On a new “techniques” episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy dives into the world of nonalcoholic cocktails. He is joined by the Derek Brown, author of “Mindful Mixology” where they discuss the classic construction of a cocktail, and how to adjust that for no-and-low drinks. Tune in to learn more.
CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Tim McKirdy: Hey, this is Tim McKirdy, and welcome to VinePair’s “Cocktail College.” Today we are joined by Derek Brown. Derek, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us.
Derek Brown: Hey, Tim. Thanks for inviting me.
T: This is one of our special technique episodes. Normally we do deep dives on drinks, but also, the whole podcast itself is about techniques. In these special episodes, we do like to focus more on a different realm of bartending. I should say as well, by the way, we’re going to have to have you back because you’re a scholar of drinks and an incredibly accomplished bartender. So we definitely need to do a cocktail episode with you. But today we’re talking no- and low-alcohol cocktails and how to make better drinks. Derek, you’re a great person for this. Tell us your background with that, because you’ve written a book about this. Tell us about your experience in that realm.
D: Sure. And thank you for that, it was really kind of you. Yeah. So I recently wrote a book called “Mindful Mixology: A Comprehensive Guide To Knowing Low Alcohol Cocktails.” Partly I was inspired by a few people to write it. My partner, Maria Bastasch, who did the Disco Mary pop-up at Columbia Room, had no and low — and what is sometimes called functional cocktails that include herbal ingredients and so forth. She was a great inspiration for that. I also saw what Julia Bainbridge was doing with her book “Good Drinks,” which is such a great book and I highly recommend people pick that up. I had stopped drinking the way that I did, which was too much. We can save that for another episode outside of “Cocktail College,” but it tracks with college, for sure. But I started to see the relevance of no- and low-alcohol cocktails. I never thought lowly of them before. You can imagine that there’s a whole set of bartenders out there that roll their eyes at the idea of it. But from the very beginning, I remember researching these classic tomes of bartending, whether it was Jerry Thomas’s “How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant’s Companion.” Or David Embury’s “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.” David Embury was a terrible person, truly. But he made a book that certainly inspired many people, especially coming back after the dark ages. In all those books, they included nonalcoholic drinks, sometimes called temperance drinks. I knew that, so I never scoffed at the idea that somebody came in and said, “I want a nonalcoholic drink.” I would thumb through those books and I would find something. Jerry Thomas had a great recipe for orgeat and lemonade, for instance, which I included in my book and I thought was awesome. In fact, I drew from a lot of historical references for my book. But I started thinking about the way nonalcoholic cocktails operate using this construct of a cocktail with alcohol. Now you don’t have to do that. You can just make drinks without alcohol and you don’t even have to make it taste like a cocktail. But for me, that’s what I learned in mixology. That’s my trade. So I wanted to apply that. I kind of shied away from the historical definition in the sense of that 1806 definition that keeps being brought up again. The balance from the Balance and Columbia Repository: spirits, sugar, water, bitters. Which is also the name of my first book, by the way. It’s available on Rizzoli. I still want you to buy that one first. But I started thinking, if that’s a historical definition than it kind of is an Old Fashioned. For an Old Fashioned, if you take out the sugar and you put in vermouth and you put it up instead of on rocks, it’s a Manhattan. You take out the rye and you put it in gin and you have a spoonful of Maraschino, you have a Martinez. You take the Maraschino out, you put dry gin and dry vermouth and put in orange bitters, you have a Dry Martini. That is the very form of the cocktail that some genius came up with, in terms of a cocktail with alcohol. But I started thinking, what is a nonalcoholic cocktail? Just a historical note, it turns out that the first mention of “cocktail” as a beverage is in 1798 in London. It is in reference to a beverage that we do not know whether it had alcohol or not, there is some contention there. David Wondrich, a very thoughtful scholar — more of a scholar than I’ll ever be — suggested that it might be nonalcoholic because of the price. The drink is mentioned in The Morning Gazetteer, which is a London newspaper in 1798 in reference to the prime minister at the time, Mr. Pitt. It is considerably less expensive than all the alcohol drinks, which include things like gin and bitters and so forth. It could be that the very mention of cocktail as a drink at the beginning was a ginger-based drink, because it also talks about it being a ginger drink, which is a little bit wrapped up in a joke. I won’t get into all of that, but Anastasia Miller and Jared Brown discovered that and wrote about it. They have a whole other theory about it. But again, we’re not here for the history of that.
