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Hold the Alcohol? No Problem.

By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 20, 2009

Last month, I did something that many of my friends considered insane. It made some question whether they knew me anymore and others ask, "Good God, why?"

My crime? I voluntarily stopped drinking for a couple of weeks.

I have friends who take an annual drink holiday, giving up alcohol for a few weeks at a time. Good for the liver, they say. And after the rush of holiday parties, New Year's Eve, the buildup to the inauguration and all those going-until-4-a.m. parties, I figured my body could use a break. So I decided to swear off alcohol for two weeks.

But there was a catch. My full-time job is visiting and writing about bars, and my employers weren't going to relieve me of work for a few weeks while I was on the wagon, so I'd have to keep going to bars, concerts and dance clubs almost nightly as usual. Talk about a challenge.

It wasn't hard resisting the alcohol. That was easy enough, and I didn't slip up. It was everything else that was the problem: Being stared at like I had two heads when I told bartenders I didn't drink. Being given choices of club soda (with lime!) or a pint of Coke. Having servers get to me last because they incorrectly assumed that if I wasn't imbibing, I wasn't tipping.

Thankfully, the city's burgeoning cocktail revolution is extending to nonalcoholic drinks as well.

At PS 7's, where former Rasika and EatBar mixologist Gina Chersevani recently took the reins, the cocktail menu features cool drinks and this statement: "Not imbibing tonight? All cocktails are available non-alcoholic."

"Honestly, I do it because a lot of my girlfriends are mamas or soon-to-be mamas," Chersevani explains. "I feel bad for the pregnant ladies who come in and are like, 'Can I get a glass of soda water?' It's like, 'Oh, honey, I could make you something so much better.' "

Chersevani first started making nonalcoholic drinks as favors for her girlfriends while she worked at Rasika, but she says word got out and she started advertising the alcohol-free version on menus. Now, she says, the customer base has expanded beyond mothers-to-be. "I get a lot of requests for [nonalcoholic drinks], especially at lunchtime," she explains, where customers might not want to drink in front of the boss.

Of course, it's not just a case of removing alcohol from the recipe. PS 7's Across the Pond is a smooth, mellow mix of Bulleit bourbon, Six Grapes port and lemon. Take out the booze and you have . . . lemon, so Chersevani reformulated it with nonalcoholic orange bitters, homemade sour mix with lemon, lime and sugar, and a splash of water, topped up with soda. It's the bar's best-selling nonalcoholic cocktail, and for good reason.

Some variations don't work as well. I insisted on trying her booze-free version of a Sazerac, the classic mix of rye whiskey and absinthe that Chersevani fortifies with a rich Shiraz syrup. She started with a base of the syrup (the alcohol is boiled out of it) and added a syrup of star anise, which brought out the spicy notes and licorice-like taste of the missing absinthe. It was clever and inventive but a disappointment compared with the real thing.

Other bars seem happy to rejigger their cocktails. Halo, the lounge on P Street, makes killer cosmos and drinks with fruit-flavored vodkas and freshly muddled blackberries, strawberries and limes. On request, I had a bartender leave out the Stoli and whip up a refreshing mix of blackberries, lime, sour mix and soda water.

Even hip cocktail bars have jumped on the wagon. At the Gibson, the zingy Orgeat Lemonade features house-made Orgeat syrup and fresh lemon juice. (Orgeat, a mix of almonds, orange-flower water and sugar, is a key ingredient in tropical cocktails such as the mai tai.)

One of my favorite nonalcoholic drinks in town is the Washington Tea Party, created by Kevin Rogers of Urbana in the Hotel Palomar. Part of the reason is that the Tea Party (a summery mix of muddled mint leaves and raspberries topped with iced tea, lime juice and a splash of club soda) looks like a funky julep or Pimm's Cup. When it's delivered, people with martinis always lean over to ask what it is. I'd happily drink it any time of the year.

Of course, one night, I find myself wondering how it would taste if I could add bourbon.

Aside from your health, there's another benefit to this whole non-drinking idea: Your wallet gets fatter. The Gibson's cocktails cost $8 to $16, but the virgin drinks are $4 to $6. PS 7's nonalcoholic tipples are $6 instead of the usual $10.

And most bartenders will give you a free glass of club soda or Coke (and a sympathetic look) if you tell them you're playing designated driver.

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