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A trio of non-alcoholic concoctions at Lineage.

This Is The Secret Ingredient In This Summer’s Hottest Cocktails

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And it isn’t what you think. Cocktails sans alcohol are taking up more space on the menu and restaurateurs think it’s likely to stay that way.
By Laura Zolman Kirk June 2019 Bar Management

Call them what you will—mocktails, nonalcoholic cocktails, or alcohol-free cocktails—they aren't going away anytime soon. If anything, the zero-proof cocktail movement is digging in its heels, earning full menu pages at chains like Punch Bowl Social, and full concepts dedicated to the cause, like the pop-up/aspiring-to-permanent Listen Bar.

In its 2019 Culinary + Trends Forecast, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants projected a staggering 80 percent of bartenders would be featuring more nonalcoholic cocktails on their menus this year. Half way into the year, this rings true. Alcohol-free cocktails are having more than a moment. They are in full innovation mode, and bartenders are responding, creating depth of flavor and balance without a base spirit or liqueurs.

Matters of Marketing

A major challenge for restaurants and bars is how to market cocktails that don't include alcohol. Mocktails seem to be a thing of the too-sweet past and could also suggest one is "mocking" the cocktail itself or those who are not drinking them. Nonalcoholic cocktails, too, are creating issue by connoting weakness or a lack of something, similar to virgin or soft cocktails.

"I propose that we call these stimulating beverages of diverse and distinct nonalcoholic ingredients something entirely new: spiritfree," writes Julia Momose, creative director of Kumiko in Chicago, in "Spiritfree, a Manifesto." "There is something lighthearted, and intentional about the name spiritfree. It's not holding back, nor is it being held back. Spiritfree means flavors deliciously mixed together. A spiritfree is a balanced, well thought-out nonalcoholic cocktail."

Thus, Kumiko's near evenly weighted menu between cocktails and nonalcoholic cocktails calls those without alcohol Spiritfrees.

In an industry often home to creatives, it's not surprising that many naming options have popped up. Boqueria in New York City calls nonalcoholic mixtures Refrescantes. Fern Bar in Sebastopol, California, lists them as Free-Spirited Options. ABCV in New York City calls its restorative tonics Vibrations. Acorn in Denver goes with Booze Free. Eem in Portland, Oregon, lists alcohol-free cocktails under the title Clear-Headed, while Morin in Denver simply lists them under the title Sans. But Punch Bowl Social, with 17 locations in the U.S., and Lineage in Makena, Hawaii, aren't afraid to use the term "nonalcoholic." And Vena's Fizz House in Portland, Maine, even drops the M-word (mocktail).

Spirited Sans Spirits

The ingredients bartenders are turning to to create depth of flavor minus alcohol are intriguing and diverse. Momose at Kumiko and Acorn bar manager Chris Clewell use tea to develop complexity in spiritfree cocktails. "[Teas] can offer astringency, umami, depth, sweet notes, bitterness, and health benefits," says Momose, who typically creates bases or concentrates of ingredients to bring in as much flavor as possible.

There's a lot to discover in terms of tea properties, Clewell says, and it's a great way to elevate a flavor without having to add too much sugar. "If you bring tea in there, it tends to tighten everything up," he says.

Aquafaba, the liquid byproduct in a can of chickpeas, is a popular choice for nonalcoholic cocktail creators looking to create a frothy-egg-white-like finish that vegan customers can still enjoy. Punch Bowl Social's most popular nonalcoholic cocktail, Cilantro Fizz, does just that by combining a handful of cilantro with housemade jalapeño and cucumber syrup, fresh lime juice, and aquafaba. "It looks like a craft cocktail," says Patrick Williams, head of the beverage program—from the light green color, to the frothy texture and the presentation in a coupe glass with a piece of cilantro on top.

Seedlip, a line of nonalcoholic spirits distilled from herbs and aromatics, is also a great tool in nonalcoholic cocktail innovation. "Seedlip makes it easy to build drinks with the same attention to balance and presentation," says Sam Levy, general manager and partner of Fern. "We use it as a substitute for spirits without changing proportions."

READ MORE: The Buzz About NYC's Booze-Free Bar

Boqueria's beverage director, Kieran Chavez, is also a fan of Seedlip. He uses the brand's varieties to build drinks like the Valencia Sunrise with Seedlip Grove (citrus, ginger), lemon juice, apricot-orange marmalade, and cinnamon or Spanish Roots with Seedlip Garden (peas, rosemary, thyme), carrot juice, lemon, and a spicy saffron-chile syrup.