T: Two other wonderful scholars right there, we can just say.
D: So I started thinking about this historical definition. Do we even really use that definition anymore? Not necessarily. So what do we want to zero in on when we’re talking about nonalcoholic cocktails? And what would distinguish it? Why isn’t iced tea a nonalcoholic cocktail? I think we know, but I wanted to really codify that. So I did one of these thing that seems like a myth that people do, but it worked for me. I went to bed with a problem that I wanted to solve. And I woke up with an answer. I was thinking, well, what is the construction of a nonalcoholic cocktail like? What parts make it up? I woke up the next morning and there were four key parts that I thought about and I included these my book. One of them is the intensity of flavor. You never mistakenly drink a cocktail, you know it’s a cocktail. One of the reasons why is it has a lot of intensity in flavor, whether you’re talking about a Gin & Tonic or an Old Fashioned or a dry Martini. All of those are intense in flavor. So that’s a key component of it. Texture is usually a component of it, right? There are varying textures because you do have cocktails that are essentially highballs. And you have cocktails that are like a Sazerac that are essentially not a shot, but they’re served neat. There is a wide variation in texture. But we zero in on a general range of texture and there’s a textural element to it. Then there’s something that I call piquancy, which you could use different terms for. It doesn’t really matter. But I just settle on that one because it’s like that bite you get from alcohol generally. You can get it from a lot of different ingredients, actually. I describe it as a thing that twists your face when you take a shot of tequila or whiskey. And then, just because it’s a critical component in cocktails with alcohol, the length or the volume that alcohol takes up. If you have lemonade, it’s not a Tom Collins. But if you put gin in there, it all of a sudden becomes a Tom Collins. Part of the reason why is because the gin occupies a certain amount of space in that drink. So I thought, these are the sensory characteristics of a cocktail, and I’m going to start using those as my building blocks to make nonalcoholic cocktails. Instead of just focusing in on this historical definition, which would not really apply well in this case, I’m going to think about how I can build cocktails using those guideposts. That was the foundation of my book “Mindful Mixology.” What I try to outline in there is both that theory and what ingredients I use to get there.
T: That’s so interesting. I love that you’ve taken that approach to doing that because, like you said, how do you even define this is otherwise? You could essentially say that almost any drink or even bar water that doesn’t contain alcohol could be here. So I love that you’ve put those parameters out there. I’m sure that when it comes to creating drinks, having that structure, there is also something that’s probably very helpful. I also love this idea when you were describing nonalcoholic cocktails from a historical standpoint and that they’ve always existed. I love this idea that everything that’s old eventually becomes new again. This feels like something that’s very new, and it’s not. But some things that have changed, and it comes into your definition, are the ingredients, quality of ingredients, and diversity of ingredients that are being made now for this specific purpose. Can you tell me a little bit about what that landscape looks like now and maybe how to how to navigate these nonalcoholic spirits?
