Keeping Bar: How to Step Up Your Nonalcoholic Drinks

Nonalcoholic drinks were once ordered with a tinge of embarrassment in your voice as you hoped to not annoy the bartender. What you would often get back in return is a sugar bomb of cocktail mixer and ice, or just a soda. But, step foot into a modern bar today, and you’ll find that bartenders are taking a sophisticated approach to zero-proof drinks. Many of them are just as elevated as their alcoholic counterparts.

For proof, look to Chicago’s Kumiko, a swanky Japanese-inspired bar. Creative director, Eater Young Gun Julia Momose (‘16) eschews the word mocktail instead opting for “spiritfree.” The nonalcoholic drink menu features concoctions like the Hoji-Hai made with hōjicha green tea powder, pomegranate molasses, concord grape vinegar, and club soda. At Existing Conditions in New York where nonalcoholic cocktails are given top billing on the menu, sip on the savory Serendipity with clarified tomato and passionfruit juices and a grapefruit twist. Even chains like Punch Bowl Social, a restaurant-amusement venue hybrid, have made creative nonalcoholic drinks available to the masses, like the Palm Tree Shade with pineapple-infused coconut water, mint syrup, lemon juice, and aquafaba.

These drinks lack spirits, but offer depth of flavor and interesting textures. Good news for anyone skipping the alcohol but still wants to enjoy something special.

To find out how to make a killer nonalcoholic cocktail at home, we chatted with Momose and Patrick Williams, beverage director of Punch Bowl Social.

Use tea or shrubs to deliver flavor.

Momose loves to use tea in her drinks. She says, “It’s extremely versatile, and depending on the origin or method of processing there are lots of different flavors that can be derived from tea.” At home, she likes to make a matcha tonic by shaking the matcha and straining it over tonic water and ice. “The drink has a beautiful layered effect where it is clear on the bottom and a vibrant green on top. Sometimes I add honey, or sometimes I enjoy the bitterness of it all.”

She also suggests exploring different sweeteners by visiting international aisles in various grocery stores. Sweeteners like avocado honey and pomegranate molasses are great tools for nonalcoholic drinks. “You can mix them with club soda, or brew a tea and sweeten it with a honey or syrup and add a bright acidic component like fresh juice or verjus [unsweetened grape juice].”

Williams is a fan of using shrubs (drinkable vinegars) in his nonalcoholic cocktails. Companies like 18.21 Bitters and McClary Bros. make shrubs in a variety of interesting flavors like watermelon mint and apple pie. Using them is as simple as adding one part shrub to four parts soda water. “If the shrub is super strong and acidic, add a sweetener like agave nectar, honey, or some kind of fruit syrup,” suggests Williams.

Use aquafaba to boost texture.

Aquafaba (chickpea water) is a substitute for egg whites in foamy cocktails like the Ramos Gin Fizz, and is a great way to give your zero-proof drinks some character. Williams says, “You could make a frothy lemonade, a simple cocktail that looks fancy in a cocktail glass.” Shake one part aquafaba with two parts sweeter and lemon juice and three or parts water for a tropical refreshment.

Consider Seedlip, a distilled nonalcoholic spirit.

Both Momose and Williams like to use Seedlip, a distilled nonalcoholic spirt made in England. It’s not distributed nationally, and is only available for home purchase online. It’s pricy at $ 36 for 23.7 ounces, but, Momose says, “It’s a very carefully made ingredient and you don’t have to use a whole lot in your drink.” While it’s meant to be a base ingredient (its botanical nature makes it a great substitute for gin), Momose prefers to use it as an aromatic element. “It does shine really well when you add citrus or an acid, like vinegars,” says Momose. Try it with black tea and a squeeze of lemon.

Lia Picard is a freelance writer eating her way through Atlanta.

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