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By Elisa Ung
So you’re out with friends at a bar for the night, but you’re not in the mood for an alcohol buzz. While the others sip fun cocktails, your choices are often limited to Coke, iced tea or possibly something called a mocktail—usually soda with some kind of syrup.
But things are looking up for the growing number of Americans who are seeking ways to reduce or eliminate their consumption of alcohol, but would still like to enjoy a fun night out.
More top bartenders are putting the same amount of thought into creating zero-proof beverages as they do the rest of their cocktail menu. Instead of simply pouring grenadine into lemon-lime soda, they are mixing lemon foam with buckwheat tea or swirling black pepper syrup into guava juice.
At Rich Table, one of San Francisco’s most coveted reservations, customers who wanted an alcohol-free mixed drink often got something improvised by busy bartenders, said veteran San Francisco chef and bartender Larry Piaskowy.
When Piaskowy took over the bar recently, he went to work on what he likes to call “no-proof cocktails” using the distilled nonalcoholic spirit Seedlip. One drink he devised combines one variety of Seedlip, the fresh and floral Garden 108, with a syrup made from citrus-peel oils and sugar. Another melds a spiced iteration of Seedlip with a house-made Earl Grey tea syrup, club soda and lemon juice.
Both are nuanced drinks fit for savoring slowly, just like a cocktail with alcohol.
“The person who orders them is having the same experience without the alcohol buzz,” Piaskowy said.
His bar menu pointedly does not call them “mocktails,” a word Piaskowy dislikes because “it makes it seem like we’re not going the full route to make someone a cocktail.”
A Growing Wellness Trend
The customer base for these types of drinks is only expected to grow. American alcohol consumption has declined for three years in a row, according to the beverage industry tracker IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, whose research points to this choice being part of a broader trend toward health and wellness.
A recent IWSR study showed that 52% of Americans are trying or have previously tried to drink less alcohol, and this trend is particularly pronounced among consumers in their 20s and 30s, according to Brandy Rand, U.S. president of the IWSR.
“Our findings show that 67% of people in the 25-to-34-year-old age range are currently trying, or have tried in the past, to reduce their alcohol intake, compared to only 40% of people 55 and older,” Rand said.
The IWSR predicts that more beer, wine and spirits companies will begin responding to the high demand for low-alcohol and nonalcoholic products, which currently make up a small fraction—just 0.5%—of what these companies produce and market in the United States.
In the meantime, bartenders say that the 2016 U.S. introduction of Seedlip, made by a British company, was a game-changer. Along with Garden 108 and Spice 94 used at Rich Table, the line also includes a citrusy flavor called Grove.
Well-known Portland, Oregon, chef Andy Ricker this year also relaunched a line of “cane vinegar cordials” called Som, in flavors such as Oregon berry, pineapple Szechuan pepper and Thai basil. They are designed for mixing with soda for a no-proof drink, though they can also be used as a base for an alcoholic cocktail.
“Som offers patrons the option of having a zero proof drink with an experience equal to the one they’d get if they were ordering a well-made cocktail,” Ricker explains on Som’s website.
A “Complete Composed Drink” Sans Alcohol
Many cocktail hot spots are recognizing the benefits of crafting mixed drinks that don’t treat alcohol-avoiders as second-class customers. Justin Lavenue offers 80 craft cocktails at his Austin, Texas, hot spot, The Roosevelt Room, and takes particular pride in his zero-proof options. He said they sell well, especially since The Roosevelt Room frequently hosts large parties that inevitably include a few nondrinkers.
Among his offerings: a “N’Artini” made of Seedlip Spice, juniper tea, pine needles and Asian pear, topped with Castelvetrano olives; as well as a nostalgic drink called Glitter and Marigold, which takes its inspiration from the citrusy-creamy flavors of an Orange Julius.
At Mother of Pearl, a vegan Polynesian restaurant and cocktail bar in Manhattan’s East Village, the drinks menu includes a “Virgin Isles” section with options such as the Pepper Keenan (pineapple, pomegranate molasses, lime, bell pepper, jalapeño and agave) and the Orchard Island (green apple juice, lemongrass, lemon and coconut purée).
“We are working toward finding a balance and creating a complete composed drink that doesn’t need to have alcohol in it,” said the restaurant’s general manager, Nathan War Bonnet. “We don’t want anybody to feel like they’re missing part of the experience by choosing to have a virgin drink.”
Elisa Ung is a writer, ghostwriter and editor based in Northern New Jersey. She was previously the restaurant critic and dining columnist at The (Bergen) Record and NorthJersey.com, and a staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Rich Table’s No-Proof Cocktail No. 2
For the Earl Grey tea syrup:
1 tablespoon Earl Grey tea leaves
3 ounces hot water
½ cup sugar
Steep tea leaves in hot water for 3-5 minutes. Strain. Add sugar to hot tea and stir to dissolve. This syrup can be stored in the refrigerator for about 3 weeks.
For the drink:
1¾ ounces Seedlip Spice
¾ ounce Earl Grey tea syrup
¼ ounce fresh lemon juice
2½ to 3 ounces club soda
Method: Combine all ingredients in a double rocks glass. Fill with ice and stir lightly to mix. Garnish with orange peel.
Glitter and Marigold
For the drink:
4 ounces orange juice
½ ounce heavy cream
½ ounce honey syrup (1 part honey, 1 part water, mixed well)
3 dashes vanilla extract
3 squirts salt tincture
3 drops orange flower water
6 drops pistachio extract
For the garnishes:
Orange peel rosette
Method: Combine all drink ingredients in a small cocktail shaker. Fill with crushed ice, then shake for 3 seconds. Pour into a bamboo glass or a large Collins glass. Top with crushed ice. Garnish with an orange peel rosette and sprinkles of powdered sugar and ground cinnamon. Insert metal straw into the middle of the orange peel rosette.
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