D: Let me get into that, but let me mention something before that. Being a bartender in this day and age, we might think we have a whole bevy of ingredients that people in the past never thought of. And that is true to some degree, though what we’re talking about, chemicals, for instance. Chemicals that people use in cocktails to adjust certain flavors. But I remember thinking to myself, salt tincture is something cool and new. It’s very trendy and it started showing up everywhere at a certain point, maybe in 2018 or 2019. I remember it as the age of salt tincture. I was looking through some of these Prohibition-era temperance cocktail books and sure enough, people put salt in cocktails. It was something that was already there. So I think for a lot of these things, people already figured it out. Some of these spirits that we’re talking about that are nonalcoholic distilled spirits are also based off old recipes for distillates that were nonalcoholic. But it is a new landscape and it is an emergent category because it didn’t really exist in full before that. I think it’s pretty exciting to be at the birth of this new category within spirits. And it’s growing exponentially. I call it the nonalcoholic spirits arms race. Camper English, who you should certainly get on for your clear ice show, he started keeping this list. He’s like an ice savant or something. I can’t remember where I started looking at it, but it’s probably somewhere below 40 nonalcoholic spirits. He recently tweeted that he wanted to cut it off at 150, and that was fastly approaching. I begged him to keep it going, but we’ll see. We’ll see what he does. He said it’s not very interesting to him. I said, “Well, is it more interesting than watching water freeze?”
T: Figurines in ice, which is wonderful.
D: He didn’t respond after that. But I hope he takes it in good spirit — no pun intended. Here we have this emerging. Listen, there are still places you can go and there are more flavored vodkas on the back bar than there are nonalcoholic spirits in the world. But it’s an emerging category, and it’s really exciting. Some of them are distilled. So I do work for a company called Spiritless, which has created a nonalcoholic bourbon or whiskey alternative called Kentucky 74. Which I think is absolutely fantastic, it’s my favorite of all the products. And that is a distilled product. It starts with alcohol and then the alcohol is later distilled out, if you will. In their process, they refer to it as reverse distillation. But there are examples where people have also compounded products like Lyre’s, which makes some really great cordials. If you wanted their coffee original, I think it’s a nonalcoholic Kahlua or what have you. You can use it in an Espresso Martini. It works great. Those are just compounded. They don’t have any distilled product in them and they don’t need it. They’re made like a bartender makes anything, by putting everything together. Within that, those products are analogs. They are meant to imitate alcohol.
D: And then you have creative ones that don’t imitate anything at all. Like Sacre from Woodnose Drinks, which is vinegar-based and it is made of coffee, maple syrup, and maple syrup vinegar. That’s from a 100-year-old mother. For people who don’t know how vinegar is made, that doesn’t literally mean from a mother who’s 100 years old. That’s the product that starts the vinegar. Clarification is important there. So that product is pretty unique and nobody’s ever seen anything like that. There are creative products like that. And then there’s ones like the Kentucky 74. And all of them, I think, offer something to this category, and this category will only continue to grow. It is a minefield, for sure. When people are like, “Oh, I had one nonalcoholic spirit and it tasted bad, I don’t like it,” I’m always like, “Well, what if you did that with gin?” How quickly would we stop if we had one s*itty gin? That was the end of it. There are hundreds of gins, but no, the one I had that ruins all gin forever. It is a little bit of a minefield because it is a new category and people are developing it. There will be growing standards around it and there will be innovation around it, and it’ll only continue to get better until maybe we have that “Star Trek” synth and all, where it tastes exactly like it.
T: Can I cut in here as well for a second. For my work at VinePair, every year we a roundup. I’ll do the tasting of it, and I’ve been doing it for the past couple of years. I would say that, for sure, I’ve seen the category explode over the past, like, two years. When I did it this year, I was trying so many different products I’d never had before. I completely concur with you. Just because the one that you have might be bad, there’s a lot of great products out there. Another thing that I noticed, too, is you mentioned that one of your pillars of the nonalcoholic cocktail being the kind of burn. I definitely felt like the ones that succeeded really well for me were those that maybe used something like ginger or something where it left a little heat on the end of the palate. When I noticed that quite a few brands were doing it, I was like, “Oh, right, that makes sense.” That’s almost like mimicking the effect there. It was really interesting. Is that something that you come across as well, that kind of cake or spice in a way that mimics alcohol?
