasonal cocktail selection. It’s given the same importance as a craft alcoholic cocktail.”
Naturally, staff can also make a big difference in terms of customer understanding.
“Honestly, your bartenders and your servers have to sell it,” she says. “One of our best servers doesn’t drink alcohol and he has our highest craft non-alcoholic beverage sales, because he talks about them all the time at tables, and he gets excited about them. That’s the human aspect, the buy-in.”
Clearly listing ingredients, especially exotic fruit or other unusual components, can help get the rest of the value proposition across, Clark says. And then there’s the drink itself, which should be able to make its own argument based on its taste, aroma, and mouthfeel.
“Reducing down juices, that’s where that comes into play. That takes a lot of time and effort, but you can get really beautiful flavors by reducing natural ingredients,” she says. “I’m so tied to this, the ‘craft beverage’ part of it, because there’s so much work that goes into it.”