To mimic the flavor of alcohol in Fern Bar's Ameri(can't)o cocktail—a play on the classic Americano—Levy simply makes a reduction of Campari and Aperol to cook out the alcohol but maintain that classic Campari taste.

Likewise, strong, bitter, and spicy flavors are prevailing in this space. Julia McKinley, beverage director at Young American, loves Szechuan peppercorn, bitter orange peel, schizandra berries, and star anise in her spiritfree creations. "These ingredients have a huge flavor impact and create the complexity one would find in many cordials and bitters," McKinley says.

Aaron Alcala-Mosley, bar manager at Lineage, enjoys using savory herbs and tonic. "Tonic is so underutilized in this category, and it can bring so much more depth to a nonalcoholic cocktail," he says. Rosemary and thyme are his go-to herbs, especially when paired with grapefruit and pepper flavors.

And Babatu Sparrow, beverage director for ABC Kitchen and ABCV, is having a blackstrap molasses moment, he says. "It is a great replacement for a sweetener but brings in flavors of earth, burnt sugar, salt, and minerality."

Sweet Spot

Experts agree: when pricing nonalcoholic cocktails, one must break it down by the element and consider cost of labor, as well. Acorn's team goes as far as to weigh out the cost of sugar in a drink, as well as citrus and tea, adjusting ingredients if the cost per cocktail starts creeping up above what the team thinks customers will pay for them. Kumiko's team, too, is costing out ingredients by the gram.

Listen Bar, a pop-up alcohol-free bar in New York City, prices its cocktails based on what the team would want them to cost in a permanent space. "When you think about building a drink without alcohol, the kind of drink that you can build becomes that much more of a Rubik's Cube," says Lorelei Bandrovschi, founder. To make an alcohol-free cocktail great, it has to be abundantly creative with great ingredients, both of which drive the price up so that nonalcoholic drinks at Listen Bar are comparable to the price of an alcoholic drink. In general, people have embraced Listen's prices, which range between $11 and $13 a cocktail. "I think that's because they see the difference between that and what they would get at a bar that doesn't prioritize their experience," Bandrovschi says.

Punch Bowl Social's Williams believes pricing nonalcoholic cocktails is unique because it requires you to create a value perception in the customer. Price too high, and a restaurant is disconnected from its guests. Too low, and you're not respecting the work that went into making the cocktail. Williams' solution, then, is to meet somewhere in the middle, around $6 to $7 for cocktails and fresh vegetable juices and $4 to $5 for housemade sodas. "When you're making a choice to purchase a nonalcoholic cocktail and you see the price, the value signifies what you're about to get," he says. A good price is above what a customer would pay for a normal soda or coffee, but less than the expectation for a cocktail.

Spiritfree Future

Considering the level of innovation dedicated to cocktails without alcohol—and bar and restaurant professionals' urge to be as inclusive as possible—experts don't see the nonalcoholic trend dying out anytime soon.

"Chicago is all about its bar culture, and we want to be an open door for anyone who is excited to hang out and spend time with each other," McKinley of Young American says. "I will perpetuate the trend of low- and no-ABV cocktails, because that is how I like to drink."

This is new territory for restaurants and bars, says Chavez of Boqueria. "I'm just thrilled every time I go out and see that more people are experimenting in this realm. It's an entirely new way to branch out and get creative."

READ MORE: Four Ways To Put Mocktails On Your Menu

With the purpose of taking care of all guests, drinkers and nondrinkers alike, Momose of Kimiko strives to deliver with flavorful, textural, and thoughtful spiritfrees. "Just as the value of a drink should not be determined by the ABV, nor should the value of a guest's experience be hinged on whether or not they choose to drink," she says. "Guests are feeling more at ease ordering what they actually want and need at bars, rather than what they are expected to order. I hope to see more considerate menus at restaurants, especially those with strong bar programs."

And Sparrow of ABCV sees the nonalcoholic movement syncing up with the health-forward, plant-based movement. "A broader demographic is paying attention to everything they consume," he says. "It's great that you can now enjoy a special evening with curated cocktails and a delightful meal and alcohol doesn't have to be a part of the conversation."