D: Yeah, I think that’s an important part of it. You’re going to apply those four categories to some degree to nonalcoholic spirits as well. I think it’s important to have some kind of piquancy to those as well. You have to have that little bit of burn, it can be ginger, which is one of my favorites to use. Some people use vinegar or an extreme bitterness. You were just drinking the Jiya, which is fantastic stuff.
T: And that’s ginger as well in it, too. So we’re doubling down there,
D: Double down on it. It’s a thing that stops you a little bit from gulping it. It’s a complexity factor. That piquancy stops you from just gulping it. It’s something we like. Humans like things that irritate them. Otherwise podcasts would not exist — just kidding. Whether that tingling from we get from mint or the burn we get from alcohol or the burn we get from capsicum, all of those are enticing elements of complexity. That’s all in there. That’s a part of nonalcoholic spirits. And I like that. One thing I do like to point out, because there’s another thing that people do when they have a nonalcoholic spirit, they drink it straight and they go, “Well, that doesn’t taste like alcohol.” And you’re like, “Wow, OK, congratulations. That is correct.” Yes, it does not taste like alcohol. Because alcohol, as one of the founders of Spiritless says, “is a magical molecule.” There’s not anything like it. Many times, these are meant to work in cocktails and not be drunk neat. Or if they are meant to be drunk neat, they are meant to be different than alcohol. So I think that you have to approach them with an open mind. I am making it my mission to share more information about that with people and share some of the things that make a good nonalcoholic spirit with people. So that when they approach it, instead of rejecting it outright, they say, “Well, OK. What is good about this spirit?” Just imagine that cognac was your only frame of reference for what a good spirit is. And then you had mezcal. You would be like, “This stuff’s crap. This is terrible.” But then somebody comes along and says, “Oh no, actually, it’s a different thing.” Here’s what you should be looking for in mezcal. Here’s what you should be looking for in cognac. And they do share some characteristics. But overall, there are different products. That makes sense. So mezcal should be judged on mezcal’s terms, and cognac should be judged on cognac’s terms. And nonalcoholic spirits should be judged on nonalcoholic spirits term.
T: This ingredient discussion about brands themselves could go on for a long time, and we do have other things that I would love to get into. But I was wondering from a cocktail perspective, maybe there’s no simple answer to this, but when it comes to creation and maybe earlier in your journey in this category, did you find it easier to approach those ones that were like, “This is a nonalcoholic version of gin or whiskey?” Or another style of spirit or the ones that you mentioned before that don’t really have a precedent and are not stating, you know, like maybe some kind of use case. Which route do you think was easier for creating cocktails?
D: My very unscientific survey, but based on my experience, is that bartenders tend to prefer the creative category. It gives them something totally new in their toolkit and because philosophically they think, “Well, if it’s going to be whiskey, let’s use whiskey.” Whereas consumers are more comfortable with the things that already exist because they don’t want to learn a brand-new thing every time, because that’s scary. You’ve already thrust all these different spirits on them over the last decade. They were like, “Well, we like bourbon.” You should try rye. Oh man, OK. Now we’re making a whey whiskey, too. Oh, OK. Now we’re making it with millet. It’s confusing for consumers, and a lot of them want it to stay within a wheelhouse. That’s my very unscientific survey. But for me personally, I probably started connecting with the creative nonalcoholic spirits first because of the very same reason other parties did. I didn’t know what nonalcoholic spirits were supposed to taste like, but these tasted really fun and wacky and totally different than anything I’ve ever had before. Give me the shot of vinegar, maple syrup, vinegar, and coffee. That’s wild. Let’s do it. Or with Jiya, where it does taste like an amaro, but each one of them is unique unto itself. I didn’t have to say, “Oh, this doesn’t taste like Fernet.”
T: That’s awesome. Moving on to another one of your pillars that you outlined at the beginning; this does also relate back to the the initial ingredients, to texture. I find that to be so important. But alcohol itself has body. It has texture. When it comes to cocktail creation beyond the base spirit that you’re using, nonalcoholic, how do you achieve that? How do you approach texture in a nonalcoholic drinks so that it’s just right? Or that it maybe doesn’t feel too thin on the palate, even if it is packed with flavor?
