Sober with Style: The Rise of Non-alcoholic Cocktails
With so much emphasis on craft behind the bar, those sickly sweet 80s mocktails have evolved into high-quality non-alcoholic cocktails. But are people actually ordering these dry mixed drinks?
As craft cocktails continue to spread to every bar you can think of, they’re starting to leave their mark on nonalcoholic drinks, too. It seems mocktails have transformed from an afterthought at the back of a menu into…something else altogether. Call them craft mocktails, or non-alcoholic cocktails – either way, bars are now offering an entirely separate list of well made, creative drinks that contain zero alcohol.
Is there more demand for high-quality non-alcoholic cocktails now? Can bars get away with a simple Shirley Temple anymore? Don’t non-alcoholic drinks go against a bar’s fundamental purpose? To find out, I canvassed some bartenders and drinkers in my hometown – the hard-drinking former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia.
Options for Non-Drinkers
One thing that became clear quickly is that sober people want the option to order a good non-alcoholic cocktail, especially if they’re pregnant women.
“When I was pregnant,” Arielle Goldman tells me, “I really appreciated a decent, and it didn’t have to be extensive, non-alcoholic cocktail menu.”
“As someone who has been pregnant way too many times the past few years, craft mocktails are extremely appreciated,” says Jenna Witte. “Especially things that have non-alcoholic ginger beer – because, you know, all the morning sickness and the puking.”
Lemaire assistant general manager Chauncey Jenkins has seen plenty of demand for non-alcoholic cocktails. “They work very well for us, especially for pregnant guests,” he says. “Sometimes some of our huge corporate contacts will do parties for their children – think sweet sixteens – and it’s awesome to be able to offer options for the little ladies.”
On the flip side, former bartender Katie Marsh tells me that she hated being offered non-alcoholic cocktails when she was pregnant. “Why would I want a bunch of mixers without the liquor?” says Marsh. “I felt like I was being mocked or treated like a 12-year-old.”
Mocked by a mocktail – the lowest of insults, to be sure.
Non-alcoholic Cocktails Have Plenty of Competition
So there’s a place for non-alcoholic cocktails, but do those drinks need to be made with the same care, craft, and fancy ingredients as a high-end craft cocktail?
“Why bother?” says Marguerite Jones. “That’s what soda is for.”
Non-drinker Aaron Puritz tells me he’s got enough non-alcoholic options as it is. “As a sober guy, the near-beer and mocktails are off the list,” he says. “[I] would much rather have a craft ginger beer or a cold-brew coffee.”
Kate Watts says she prefers something other than cranberry and tonic, but it’s not a major deal. “I don’t expect to see a list of non-alcoholic drinks when I walk in somewhere,” says Watts.
Separate Menus: A Step Too Far?
From many of the answers I received, it feels like almost everyone agrees that non-alcoholic beverages should be offered everywhere, but many people felt that an entire menu was simply too much.
Richmond bartender Justin Varner says he’d make a non-alcoholic cocktail if asked. “I would never print the menus though,” he says. This was a recurring theme.
I noticed that at Richmond’s newest and hottest cocktail bar, The Jasper, there is no separate non-alcoholic cocktail list. There aren’t any offered on the regular drink menu either. Owner Mattias Hägglund had a quick explanation. “We don’t have anything on the menu at the moment, but that wasn’t because we don’t care about them,” says Hägglund. “We sell a number of mocktails every night, assembled from the ingredients that we have on hand for our main list.”
So the ability and the demand are there, but the need to advertise it is not. This writer (who does imbibe) agrees that a menu is not needed. “I think it’s an important detail for any bar that is serious about hospitality and cocktails to be able to put together a well made non-alcoholic drink,” says Hägglund.
When The Alternative is Water…
One thing that even the naysayers couldn’t overlook is the money that can be made from non-alcoholic cocktails. I heard the phrase “good margins” from a number of bartenders and bar owners. With high-end non-alcoholic cocktails, you can charge fancy cocktail prices without having to use the booze. And of course, they will always bring in more money than other sober standbys, like a glass of water.
“It’s kind of a no brainer for the business side of things,” says former bartender Rachel Hudson. “A mocktail is $5, a water is $0,” she says, echoing the argument made by Distill Ventures in favor of non-alcoholic drinks brands like Seedlip.
Regardless of margins, some bartenders and barflies clearly feel non-alcoholic cocktails have no place in a bar. After all, if you don’t want to drink, why are you even in a bar?
“‘Craft mocktail’ made me snicker,” says bartender Joe McDowell. “If you want an aromatic and earthy fizz sans the alcohol, get the F out.”
“Make us drink the alcohol!” says bar patron April Newcomb. “How often do we get to go out anyway?”
Catering to Different Tastes
Former bartender Paul Kelly says craft cocktails are about perfectly pairing flavors and certain spirits. So “‘craft mocktail,’ to me, sounds like sugar in a bottle,” says Kelly. “But, hey, if someone wants an $8 fancy sugar soda, more power to them.”
Despite his skepticism, Kelly’s willingness indulge someone’s request for a non-alcoholic cocktail is the key. After all, a good bartender wouldn’t refuse to mix a Cosmopolitan just because it’s not one of their favorites. It’s essential to remember that a bar is a gathering place and not a just a place to alter your mind with substances, regardless of how much some of us like doing just that.
“It is always important to value sober guests as much as the other,” says bar manager Pedro Aida. “In a city whose culture is largely based on booze, it’s easy for a guest to feel unworthy if they’re not consuming alcohol.”
Or, as Lucas Dowd puts it: “Even though they are despicable, non-drinkers are people too.”
And if drinkers can get cocktails with weird and wonderful flavor combinations, then those staying sober shouldn’t have to put up with soda water and lime. And that’s where those contentious non-alcoholic cocktails come in.