D: Obviously, that is a challenge and even for nonalcoholic spirits, because some of them do a good job at adding some texture weight. But ultimately, it’s not alcohol, so it’s not going to be exact. What I do, is I try to use other ingredients to shore up that texture. I’ll give you an example. With my book, I put out a recipe called the Pinch Hitter, which is a very simple sour recipe. It has lemon and sugar. And then I add a couple of things to it to give it more intensive flavor and frequency and texture. For the additional piquency and flavor, I put in apple cider vinegar, which is a byproduct of alcohol. So it carries with it some of those funky esters that sometimes come out of alcohol. That added a little bit more complexity to it. Then I added aquafaba for the textural element, which is chickpea water. For those who don’t know, it’s just a can of chickpeas, that’s literally all it is. It’s the liquid from a can of chickpeas. Don’t put the actual chick pea in there. Nobody wants a hummus-tini, that’s just disgusting. And then I added salt again, thinking I was more clever than people of the past, although they’ve already added that. Putting salt in it adds texture as well because there’s particulates, it adds to the weight. So that builds it around it. And then I use a simple syrup with ginger that gives it more of the intensity of flavor, more of that bite. Also, the syrup itself adds weight and texture that you can adjust. Altogether, that Pinch Hitter is lemon juice, ginger syrup, salt, tincture, apple cider vinegar, and aquafaba. And altogether, when you taste it, it’s just as good as any sour out there and provides a really nice template to switch things up. You can switch out the lemon and put in grapefruit juice. You can change the ginger syrup to thyme syrup, and all of a sudden you have these different combinations. I put that out there as a very basic template to build nonalcoholic sours from. If you also notice, the ingredients are super cheap.
T: A lot of people probably have them there in their kitchen right now.
D: That’s right. Now for bars, I don’t argue you should have cheap, nonalcoholic cocktails. In fact, I’ve argued the opposite. Nonalcoholic cocktails should cost just as much as regular cocktails. But when you’re making them at home, you maybe have a different option. If you’re just looking for a simple, straightforward drink, that would be an example where you can go to the grocery store if you don’t have it at home and make that drink that afternoon.
T: You’ve touched upon something there that I wanted to jump to later, but let’s chat about it now quickly: price. Because I think this is something that again, maybe irks skeptics. Why do you therefore think it’s important to have nonalcoholic cocktails be as expensive as normal ones on the menu? Does it come down to the ingredients? They’re just as expensive, taken overall? Or is it also a perception thing so that people do take this more seriously?
D: I would be a little bit reluctant to charge just based on perception. But I will say that there are three reasons why I believe nonalcoholic cocktails are generally as expensive as cocktails with alcohol. One of them is it takes me just as long to create it. In some cases, longer, because I have to think about aspects of it. If we consider R&D and labor, which it is, and if we consider the bartender’s knowledge and training labor, which it is, then we have to accept that that might be part of the package and that part of what you’re paying for it. If you’re using expensive ingredients, then that obviously makes it expensive. You’re not going to subsidize the customers’ experience as much as that would be nice for them. If you’re using some kind of very expensive aged tea from China that has this really wonderful, rich, earthy flavor but happens to be expensive because it’s aged, that costs money. Or if you’re using a nonalcoholic spirit, on average, nonalcoholic spirits cost more than spirits by about 50 cents. Drizly did something about that where they wrote about the fact that, on average, nonalcoholic spirits were 50 cents higher. The reason why is because, using proprietary formulas, sometimes they have to undergo additional distillation that alcohol spirits don’t have to do. So if you’re using the spirits, then that makes immediate sense. The other part of it is, you’re not just buying a cocktail, you’re buying experience. If you get a Pinch Hitter that I just described earlier and it costs pennies to make it home, well, guess what? You don’t have to pay a lot of money for that. You can just make it at home and you can sit on your sofa and enjoy it while you watch Netflix. But if you want the experience of going to a bar and that person has created this wonderful experience and a beautiful glass where a great environment can be, and chances are they’re using expensive ingredients in the cocktail with the best ingredients that they can use, then that costs money, too. You can’t get all of that subsidized. If again, if you want cheap cocktails, you can do that at home. You can do that with alcohol, too. You can go buy super cheap ingredients and make a super-cheap cocktail at home, and you don’t even have to adjust the decor.
T: Yeah, amazing. If we can jump back a second to ingredients that we were speaking about before, here’s a question I have. And this might be a kind of person-by-person scenario here. I always find it interesting when folks say they’re doing Dry January and then one of their favorite drinks to have in Dry January is soda water with bitters. Now, a lot of it has come through at 40 percent ABV. Of course, we’re using them in a very minuscule amounts overall when you look at the total volume of a drink. How do you approach that? Is that something that you would highlight on a menu or is that something you would be like, “Look, I’m looking for a replacement ingredient here to have that effect?”
D: It’s a really good question and one that deserves more debate. But as far as I’m concerned, the legal definition of nonalcoholic is a good one. It’s .5 percent alcohol or less. Before people say, “Well, my gosh, that does have alcohol in it,” keep in mind that bread has more alcohol than that. A ripe banana might have as much alcohol. In nature, alcohol exists already and people who don’t drink eat and consume and ingest alcohol. But some people are very strict, whether it’s for piety or because they’re in recovery, and I respect that. So I think it is worth noting in some cases. But if you put a couple of dashes of bitters in soda water, that’s true. It’s going to less than .5 percent alcohol. It depends on what that person wants. With my book, for instance, “Mindful Mixology,” I try to point out it’s not a book for people in recovery per se. I will let people determine for themselves what their recovery looks like, but it has low-alcohol cocktails in it, and it has drinks that taste like alcohol. For some people, that’s an absolute no when it comes to their sobriety. I think that’s important to to point out. But there are a lot of people that either want to reduce their drinking or cut out drinking that exists in this gray area. There are, in fact, gray area drinkers who have some level of problem drinking that want to reduce the way they drink. And then there’s some people who just want to reduce the the way they drink for whatever reason, and that might be because of health reasons. It could be because they have a meeting the next day, whatever it is. Those are the vast majority of people who are going to be using my book and trying these recipes out and taking Dry January on.
T: I’ve got a couple questions there. You obviously mentioned that the book is not just nonalcoholic cocktails, it’s low alcohol too. At quick aside here. I did taste Spiritless for the first time in January. That suggestion of having an almost 50-50 with bourbon or whiskey or whatever was strange at first. Then I tried it and I was like, “This is wonderful.” I would absolutely prefer to have this to cut down my intake of alcohol rather than watered down with an ice cube or highball or whatever. I thought it was great. I couldn’t believe no one’s ever thought of this before. So I thought that was pretty cool. For low-alcohol cocktails, this is something someone had mentioned to me before that might seem counterintuitive. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a great idea. Which is that it may actually be a very good vessel for high-ABV spirits such as navy-strength gin or cask-strength bourbon, because it allows you to use a lower volume overall. But you’re getting that punchier flavor. Is that kind of an easy hack there? Is that something you subscribe to for that category?
D: Yeah, I can see that. I haven’t really used that. I think that sounds like a pretty good strategy. More often, I focus on low-alcohol spirits or in reducing the volume. I have a drink called the Downward Tiger, which is a combination of tequila, lime juice, apple juice, fresh green apple juice, and it’s got a dash of Tabasco green sauce in it. It’s their green hot sauce. In that, I use a half-ounce of tequila and it works beautifully and the other ingredients support it. When somebody tastes it, it doesn’t necessarily feel like it doesn’t have tequila and it does feel like it has tequila. So there are ways to support it. In that way, I could see that working. But I also like using sherry, beer, wine, and shochu. I like using a bevy of lower-alcohol spirits like wines or beers. You can’t put as much as you want in there, because obviously volume is as much a concern as the percentage. If you drink a half an ounce of high-proof bourbon or you drink 20 beers that are low alcohol, obviously, you know which ones are going to get you drunk. So volume is as much concern as ABV. But I tend to focus on ABV in terms of making low-alcohol cocktails. Amaro is also great, and liqueurs.
T: I was just going to give a quick shout-out. You mentioned sherry there and one wonderful sherry cocktail, the Bamboo. We had Alex Day on for that on this show already, so check out that episode if you haven’t. That’s a wonderful drink that allows you that complexity of a stirred, spirit-forward drink, but without the ABV. That’s a great one.
T: Within your career, you’re an innovative and forward-thinking at your now-former bar, Columbia Room with this tasting menu approach. So it doesn’t actually surprise me. In some respects, you’re leaning so much into this, beyond your personal life. You’re leaning into this and taking it seriously. I was wondering if you could share some words for bartenders listening or whatever about what you feel the importance of having a nonalcoholic drinks program is. One that’s more thoughtful. How important is it these days? This is not going away, right?
D: One of the reasons why this appeared so ascendant so quickly is because there was already a a group of consumers who were being underserved. That is people who don’t like drinking alcohol for whatever reason. If it’s for piety or they’re pregnant or health or whatever reason, they’re doing it and they were already there. And they didn’t have anything to offer them. In some cases, people would hastily make a nonalcoholic cocktail on the spot or they’d offer them lemonade or Coca-Cola. Fine drinks, but not adult sophisticated beverages. That was the largest group of consumers out there, and as soon as you start offering that, they came out and they were like, “Wow, this is great. We didn’t feel like we had a place at bars.” Or, “We felt we had to just get soda and pretend we’re the designated driver or whatever.” That’s the first thing I tell bartenders, is that you were just leaving money on the table. The second part of that is that there are people who want to adjust their intake of alcohol based on how they want to feel. Is your bar about alcohol or is it about people? If it is about alcohol, then fine. Don’t put any nonalcoholic stuff in there and then you have this shrine to alcohol. But if your bar is about serving people, some of those people drink. Some of those people drink a lot. Some of those people drink a moderate amount. And some of those people drink nothing. You want to be able to serve all kinds of people all kinds of options. That, I think is important. I want to encourage people to go out and think about that. Don’t leave the money on the table. You know they want it — here, take my money. Here. We want drinks and to help people feel the way they want to feel, not the way you want them to feel. The way they want to feel. That means that they have choices over the amount of alcohol they drink and they shouldn’t be pressured to do it. One of the weirdest thing is to say that you don’t want to drink with alcohol, you have to give your whole life story. You’re at a bar and your friend orders a Manhattan and you say, “What kind of nonalcoholic drinks do you have?” And your friend says, “Oh, you don’t drink. Why?” You’re like, “Well, I mean, it all started when I was young, when I was 5 years old.” You have to go into the whole thing or you have to say something like, “I’m pregnant or I am an alcoholic.” And then they go, “Oh yeah, I get that.” There’s no other drink, really, that you have to give your whole life story for. I think that that’s unfair to people because most people are happy to give you their life story once you get to know them in the right circumstance. Not many people want to just drop their life story just because you caught them ordering a drink that you wouldn’t order.
T: There are a million reasons why someone might not drink and they don’t need to give you one of them. I think it’s the social thing, too. Someone can feel comfortable. It looks like you’re drinking. You are drinking a cocktail, it just might not contain booze. It’s very intentional. I’m happy that we’re recording this and putting this out. If listeners listen on a weekly basis, it’s intentional that this isn’t in January because I think it’s stupid that we just focus on this topic and this space in January. It’s better that we’re doing it now and putting it out now. That’s my personal opinion.
D: Yeah, I like that.
T: I mean, you have a whole book’s worth of thought and insight and everything else. But I was wondering for the purposes of this show, are there any final thoughts to wrap up this conversation on nonalcoholic cocktails and that field and that craft?
D: When I switched from making classic cocktails to a focus on no- and low-alcohol cocktails, I felt like maybe I was changing directions. But when I sat and thought about it more, I realized it’s just a continuation of the same thing. I want people to have great choices. People who enjoy high- proof spirits and lots of them, you enjoy what you enjoy. My job is not to play referee. My job is to offer choices to people. As you can see, it’s a part of the history of bartending and is part of the present of bartending. I want to make sure that those options are out there so people can feel the way they want to feel.
T: That’s wonderful. Thank you for sharing.
D: Yeah, thanks Tim.
Getting to Know Derek Brown
T: Let’s head into the final section of the show. Our recurring weekly section, where we get to know our guests a little bit more with our five recurring questions. How does that sound?
D: Perfect. Let’s do it.
T: Question No. 1: What style or category of spirit would typically enjoy the most real estate on your professional bar?
D: It’s always been whiskey if we’re talking about alcohol, Obviously we spend a lot of time talking nonalcoholic spirits and those are gaining. But in terms of what I’ve served in the past, I’ve always historically been an oak addict. I like spirits that have an age to them in white oak barrels. Bourbon does it for me.
T: It does it so well in D.C. as well. If you are looking to seek out good whiskey drinking spots, D.C. is a good place for it. Question No. 2: Which ingredient or two do you think is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
D: Barspoon. Sometimes people laugh at that, but it stirring is a more graceful act than shaking. You have a lot more control there. The bowl of it can be used for measuring, you can pour the sparkling wine down it. You can muddle with it if you have to. It’s a very useful thing. It’s not sexy to say a cocktail spoon, but I think that is the most undervalued bar tool.
T: Wonderful. Question No. 3: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?
D: When I worked as a sommelier at a place called Centrolina in D.C. — it’s a great restaurant — the chef sommelier at the time, Mark Slater, once told me, “You got to remember, Derek, that the cocktail should be delicious.” I know that sounds pretty simplistic, but in the beginning of the cocktail renaissance, there was a rush to make drinks bitter and sour and very weird with whatever ingredients you could throw in there. Sometimes it was overbearing. I think that having somebody say, “Hey, don’t forget people have to enjoy these,” means it’s not just for your intellectual gratification. It is for somebody’s palate. I think that was a powerful thing.
T: I like it. Wonderful. Question No. 4: If you could only visit one last bar in your life, past or present, which one would you like to cross the doorstep of?
D: I’d love to go back to see Pare de Sufrir. I’m butchering the Spanish, but it’s a bar in Guadalajara in Mexico. “Pare de Sufrir” means end the suffering. A guy named Pedro Jimenez runs it, who just has all these local artisanal mezcals and they serve beef jerky with hot sauce. That’s the only food I know. When I was there that’s all they had. They played cumbia music and we all danced, had a great time. I don’t eat meat or I don’t drink alcohol, but I might make an exception for that wonderful little place.
T: Amazing. Final question for you today: If you knew the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make hypothetically?
D: Hands down a dry Martini. A 50-50 Martini with orange bitters, cold as hell. Lemon peel expressed and discarded. That’s always been my favorite drink and one that I would be happy to visit before the reaper.
T: Amazing. That’s a popular one for that question, I must say, and definitely the one I would go with myself there. Thank you so much for your time today. Thank you for sharing this incredible wealth of knowledge. Like I said, we definitely have to get you back on for a drink, too, because I would love to get some of your insight on a cocktail, too.
D: I’d love that. Thanks, Tim. I really appreciate you including me.
T: Thank you very much.
If you enjoy listening to the show anywhere near as much as we enjoy making it, go ahead and hit subscribe, and please leave a rating or review wherever you get your podcasts — whether that’s Apple, Spotify, or Stitcher. And please tell your friends.
Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.